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In Defence of Bureaucratic Language (and Meaning)

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

by Kent Aitken RSS / cpsrenewalFacebook / cpsrenewalLinkedIn / Kent Aitkentwitter / kentdaitkengovloop / KentAitken


Top of the billboard charts right now is the album Mandatory Fun by Weird Al Yankovic (file under: sentences, comma, ones I didn't see myself writing in 2014). It includes the song Mission Statement, which skewers the language of business.


A language that happens to intersect significantly with the language of the bureaucracy. Two years ago our particular Government of Canada flavour of verbiage was taken to task by Sh*t Bureaucrats Say.



But I'd like to mount a defence of this bureaucratic language, or at least, a specific subset of it. Of course, there are arenas in which bureaucratic language is legitimately terrible: where it is used to deliberately obfuscate meaning, or to sound knowledgeable or important (the true meaning of bureaucratese), or where it is used without consideration of whether or not the audience speaks that language.

And there are arenas in which it is legit - like the jargon of any field - in which it represents meaningful shorthand for a complex concept. To a citizen, the name (or acronym) for a sub-division of a government department could be completely meaningless. To a different audience, three letters can immediately convey history, mandate, scope of authority, leadership, and key figures.

But there's another arena, in which the meaningfulness or lack thereof is on a case-by-case basis. The terms that jump to mind are things like:

mission statement
strategic plan
year-end review
performance management

Whether these terms represent a meaningful concept or not is dependent on us. For example:

At its best, a mission statement is a powerful vision of an organization's goals and aspirations, that employees can rally behind. One example is Sony in the 1950s, declaring that it would change the worldwide perception of Japanese products. For such a mission statement to work, a leader must demonstrate why it was articulated as it was, ensure that the values are congruent with people's experience in the organization, and convince people that they are taking it seriously.

At its worst, a mission statement is a line on a website, absent of promise, divorced from reality.

At its best, a strategic plan can be an opportunity to test assumptions, explore the environment, reposition an organization, and set meaningful goals for people. To make sure that everyone is rowing in the same direction, and to provide a baseline to assess success against and launch future improvements.

At its worst, a strategic plan is a document that consumes time. A list of disparate plans, all prefixed with the word "strategic".

There are good reasons why these concepts are staples of our organizations. Their practice and adherence keeps organizations alive. But they don't have meaning in a vacuum; it is our job to create meaning for ourselves and others.

The language we use gets a bad rap - rightfully - when we fail at that.