The Buzzword Problem

The Buzzword ProblemEvery business, government body and non-profit organisation establishes a special vocabulary of jargon, special terminology and their own way of using particular words. The worst of these are buzzwords. These are words that are so overused, they become almost meaningless. Nevertheless, they become an integral part of the organisation.

Buzzwords are not necessarily bad. They give employees a sense of belonging and in their way help define an organisation. However, when it comes to innovation — they are dangerous and need to be banned.

I have noticed that in many business brainstorms (whether formal traditional brainstorming or simply generating ideas in a collaborative setting, buzzwords are promptly suggested as ideas or as adjectives to ideas. Moreover, these ideas are more likely, than non-buzzword ideas, to be voted on as best and selected for further development. On one hand, this is great! Buzzword ideas are safe, follow established ways of doing things in an organisation and will not result in much uncomfortable change. On the other hand, buzzword ideas are not very creative.

An Example

For instance, let us imagine that AceKitchen Co, Ltd makes electrical appliances for the kitchen. In recent years, they have come up with the buzzword (or perhaps buzz-phrase), “intensified customer-centric technology”. That sounds absolutely grand, until you realise it just means technology designed for use by customers which, one would hope, is true of most kitchen appliances! Other buzzwords at AceKitchen include “eKitchen technologies” and “total kitchen integration”.

When it comes time to brainstorm ideas for the 2015 range of toasters, you can be sure that prominent ideas will include things like….

  • intensified customer-centric technology control panel.
  • intensified customer-centric technology for toasting bread.
  • more use of eKitchen technology.
  • total kitchen integration ready.

To the outsider, these ideas may sound very impressive and high tech. Even a highly trained creativity facilitator may not be aware that these ideas are not really creative ideas, but rather than parroting of buzzwords used on a daily basis by the brainstorming participants. However, what these ideas really mean is “do what we’ve always done.” That’s not very creative!

Because buzzwords are such an integral part of business at AceKitchen, the manager in charge is all too likely to choose one or more of these buzzword ideas as the best idea. It is a perfectly safe idea that can be called innovative because it was generated in a brainstorm and won the best idea vote. As a result, the buzzword idea feels good and can be made to sound innovative. But, of course, it’s nothing of the kind!

Ban Buzzwords from Creative Exercises

What can you do to avoid generating useless buzzword ideas during brainstorms? Ban them!

That’s right, you need to ban buzzwords from brainstorms, ideas campaigns, anticonventional thinking (ACT) sessions and all ideation activities. This can be problematic in traditional brainstorming in which you are not supposed to criticise ideas — even boring, predictable ideas. (This is, in fact, traditional brainstorming’s biggest flaw). If you are not able to tolerate criticism or rejection of ideas during ideation, then you should agree to eliminate immediately buzzword ideas from the final list of ideas.

If you are an outside facilitator running a brainstorm, then one of the first things you should do with your group is to ask participants about buzzwords used in their company and sector. Then ban them or exclude them from the shortlist of ideas.

Moreover, let it be known to participants that buzzwords are not welcome as ideas and will not be selected for further development. Explain why (you can cite this article if you’d like). This will provide three benefits to your ideation activity. Firstly, it will discourage people from suggesting buzzwords as ideas. Secondly it will force people to think about buzzwords and the processes they define. Thirdly, and most importantly, it will push people to think about their products, services and processes in new ways – ways that do not involve buzzwords.

In short, banning buzzwords boosts creativity. Ban them from creativity!

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    Jeffrey BaumgartnerJeffrey Baumgartner is the author of the book, The Way of the Innovation Master; the author/editor of Report 103, a popular newsletter on creativity and innovation in business. He is currently developing and running workshops around the world on Anticonventional Thinking, a radical new approach to achieving goals through creativity — and an alternative to brainstorming.

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One Response to The Buzzword Problem

  1. Brian McLaughlin says:

    “Buzzwords are not necessarily bad. They give employees a sense of belonging and in their way help define an organisation. However, when it comes to innovation — they are dangerous and need to be banned.”

    Let’s start by banning today’s most over used buzzword “innovation”.

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