Adjectives - why most are bad or pointless

Today's email is on an exciting, innovative, strategic, superlative topic: adjectives (and recently, I’ve seen a veritable tsunami of them in reports, hence this email). You also get a great click-through to help you with yours.  

Some adjectives are good, they clarify. “Look in the red file, not the green one.” “Meet in the big room, not the small one.” They help.

Many adjectives are bad though. First, there are 'sales-pitch' adjectives - the pitch says: "Our professional staff will send you a thorough report". Eh!? The adjectives don't pass the Not test... that is, no-one would say the opposite: "Our amateur staff will send you a flimsy report"... Remove such adjectives. 

Then there's adjectives that attempt rigour. Imagine our report outlines what the new proposed IT will deliver: “It will give us,” our report says, “numbers that are concise, relevant, timely, significant, understandable”. We list five adjectives. By doing this, we hope to achieve two goals: (1) design a decent system; and (2) impress bosses (“Look, boss – a long list! How thorough we’ve been”).

But there’s a problem looming: our new IT won’t be adaptable. That wasn’t in the list. Nor was accurate. Or scalable. No. If we want to be thorough, we need 15 or 20 adjectives, otherwise we omit something important. 

But 20 adjectives is nuts. So instead, try this: “The new IT will give us numbers that help us run our business better”. Do this and there are fascinating by-products:

Bosses tinker less with our reports before circulating them: if we use five adjectives, bosses then add four (they think this helps and is progress) – then their boss adds another and puts them into two groups of five. Pointless.

Readers discuss issues, not adjectives: give people a list of adjectives and they critique it (“Is thorough the same as – or a subset of – complete?”). Omit the list, and people are no longer distracted by it. Instead they focus on bigger issues such as: “In what way does our existing IT fail to produce numbers that help us run our business?”. They no longer grapple with 20 adjectives, but drill down to the two or three that really matter (“Well, boss, our numbers are late and incomplete”). Much more enlightening.

To conclude, many adjectives are often nothing more than doomed attempts at rigour. However, do consider context before removing them all. The IT manager says: “We need to buy a good system”. Good doesn't seem to pass the Not test – would anyone buy a bad system? Here though, the current system is rubbish, so good clarifies. It draws a distinction between the bad current system and good new system.

'Adjective' ideas for you to try: next time you see an outpouring of adjectives, spot ones that are absent and mention it to the author (“You haven’t said robust or scalable…?”). Also, cross-check adjectives – I do this (welcome to my world). In one unit, its report said the new Application should produce: “A consistent, reliable, collection of authoritative data, delivered in a cost-effective manner to support client-focused business solutions”. Yet the unit’s Plan said they should: “Articulate, guide and deliver a targeted, agile, scalable and resilient Application that underpins and facilitates delivery of our strategy”. (All this really happened, I kid you not.)

Seemingly, the Plan didn’t care about being consistent, reliable, authoritative, cost-effective or client-focused – and the Application wasn’t bothered about being targeted, agile, scalable, resilient, facilitating or underpinning. A rubbish Plan, a rubbish Application. If confused, see the Venn diagram.

Also, analyse adjectives in acronyms. In a draft consultation document sent worldwide, an entity said its values were PRIDE – P for Professional, etc – and E was Ethical. So far, so good... but the accompanying commentary said Professional meant being ethical - so why have Ethical as a separate value? Maybe because, without it, it would be PRID. Which people would turn into DRIP. Not good.

Alternatively, the entity could drop Professional for Ethical - but that would create RIDE. Which becomes DIRE...

(As it was, the letter 'I' was Innovative, and that sounds more like a skill you acquire, not a value you adopt. You don’t wake up and say to yourself: “Today, I’ll be innovative!”. Yes, you can decide to be honest. Or hard-working. But you can’t decide to be innovative... can you...?)

Fun with adjectives (an oxymoron?): just this week, someone kindly sent me this random 'Corporate BS Generator' (BS… ? Business-Speak, perhaps?). I’ve seen something like it before, but this one is really good. It has four lists - adverbs, verbs, adjectives, nouns - then randomly combines them, e.g. “objectively synthesize cross-functional expertise”. If you visit the webpage, do notice that, of the four lists, the ‘adjectives’ one is easily the longest.


P.S. My thoughts on the PRIDE values: I shared them with the authors of the consultation document – and when the final post-consultation version was published, PRIDE had disappeared. Seemingly they weren’t that proud of the acronym after all.

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