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Working with "buzzword bingo"

"Buzzword Bingo" is a term I learned from another coach, John. John used it in a very specific way: to describe the phenomenon that happens when your organization is learning new lingo as part of a change initiative. What happens is that people start using the lingo before they have true understanding. This is human nature, and a well-understood stage in the Dunning-Kruger curve. The Dunning–Kruger effect is a cognitive bias in which people with limited competence in a particular domain overestimate their abilities –– and this shows up in how they talk.

If you find yourself in the middle of this, you might run at it headlong, shouting "That word doesn't mean what you think it does!" But I can guarantee that will create resistance and maybe some fist fights. So, I would like to share some less aggressive tips for working with "Buzzword Bingo." Notice that these are all simple interventions that you can do without preaching, correcting people, or triggering a system-wide immune response.

  1. Notice buzzwords, jargon, etc. Observe how people behave when they’re used.

  2. Take a deep breath. (I get super irritated about misuse of language, so I have to self-manage.) Remind yourself that “shortcut words” are useful in restaurants and hunting. Humans are just being humans.

  3. When you hear it, look for opportunities to experiment (for those of you who know me, these should sound familiar):

  • Play dumb. “I’m sorry, but my brain just shut down for a second. Could you please say that again, maybe in a different way?”

  • Be curious. “You’re so lit up about this! I love it. What about this makes you so excited?”

  • Ask really open questions without adding your spin. “What kind of forecasting is that forecasting?” or “And that teamwork is like what….?

  • Exhibit vulnerable confusion. “Wait. When you say “estimation,” I get this feeling that I’m not getting what you mean. Could you please help me?”

  • Make playful fun. I use the phrase “The Agile” instead of “agile” to jiggle people’s brains. “When we do The Agile, we care about…”

  • Get edgy. When I observe a group talking about people as “resources” (a typical management term, not a slur), I then tune in to how they’re using it. If the word has helped them think of humans as objects, I’ll say something like “Of course, people aren’t interchangeable meat widgets. What human needs might we consider when we restructure teams?”

  1. Create a situation where a group can collectively define terms. This can be a slow and arduous process, especially if there’s lots of misalignment. So watch carefully for exhaustion or irritation. You might consider slipping a single term into a meeting, or create a sorting exercise in a cross-functional retro. “I’ve noticed that we all use these words, but it seems like we’re using them differently. Can we talk about that?”

  2. Ask questions about "what success looks like." This is an long-standing trick for getting people to shift their brains into thinking about outcomes.

Enjoy your new toys, and let me know how it goes. I would love to hear about your successes, failures, and techniques you use yourself and would like to share!

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May 01
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Apr 29

I like the bullet points regarding how to resolve the "not understanding the buzzword before encountering it".

But I am pushing back against the "What happens is that people start using the lingo before they have true understanding" premise. As pointed out, this is going to happen being humans, and therefore the onus is on you the listener to "get the definition", either on your own via searching or responding as suggested in the 'experiments'.

I agree that this definition self clarification should be completed before actually using the buzzword yourself - avoids perpetuating the confusion should it exist.

One addition I have used, not as consistently as I should (yet): If this is 'in the heat of a rea…

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