Managing by cliché: Avoid it like the plague
Early in my career, I worked for a dull bald guy. When you came to him with a problem, he would listen intently, furrow his brow, lean back in his chair and say, “You need to get your ducks in a row” or some other inane cliché. In those days, we had a merit system of giving raises, so I held back saying anything. I needed the job at the time and was not about to commit career suicide.
It was depressing and frustrating. I felt like telling him that I had no ducks, I was buying electrical transformers, and to the best of my knowledge, I had never had the need to have ducks in a row. I personally knew no ducks, did not want a duck to marry my daughter, and as far as I was concerned, if ducks wanted to piddle, paddle, waddle and march in a row, good luck to them! Had he thought about his advice, he would have told me to evaluate the bids in rank order, check the math and perform the responsiveness and responsibility checks before sending a recommendation to the end-user. After one session with him, I felt fortunate that keeping my nose to the grindstone and shoulder to the wheel were against OSHA regulations.
Being nonathletic, he was fond of athletic clichés: “Keep your eye on the ball” and “Have them play ball with you” didn’t work well for him either, as one narrows your focus and the other leads to negotiation problems. “Easy as pie” was also a favorite of his that gave me problems. Baking a pie takes skill, good ingredients and a way to determine when it’s finished, which are the same components as a good solicitation document.
The reason I bring up this dreary subject is that he managed by cliché, as so many do. Perhaps some of us still do and are not aware of it.
His worst cliché was “Good things happen when you send out bids.” Actually that’s more of a word trap than a cliché. Bidding only works when you have a competitive marketplace, clear specifications and a bulletproof method of evaluating bids. Bidding can be a nightmare in any other situation, such as sole source, vague or incomplete specifications, or an unclear method of evaluation. We have other purchase methods available to solve those problems.
Our profession demands clear and unambiguous language! When we are asked for advice, direction, explanations, don’t prevaricate. Avoid weak phrasing, jargon and metaphors. You don’t need to dumb down your language; you just have to pick words that are clear and concise. Once you establish a common understanding for your terms, the rest is easy. Don’t think of it as dummying down; think in terms of an educational process. You are helping others to understand the complexities of your profession.
Let’s save the metaphors and clichés for the sportscaster or those who predict the weather on TV. Our job is to communicate clearly, to use professional language that is understood by all and has only one meaning. A good starting place is www.plainlanguage.gov. It’s easy to navigate and, for a government effort, actually makes sense. Read what they have to say, start a standard in your organization, become a leader and advocate for plain language.
Frederick Marks, CPPO, VCO, is a retired purchasing officer who has held positions as a supervising buyer for the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey as well as director of material management for Northern Virginia Community College. Contact Marks at firstname.lastname@example.org