Problems and Challenges

Like any other profession, consultants have certain language tics. Habits part of the culture, transmitted from senior to junior.

I’ve been a student for longer than I should, and the transition from academia to business came late. The shift in linguistic values from academia to consulting has been jarring with a teaspoon of traumatic. Virtues in one culture are vices in the other, which is fine if you move from one you hate to one you love.

I don’t love consulting jargon. I don’t love academic jargon either, but somehow that doesn’t bother me. Academic jargon can be pedantic, overwrought and off-putting, but it’s fundamentally well-intentioned. By well-intentioned I mean that it embodies my values, even if if it does so poorly.

When I write consulting jargon I don’t think “this could be done better”. I feel like I’m wearing clothes made for people with a different number of limbs.

Specialized jargon is justified, as a rule. It enables you to communicate using narrow concepts that only makes sense in a particular context. To outsiders it often sounds like hooey, independently of whether it actually is hooey – the definition of which is an intricate philosophical question I won’t touch upon.

Communicating in jargon that matches the way you personally slice the world is just great, it’s like being able to use your mother tongue for the first time. The bond between thought and word is strong and intimate. But using jargon that doesn’t match your own thought feels wrong and alienating, like writing with your non-dominant hand.

Consultants overuse the word “key”. As in “key insights”, “key technologies”, “key trends” or “key strategies”. There is a reason for that: “key” stuff is the stuff you need to know, that stuff that will help you get ahead, achieve that goal you’re aiming for. It’s completely unromantic and the key metaphor communicates this. An actual, physical key is a simple tool. A pure example of means to an end.

The consultant’s “key” is the grownup version of “tl;dr”. It enables you to extract the instrumentally valuable part of a piece of writing with minimum effort. Because when writing consulting reports (sometimes, at least), your target audience are people who don’t have the time or inclination to actually read things. Contrast this with writing as a student in a university, where it’s your professor’s job to read and engage with what you write.

I dislike the use of “key” because it reminds me that what I write is disposable and utterly utilitarian.

Most people who write for a living probably has the idea that a text is a piece of culture; it should be meaningful to the reader and create some sort of experience in them. Your mind ought to be just a little bit different after reading a good text or taking in any good piece of art. It should make you see the world in a new light.

This takes cognitive effort and isn’t typically something people want to do, thus consulting reports (which can’t command attention so much as meekly beg for it) come pre-digested. Don’t get me wrong, I know reports aren’t works of art. I just don’t like to have my nose rubbed in that fact quite this often.

Another word is “challenge”. Now, “challenge” just means “problem”. Like in “climate change is the greatest challenge of our time”, or “the high crime rate and crippling unemployment are two major challenges for this city”.

We replace “problem” with “challenge” because saying that something is a problem is being a Negative Nellie. Challenges are good! An opportunity to grow!

Recently a minister in the Swedish government said on TV that “we will solve this challenge” regarding some issue (I think it may have been housing).  Really? Solve? A challenge is something you face. A problem is something you solve. Solving a problem can be a challenge, and calling a problem “challenge” is an attempt to draw attention to the potential solving rather than to the problem itself because the problem itself is a downer.

Part of this is just an unwillingness to be the bearer of bad news, especially in those circumstances when your audience is someone who paid you to write about them. There are no bad things! Only opportunities to achieve good things! Please have good feelings when you think about me.

The thing is, I don’t think “problem” is a bad word. I don’t think that describing something as a problem is being unduly negative or defeatist in any way. But clearly the readers of these reports do, or are expected to. Why?

Speculation: I work in consulting but my M.Sc. says engineering, and a “problem” to an engineer is like a mountain to a mountain climber. It’s another word for “task” or “project”. Maybe even “challenge”. Apparently not everyone sees “problem” in this way.

Engineers don’t need to call problems “challenges” in order to percieve them as such. Maybe we think like this because we have good experiences with problems. The kind of problems engineers work on are most often solvable. They’re puzzle-like.

Managers, politicians and civil servants (the typical target audience of consultant reports) don’t work with inanimate objects like engineers do, but with people. Opinionated, obstinate, unpredictable and imperfect people that don’t behave they way they should, darnit. You’ve got a lot less power to control the systems you’re working with, and actually solving problems – the way engineers often do – is rarely a realistic goal. So “problem” feels bad. “Oh no, one of those intractable things that will be with us forever.

So I dislike “challenge” mostly because it reminds me that I work in a business where the vast majority of clients and colleagues don’t share my sensibilities and experiences. It makes me feel alone.

This is a lot to read into a few words, but the words themselves are just avatars of larger things. “Key” highlights the tension between business and art, the tension between the text as a mere tool or the text as a work of art or source of inspiration and insight.

I identify with the art side of this divide so strongly that I barely understand instrumental value. It takes conscious effort and even then I’m pretty bad at it. I want to do things that are intrinsically interesting, but my job involves finding out what can bring clients practical value. Thinking about purely practical value is aggressively boring and shuts my brain down.

I once had a presentation at work where I described a model of how changes in consumer trends work. It had an interesting mathematical property that I described. When my boss asked the room to brainstorm ideas on how this could be used to bring value to clients I was completely stumped. Hadn’t thought of it that way. It was just neat.

It’s not that I don’t want to or consider practicality beneath me, like the stereotypical artsy type would. It’s that I can’t. I feel myself getting seriously stupider whenever I try to think in utilitarian ways, like that same stereotypical artsy type trying to do differential equations.

That other word, “challenge”, brings out a similar difference between the analyst-engineer mindset and the manager-politician mindset (call it “nerds and suits” if you must). Analytical thinkers detest buzzwords and slogans, everything that’s about appearance over substance. Those who manage people,  impressions and relationships are the opposite. For what they do, appearance is paramount. It matters even more than the facts.

In the struggle between art and business, I pick art. In the struggle between technology and business, I pick technology. But business is still winning, because who wants to be a starving artist when you’ve got options? When I write consulting jargon what I hear is business gloating and it reminds me of the constant compromise.


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