Employers continue to cite communications skills as one of the traits they value most in their employees. But that trait may be less sought in managers, who (in my experience) use a lot of slang terms and catchy phrases that can result in trouble if misinterpreted.

Knowing the difference between what is being said and what is really meant is critical. Based on my research and experiences, here are the 10 most cryptic project management terms and phrases and how to interpret them.

Note: This article is also available as a PDF download.

1: Manage the white space

The term “white space,” first used in 1849 to mean “the areas of a page without print or pictures,” has come to mean “an area between the work.” That translates to vague or undefined responsibility and requires negotiating with another entity — a department, division, vendor, or strategic partner — to persuade them that they do indeed have ownership of a task or process that affects your project.

2: One-off

Webster defines this term as something “limited to a single time, occasion, or instance.” That agrees with Wiktionary’s explanation that it likely came into use from foundry work, when making reusable molds was costly.

Created to fill a need quickly and cheaply, one-offs can still last for years. Modern one-offs are programs, processes, or manual efforts that usually go well until the resignation of the owner or discovery by an overseer, like information security. When that happens, you’ll need to find a way to formally and legally bridge the gap covered by the one-off or deliver the message to its users that they’ll no longer have it.

3: Think outside the box

The origins of this phrase point to the traditional “nine-dot puzzle,” which requires all nine dots to be connected by just four lines without lifting the pen. The solution (shown below) requires an extension of an implied boundary.

This phrase implies that some thinking has occurred but not the right kind of thinking. It really means finding a way to do something faster, better, or cheaper without the benefit of more time, tools, or money. That requires a solid explanation of all your alternatives because you may need to show that your solution — if you can find one — is the best, given the real-world constraint this phrase often represents: that no realistic options exist.

4: Workaround

Webster defines this as a “plan or method to circumvent a problem without eliminating it.” The danger lies in the circumvention. How far, how deep, how wide you go to implement your “alternative solution” could be the difference between innovation and incarceration. Obey company policy and the law when creating a workaround. Remember that workarounds become one-offs, so if you end up creating one, suggest a time limit for it or even a future project to address the need for a legitimate solution.

5: Leverage

Defined as “the power to act effectively,” this term has come to mean “using the results of someone else’s work.” That work could come from another person, project, or even another company (when it’s another company, it’s called “best practices”). That’s great when it easily transfers to your project, your culture, and your customers. When it doesn’t, be prepared to defend the modifications or rejections because the implied expectation with “leverage” is that it will be a complete, effortless, and free solution.

6: Facilitate

This literally means “to make easier.” If you are asked to facilitate something, it likely means it is high time for progress or that what has been done to date isn’t working as well as your boss expected.

Make sure the request to facilitate comes with the time and resources you need. If your intended audience emerges from your facilitation without the expected product (solid requirements) knowledge (how to gather requirements), or changed behavior (using the new requirements tool), you could be in trouble.

7: Take it offline

This generally means “don’t discuss it here,” which is a positive thing if the topic is important but is not on the agenda. But it can also mean “I don’t want to hear about it.” The only way I’ve ever been able to determine the difference is by later bringing it back “online” and being told again to forget about it.

8: It is what it is

This one was USA Today‘s Sports Quote of 2004. Writer Gary Mihoces called it “the all-purpose alternative to the long-winded explanation” for any coach or athlete. In the project world, it generally means “done” — which really means any incomplete, incorrect, or inept result is to be left alone. Attempts to fix it, even if it is blatantly wrong, are forbidden, probably due to some political consequence unknown to you.

9: Do the right thing

Because “the right thing” can vary by person, corporation, or culture, this can be a dangerous directive. The manager or executive saying this often knows what the “right thing” is, either from past experience or directly from his or her manager. Make sure you know what it is by asking open-ended and nonjudgmental questions. Better yet, put it in writing as part of a project or process document so your immediate manager can refer to it before — and after — you do it.

10: Anything from the latest business bestseller

Moving the cheese, driving the hedgehog, and reaching the tipping point sell books but don’t help complete projects. If you work with someone who seizes the latest phrase from the bestseller list, I suggest you do what a co-worker of mine once did: He asked a person who had access to the boss to check and see what business book he was currently reading. That way, they could understand what the boss was thinking and what he expected to hear. There’s another phrase you may need to start saying yourself: “If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em.”



John Sullivan is a working project manager who writes and speaks on project and career issues.