I recently read Elon Musk’s autobiography by Ashlee Vance. What was achieved by this exercise was the realisation that I don’t want to work for Elon Musk. But something that stuck with me was the following email referenced in the book. It’s an excellent summary of why acronyms suck and why Elon Musk is great:
“There is a creeping tendency to use made up acronyms at SpaceX. Excessive use of made up acronyms is a significant impediment to communication and keeping communication good as we grow is incredibly important. Individually, a few acronyms here and there may not seem so bad, but if a thousand people are making these up, over time the result will be a huge glossary that we have to issue to new employees. No one can actually remember all these acronyms and people don’t want to seem dumb in a meeting, so they just sit there in ignorance. This is particularly tough on new employees.
That needs to stop immediately or I will take drastic action – I have given enough warning over the years. Unless an acronym is approved by me, it should not enter the SpaceX glossary. If there is an existing acronym that cannot reasonably be justified, it should be eliminated, as I have requested in the past.
For example, there should be not “HTS” [horizontal test stand] or “VTS” [vertical test stand] designations for test stands. Those are particularly dumb, as they contain unnecessary words. A “stand” at our test site is obviously a test stand. VTS-3 is four syllables compared with “Tripod”, which is two, so the bloody acronym version actually takes longer to say than the name!”
The key test for an acronym is to ask whether it helps or hurts communication. An acronym that most engineers outside of SpaceX already know, such as GUI, is fine to use. It is also ok to make up a few acronyms/contractions every now and again, assuming I have approved them, e.g. MVac and M9 instead of Merlin 1C-Vacuum or Merlin 1C-Sea Level, but those need to be kept to a minimum.”
Last week I received an insert from a colleague for a bid response I was writing. I had to read it three times before I could comprehend what was being said. The amount of verbal guff people in business speak is incredible and also, very funny. Here are a few of my favourite examples, please comment and add yours!
Cadence (Cambridge Dictionary says: the regular rise and fall of the voice)
Corporate BS – “let’s establish the meeting cadence for this project”. What you could say instead: “right, when are we going to meet?”
Leverage (Cambridge Dictionary says: the action or advantage of using a lever)
Corporate BS – “let’s see if we can leverage the assets from the other project here”. What you could say instead: “let’s see if we can use the assets from the other project here”.
Bandwidth (Cambridge Dictionary says: a measurement of the amount of information that can be sent between computers.
Corporate BS – “I just don’t have the bandwidth to take on more work right now”. What you could say instead: “I’m too busy to take on more work right now”.
The reason for writing this blog (which will go on the pile of other hundreds of thousands of blogs on the same topic), is whether corporate BS is a symptom of a bigger, less amusing issue. I think it boils down to power play: either people use it because they’re insecure and feel they need to sound clever, or because they want to sound clever to make other people feel stupid. In either case I think it shows a toxic culture and it’s these kind of day to day symptoms that need to be tackled if you want to make changes to your company culture.