'Headwinds' jumps the shark

February 11, 2008: 11:28 AM ET

ae438a.jpgThe Wall Street Journal starts our week with one of its classic observational front page stories. This one notes the prevalence of a new metaphor that is now running like grain through a goose through the CEO community. It seems impossible to describe the current business environment without using the word "headwinds". 

For instance, the paper quotes Rick Wagoner, CEO of General Motors, telling auto analysts on January 17: "As we look out, we've got to be realistic that we are facing some tough headwinds, particularly here in the U.S., with a relatively weak industry."  Jerry Yang of Yahoo and G. Kennedy Thompson of Wachovia are also invoked, among others.

Business does this. I remember when I started out in business, you had to have excellence. Everybody had to have a (usually pristine and unread) copy of Tom Peters and Robert Waterman's lengthy, repetitive, preachy tome on the subject, In Search of Excellence, on proud display on their desktop. No meeting was complete without a segment in which people talked about excellence, the drive to achieve excellence, and a lot of cheering and hand-clapping in recognition of those who had in some way quantified or demonstrated extreme excellence.

Not long after we all searched for and found excellence, we moved on to Quality. We had Quality circles and Quality focus groups and Quality meetings to achieve Productivity. For about three years we had so much Quality everywhere that we actually killed it. Now nobody can talk about Quality without getting a pretty good laugh at the mention of the word.

As I noted, Quality was often a screen for the process by which Productivity was achieved. In case you didn't know, which I'm sure you do, Productivity was a euphemism for firing people and making other people do their jobs. When you have fewer people doing more, you ipso facto have more Productivity. That is why I have always hated Productivity. Speaking personally, when I am achieving maximum Productivity, I am usually exhausted.

Buzzwords function to mask the true meaning of things. That's why the most prevalent ones at any time usually have to do with something nasty. In the case of Excellence, you had a bunch of middle managers patting each other on the back in an orgy of self-congratulation. Quality was an excuse to plunge an organization into what amounted to a Stalinist socialist re-education program, delivering the afflicted company to the doorstep of Productivity, which produced Re-Engineering that created Decruitment of Excess Personnel, then some Headcount Rationalizations and then everybody was looking for their Cheese, which apparently was moved. 

And now we have Headwinds. Oh Captain my Captain, your fearful ship boldly wends its way forth over the choppy waves! The headwinds are vicious -- but it's a good vessel, fitted to perfection and utterly rightsized! The crew is dedicated! Our uniforms are crisp and natty, their golden buttons glowing in the spume and sunshine! Yes, the Headwinds are brisk, but we can make it! If anyone can, we can! After all, don't these Headwinds afflict us all? I mean, isn't everybody using the same word to describe them? Onward! Headwinds be damned!

It was a decent metaphor, I'll grant you that. But there's one thing about buzzword like it. They're all killed by overuse. And we're pretty much there, I think.

Here are a few suggestions for replacements as the credit crisis deepens, the dollar hawks up phlegm and everybody growing increasingly squirrelly about 08:

  • Heavy Lifting, as in "We're going to have to do some heavy lifting to get the year off the ground, but we're hopeful."
  • Monkey Meat, as in "The rest of the quarter looks like a lump of monkey meat.
  • A Bag of Worms, as in "This is a fine bag of worms we've gotten ourselves into, but we see the later part of 08 still pretty solid."
  • A Deep and Muddy Swamp, as in "The continuing failure of our debt instruments is leading us further and further into a deep and muddy swamp from which there looks to be no escape at this time other than to live through it and try to come out the other side alive."

Goodness. That doesn't sound very euphemistic, does it? Why don't we just say that business stinks and forget about it?

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