Useful idioms
June 29, 2012 1:02 PM   Subscribe

Business idioms that are actually useful?

I wish I could be as fluent in idioms used in corporate America as some of my colleagues, and am often impressed when someone uses one that captures an idea well (as opposed to using jargon indiscriminately to hide shallow thinking).

I would like to be able to do this, and I think having an arsenal of good ones would be useful. So what idioms have you used or heard that actually helped someone make a point?
posted by AceRock to Work & Money (30 answers total) 16 users marked this as a favorite
I typically describe my job as "digging the Panama Canal with a teaspoon." I think that lets people know that the magic I'm doing with spreadsheets is despite the crappy tools I've been given.

I also like "wheelhouse," as in, "sure, I can help you sort those items, that kind of project is right in my wheelhouse." It's a baseball term repurposed for business.

Most of the others make me cringe.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 1:09 PM on June 29, 2012 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: Just heard one today "He always talks a big game about herding cats, but so far I haven't seen it".
posted by AceRock at 1:21 PM on June 29, 2012

This is very film industry, but I love the back-formatation verb "gaff".

A gaffer is the person on a film set who directs the execution of the lighting. He's the one standing there, telling the electrics and grips and other technicians exactly where to put each piece of equipment so that the desired lighting effect is achieved.

The term, like a lot of film industry technical terms, comes from the old days of sailing ships, where there was someone in a similar job directing the rigging of the ship's sails. The term is an archaic term for "boss" or "elder", and is not the noun form of a known verb (a la baker, writer, joiner).

So, when you give someone the task of overseeing a situation and making sure everything goes according to plan, you ask them to gaff it.

HOW DID WE NOT ALREADY HAVE A WORD FOR THIS? I don't know. But "gaff" is that word.
posted by Sara C. at 1:24 PM on June 29, 2012 [5 favorites]

Drinking from the firehose = overwhelmed with information
Boiling the ocean = Doing the impossible with limited resources. See also Ruthless, above.
Open the kimono = be transparent (better if you don't mind sounding both racist and sexist)
I do use "wheelhouse" regularly
Drop the ball = fumble incompetently
Naked = having no coverage (e.g. sales coverage in a region)

This can result in hilarious mixed metaphors like, "we don't want to drop the ball while we're naked in Asia!" True story, straight face.
posted by chesty_a_arthur at 1:31 PM on June 29, 2012 [1 favorite]

My boyfriend and myself are both generally hostile to businessisms, but we've ended up adopting a couple anyway.

Boyfriend works in a customer-facing position in a bank and makes frequent use of a phrase something like "let's make sure we're both on the same page" and says that it's very useful. People both appreciate that he's taking the time to make sure everyone understands everything the same way and it serves to give them a heads-up that now is the time for them to double-check everything and make sure it meets with their approval.

I get a lot of use out of making sure things are "squared away," as it precisely conveys that I want to make sure all the little details have been taken care of.
posted by kavasa at 1:52 PM on June 29, 2012

"Is it an onion or a gourd?" Often used for software - when you open something up is it nice and clean with clearly defined layers, or is it a giant mess in there?
posted by H. Roark at 1:54 PM on June 29, 2012 [1 favorite]

Please do not use "Open The Kimono"! chesty_a_arthur is right that you will sound both sexist and racist and people (like me, perhaps) may instantly lose all respect for you.

I think my favorite is "nine women can't have a baby in a month" - very useful when someone is trying to suggest throwing more people at an unattainable deadline.

Another good one is "good price, short deadline, high quality: Pick two." Nice and pithy. :)
posted by pazazygeek at 1:57 PM on June 29, 2012 [4 favorites]

I prefer the phrasing "WE NEED A BABY IN A MONTH, GET ME NINE WOMEN!" which sort of points out the ridiculousness of trying to rush things that can't be rushed.
posted by rmd1023 at 2:04 PM on June 29, 2012 [17 favorites]

Losing the forest in the trees.
Perfect is the enemy of good.
posted by spanishbombs at 2:09 PM on June 29, 2012 [1 favorite]

The fish rots from the head

Don't shit where you eat (means don't date co-workers)

There are no good girls in a whorehouse
posted by BadgerDoctor at 2:40 PM on June 29, 2012 [1 favorite]

The word "monetize." People think it sounds ugly, but it captures a concept you often need to express.
posted by escabeche at 3:19 PM on June 29, 2012

I like the term "black box" for certain, specific cases where you need to quickly describe something that happens, but where the actual execution is mostly inconsequential. The business/engineering version of yadda yadda yadda. One example I can think of is the marketplace for automotive parts. With the advent of computerization and in car networks, engineers can simply specify what the inputs are and what the outputs should be, and leave it to sub teams or outsourced teams to figure out the nasty bits. So they specify that a gas pedal assembly should take +5v from the car, accept the driver's inputs and output a 1v - 4v range that is linear with the driver's foot. Do it with a potentiometer, or optical, or voodoo. It doesn't matter what happens inside the black box.

Everyone hates it, but I think that "proactive" is a perfectly cromulent and useful concept when applied appropriately (though it rarely is). It's about getting out of the now and thinking about future consequences. It's thinking about staging and workflows and pipelines, rather than just jumping when the bell goes off. Filling up the car with gas on your way home so you are ready to go in the morning, for example. Asking someone to think more proactively is to ask them to think about things like that.

But the danger with idioms is that their definition has little to do with what is actually being done. They tend to confuse rather than elucidate. Herding cats is great, because with two words it suggests a very vivid scenario that anyone who has met a cat can understand. As is "getting on the same page" obvious for anyone who has been in a class or meeting and heard, "wait, what page are we on?" As opposed to the carrot and stick thing, where half the people think it means one thing, and half things it means the other, and it is fundamentally disrespectful of the targets of the analogy either way.
posted by gjc at 4:22 PM on June 29, 2012

Don't shit where you eat (means don't date co-workers)

I much prefer the variant, "Don't fish in the company pond"
(and it is good advice).

Many business idioms in US offices come from baseball, basketball and American football. One I have trouble understanding is "to punt" which I've come to understand means to skip, avoid or postpone. (Whenever a football fan's tried to explain the source of this usage to me, My Eyes Glaze Over, a useful expression I understand has become the acronym MEGO in Hollywood.)
posted by Rash at 4:23 PM on June 29, 2012

I'm not quite sure what qualifies as "useful", but these are the idioms I hear at work every day that are uniquely office-related:

"We need to take the thousand foot view." (big picture view)

"Are you sure we have the bandwidth for that?" (bandwidth = manpower, resources)

"She wears a lot of hats." (serves multiple functions within the company)

Some single terms that come up a lot: stakeholders, benchmarking, milestones, best practices, buy in, pushback

These actually drive me crazy when I hear them, but they're also really common.
posted by dede at 4:42 PM on June 29, 2012

I like the term "low-hanging fruit." We use it at home to describe easy suppers of whatever's handy in the kitchen, or hitting the high spots in a quick housecleaning.
posted by workerant at 4:45 PM on June 29, 2012

I was delighted when someone used spinning plates as a metaphor for everything they were trying to, well, delicately balance.
posted by chesty_a_arthur at 4:54 PM on June 29, 2012

Longtime business editor here. This is a great question and great answers. Well worth it to pick up some. Most important: LISTEN to those around you.

It’s so easy to ridicule business jargon. Like any jargon, it IS ridiculous when a) you’re speaking to a non-biz audience or b) you overuse it, or use it wrongly, to a biz audience. But IMO it often rises to the level of, well, maybe not literature, but very good language: engaging, clear, and memorable.

I remember the jargon of yesteryear. So many moans and groans about “the enterprise.” (Good lord, kids, it just means a BIG company.) And “paradigm shift” will always recall a morning in Detroit -- on a bitter cold, half-mile hike from the outsource lot, past the close-in parking of the W2s -- with another contractor who said “The paradigm has not shifted sufficiently.”

In fact in the auto industry we had a game – probably not unique to auto. A 5x5 grid, with 25 squares showing 25 biz clichés. You’d go to a meeting and check off a few. I remember the first time somebody yelled “Bingo!” The speaker was baffled but the room cracked up.

Here are examples of 3 different kids I like:

Great seats at a bad show. A piece of crap at a bargain price.

Stakeholders. So much easier than “all the major functions whose jobs will be affected by the outcome of this proposal/draft/policy and whose signoffs are required.” Seven stakeholders blessed it and we’re moving ahead. We can ask forgiveness from the other three.

Learns. A noun, short for learnings, short for lessons learned, aka takeaways. Yes, the first round was a disaster. What were your learns?

(Notes … I started to comment on all of the comments – I love gaff, herding cats, 9 months, pazazygeek’s, Chesty’s minus the kimono .. and it just gets better. And Ruthless Bunny: Wheelhouse is actually a maritime term repurposed for baseball. But your point is well taken.)
posted by LonnieK at 4:54 PM on June 29, 2012 [5 favorites]

Rash, to punt (outside of football) means to go ahead and try to do something even though you're not really prepared or conditions are not as favorable as you'd like. "My PowerPoint got corrupted, but this meeting was so hard to schedule, I'll just punt and do the presentation with a whiteboard and my mental notes." Wing it, do the best you can given the circumstances, give it the old college try.
posted by attercoppe at 6:16 PM on June 29, 2012

And more along the lines of answering the question: fail forward. If you mess up, ok, but learn from your mistake and put that new experiential knowledge to use the next time.
posted by attercoppe at 6:48 PM on June 29, 2012 [1 favorite]

Weird, in my industry "punt" means postpone or fail to complete, not like the football sense of taking a big risk.
posted by Sara C. at 8:48 PM on June 29, 2012

Re punt
I thought its meaning was more like 'let's concede this ground and prepare to fight another day."
That's the football meaning -- we can't convert this 4th down into a 1st, so let's concede possession, give the other team the ball, crack em hard, and get the ball again.
posted by LonnieK at 8:50 PM on June 29, 2012 [3 favorites]

Wow. I have only encountered "punt" meaning "give up and declare defeat and jettison whatever it is." I've heard it in common use in tech circles, particularly MIT-area, for well over 30 years.
posted by rmd1023 at 4:10 AM on June 30, 2012

On going ahead with a project even though all the bugs aren't worked out: "Hit the highway and let the rough end drag."
posted by halfbuckaroo at 6:43 AM on June 30, 2012 [1 favorite]

Hmmm, sounds like "punt" should be avoided as it means different things to different people.

Two other examples of business idioms/jargon I've heard:

Vertical (a marketing term this engineer has a little difficult understanding) and

Stovepipe -- but that definition doesn't really match the one I've encountered, concerning a component management insists on including in a bigger system, for political reasons, where said component doesn't really do anything except pass data along.
posted by Rash at 9:26 AM on June 30, 2012

Moral Mazes by Robert Jackall is a terrific book about corporate culture, and it's full of things like this.

(Cover Your Ass)
A golden egg, or when the outcome of a terrible decision is still profitable
To Greenmail
A Golden Handshake
posted by null14 at 10:39 AM on June 30, 2012

Business jargon seems to fall into two general categories:

1. Descriptive sayings, be they pithy, folksy, witty, or strictly metaphorical.

These serve as shorthand to capture the essence of a situation. I often find that these are used most often, and can thus become threadbare quickly.

Using one of these phrases at the wrong time, or with the wrong crowd, can make you sound insincere, shallow, or out of the loop. Every group of people has a list of phrases which are "in" and those which are "out." If you are new to a group and not sure what's in and what's out, I would use these phrases with care. A bit of apologetic hand-waving can go a long way, as in:

"Oh sure, that project is well within my wheelhouse, if you'll pardon the expression." Use ironic air quotes to set the phrase off from the rest of your sentence.

Examples: herding cats, opening the kimono, squaring the circle, emptying the ocean with a teaspoon.

2. Specific words (which are almost all ugly and cringe-inducing) which have specific meanings that are not otherwise covered by a single English word.

These words are less risky to use, but are also subject to fads. "Paradigm" is one such word whose fad has come and gone. "Pivot" is a faddish word which is popular right now, but which is quickly losing currency.

Personally I find that "monetize" and "actionable" (in the sense of "what are the actionable items from this meeting?") are both useful in everyday life, if somewhat loathsome.

Your best bet, as with all social situations involving an insular and clannish culture, is to keep your ears open. Listen to what other people say, and watch other people's reactions to it. Note which person says what.

There is a lot of local nuance to jargon. When in doubt, don't use it. It's better not to use jargon, than to use jargon and fail at it.

For example, "opening the kimono" is both sexist and racist. That doesn't keep people from continuing to use it, particularly in offices that have a locker room sort of culture. But if you were to innocently use it in a group of (say) Asians and women, it would be... not good.
posted by ErikaB at 10:51 AM on June 30, 2012 [1 favorite]

Synergy! It's so...uncool, but I defy you to find a one-word synonym.
posted by chesty_a_arthur at 3:03 PM on July 1, 2012 [1 favorite]

Some type 2 (per ErikaB) from (older-school) project management that carry a specific, useful meaning to me:

Scope Creep: The scope is the amount of work everybody agreed to at the start; scope creep is when additional features get added that take more time (of course, no one ever decides to add additional time or budget instead). Limiting scope creep is key.

Long Lead Item: Something that you need to order or get or start a long time before you need it. If you're ordering a ham from Virginia for Christmas, you need to make sure that the order is in on time, even though you don't actually need the ham until December 24th. I'm doing a project for some surgeons right now, looking at what the demand might be for their procedures 10-20 years into the future. Because it takes five to ten years to have a useful surgeon from the time someone starts med school; in other words, trained surgeons are a long lead item.

Critical Path: The set of tasks that will take you the longest to complete the project. Say you're making lunch, a chicken caesar salad. You need to cook a chicken breast, prep the lettuce, make a dressing, and then assemble the salad. Probably the chicken is the critical path; you can prep the lettuce and make the dressing now, but you can't actually assemble the salad without the chicken, so your critical path is chicken->assemble, and you have the 20 minutes it takes to cook the chicken to prep the greens and dressing, each of which is only a few minutes. The point is that if you want to get done sooner, you need to start the chicken cooking as soon as possible, and do the other prep in the meantime, rather than making the dressing and prepping the greens, then starting to cook the chicken. Furthermore, the chicken is the part that's holding things up; you can't pre-assemble the salad without the chicken. Buying premade dressing won't help you eat sooner, but buying precooked chicken would.

The point is that you want to have an idea of what this is, so you can make sure that there aren't any screwups because they're costly (if you spilled the dressing, you'd be able to remake it and still eat at the same time; burn the chicken and you're half an hour later). You want to put resources onto critical path items, etc. Letting someone know that they're on the critical path tells them that their task needs to be done before others can do their work.

Resources: A nice general term that could mean people, money, equipment, or almost anything else. It's a nice way of politely talking about money if people get touchy around money.

And as far as I know, to punt is to make the decision to not deal with something right now; the implications are that we may or may not do it later, and that we feel at least a little guilty about it. Is this a little like tabling something, which means you start talking about it in the Commonwealth nations, and you stop talking about it in the US?

But, I mean, I've used LBJ's quote that "we'd rather have him inside the tent, pissing out, than outside the tent pissing in" in an actual business situation, so I may not be the best guide.
posted by Homeboy Trouble at 2:23 AM on July 2, 2012 [1 favorite]

BadgerDoctor: "Don't shit where you eat (means don't date co-workers)"

The boss at my college internship told me "don't buy your meat and your taters at the same place." Same meaning.
posted by notsnot at 5:24 AM on July 2, 2012

Michael Lopp has some useful articles on these:

Rands Management Glossary

The Words You Wear - essentially, what is said vs what is heard.

Managementese - a guide for when it's appropriate to use the idioms
posted by underflow at 8:24 PM on July 4, 2012

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