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I work in a fast growing organisation. We have a few slogans that people spam around to justify decisions. Imagine we are having a strategic meeting, we are debating whether a solution is better than another, and somebody stands up and says "Just do it!" or "Think different!". These slogans are sometimes repeated like a mantra, and have become the explanation for some critical decisions. Moreover, these are strategic decisions, and the true impact will be measured in a few years; meanwhile, these "slogan spammers" are getting visibility and influence beyond their understanding or merits.

How can I deal with "slogan spammers" without sounding pedantic, contrarian, or even like an enabler? Commenting on a slogan might as well turn into taking responsibility for in-depth work to explain why it made no sense - and while I am at it, the slogan spammers will keep going at it, exponentially.

How do you manage and mitigate slogan spammers?

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    Maybe people who don't know better than spamming slogans should not participate in strategic meetings at all – David Jul 22 at 14:13
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How do you manage and mitigate slogan spammers?

Play dumb. Let me tell you the four words that every buzzword aficionado or consultant dreads:

What does that mean?

These types of slogans and mantras typically represent an ideal or an attitude, not a plan. Many have been so overused they're essentially meaningless. "Just do it?" You're all presumably in a meeting to "do it". Figuring out what to do and how to do it is presumably the reason you're even in a (virtual) meeting to begin with. "Think different?" If you were going to do what you've always done you wouldn't be discussing anything.

The point is not to challenge the slogan or statement, but to ask them how it applies to the topic you're discussing. Actually downplaying your own understanding can often work well here, try "I'm not sure I understand, I don't really have much [context on / background in / ...], could you explain how this relates to X?" Asking someone to explain is always fine, but this type of false modesty is a technique you should use sparingly though. It can appear condescending if you overdo it.

This should mostly take the wind out of the sails of people dispensing this kind of wisdom in an effort to be seen to contribute. What I think you're getting at is people who try to avoid meaningful examination of an important decision by saying to just "go for it". Those take more of an effort, but the essence is the same: buzzwords are not a reason for doing anything. The examples you gave can boil down to "let's just take a chance". That sentiment doesn't typically fly in most corporations which are risk-averse by nature, but couching it in buzzwords can often make people lose their heads.

The way you can address this is by bringing it back to substance of the issue. If someone is saying to "just do it" you counter by refocusing the discussion. You say things like:

  • Are we then prepared to accept the risks X and Y that we discussed?
  • So we're comfortable with the increased costs that this would entail?
  • I'm all for innovating but* we're here because we wanted to make sure we understand the impact on [our customers / the IT team / ...}.
  • Thanks for the energy boost Jack, but* I really do want to get to the bottom of [issue]
  • I'd like to change things up as well but* I really think we should hear Sandy out on what she was saying about X. Sandy, what would you say was the main...
  • I'm sure our customers would think very differently about us if the site went down and we didn't have a backup, so how can we...

Most of these require that you have a decent amount of capital in these meetings so that you're able to push back a little. That usually means either being at the same or higher level as these slogan spammers or being recognised for your expertise on a topic. IF that's not the case, stick to asking questions rather than controlling the meeting. As always, go with something that fits your style but also your company culture. The last one in particular is rather passive aggressive.

The Sandy example can be especially effective as it gives someone else the floor and can encourage them to speak up more. It's a great way to support less experienced colleagues who might lack confidence or can't get a word in, just don't overdo it.

[How do I avoid] sounding pedantic, contrarian, or even like an enabler?

As long as you're professional, don't dismiss people out of hand and it's clear that you're trying to get things resolved rather than "only complaining", that should never be an issue. In a way, you're deploying the typical 'old fart dismissing new ideas' response of "That sounds great, but here in the real world...". As long as you make sure you don't actually come across like that when you refocus the discussion you should be fine.

If you're in a team or organisation where simply trying to find a solution or challenging wishful thinking is negatively impacting your reputation, it's probably time to move on. Thriving in a company where slogan spammers are common or, even worse, in charge requires a very different approach and it's not one I have much experience with or patience for. It sounds like you don't either, but there are any number of reasons why someone might want to stick it out in a situation like that. It'd be a topic for a separate question though.


* As DanCrumb pointed out, a good tip is also to avoid the use of the word "but" here:

You can acknowledge that they said something and then just return to whatever was being discussed at the time. You can also use it as a signal that parts of the room are getting bored and try to nudge things closer to making a decision.

It's not uncommon for people like this to make a big deal of the word but (as in the "no, but" > "yes, and" concept) so even replacing it with a "though" can help.

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    This times a 100, yes. Encourage people to explain their reasoning but don't fake confusion too deeply or else you will be seen as the guy that just doesn't understand what's going on and the spammer will have even more clout next time since everyone else sees that the "smart" guy just can't keep up with the spammer's brilliance. – MonkeyZeus Jun 10 at 19:53
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    This is very good. I would offer a subtle tweak. As much as possible, avoid "but". Sometimes it's possible to replace it with just a beat. You can acknowledge that they said something and then just return to whatever was being discussed at the time. You can also use it as a signal that parts of the room are getting bored and try to nudge things closer to making a decision. – Dancrumb Jun 10 at 22:53
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    @Dancrumb Excellent point. "Thanks for the energy boost. ... I'd really like to focus on solutions for [issue]" without the "but" is really good. I love "thanks for the energy boost" btw, so politely dismissive. Awesome answer. – Alex M Jun 10 at 23:15
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    @Dancrumb A good point. While I don't always get the issue with the word, slogan spammers would be the ones who make a big deal of it. Hope you don't mind that I incorporated your advice in the answer. :) – Lilienthal Jun 11 at 7:04
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    I use the four dreaded words all the time What does that mean?. Well done. – Mister Positive Jun 11 at 14:09
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Be the first to make the call.

When presenting an idea or solution preface it with the mantra.

Let's think different! Why not do X to solve Y

You're effectively preventing spammers to use the slogan or at a minimum you're now part of those who use it and gain visibility for it.

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    Good idea. I'd also try to respond to a slogan with a better one. Just do it? "It's better to just do it right than to just do it". "Think different?", Yes, it can be useful, but sometimes things are there for a reason and it will be a waste of time to re-invent the wheel. Agree with their point of view, then improve it. I don't think that all your coworkers are stupid, and some of them at least, will back you up. – Doliprane Jun 10 at 13:02
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    This answer assumes that OP can present "Why not do X to solve Y" with any sort of substance quickly enough. Odds are that the spammer can mindlessly say "think different" well before OP can present a logical suggestion. – MonkeyZeus Jun 10 at 19:51
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    It's still another tool in the toolbox though. – Panzercrisis Jun 11 at 19:45
  • This is the best answer IMO. I'd go as far as framing everything you say with respect to the slogans. You say: "Well, other companies may approach the problem like [something boring]. But we think different! We will solve it by just doing X!". A long applause and a promotion quickly follow. – nicola Jun 16 at 9:46
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If you just want to "win" the meeting, you can derail that sort of thing easily enough by following the advice in the other answers. But I propose that you seek to understand the motivations.

Bureaucracy and You: A Primer

Some people really like to get stuff done. But there is an impediment to getting stuff done: bureaucracy. Bureaucracy is not about getting stuff done, it is generally a recipe for not doing things. This can make sense if you are e.g. metering access to a scarce resource (bureaucracy as filter/test of commitment), and of course that's funny in the limit case.

But if your decision-making process has N people with veto power over changes, your ability to do new things is 1/N.

People in general differ drastically in their level of innate tolerance for bureaucracy. I have what I would describe as a higher-than-average tolerance, I work for a government agency, and I've spent most of my career in management. That is not a coincidence. But the kind of people who would be drawn to a "fast growing organisation" will likely have a low tolerance for bureaucracy.

I've been rather down on the concept that I'm labelling "bureaucracy" but if you are working in a known and well-explored problem space then what I'm calling bureaucracy could just as easily be labelled best practice. And even if you're not, as the problem space becomes increasingly well-charted then it just makes sense to start encoding some of the key learnings from doing so into procedure (or code). In short, it has a tendency to increase over time. But as it increases efficiency on the well-trodden path, it increasingly traps you in the ruts of your own wagon wheels.

Raging at the Dying of the Light

But there is a type of individual whose tolerance for that increasingly-stifling ever-growing user manual for the firm is so low that they have a full-blown allergic reaction to it. Even people who don't clear that threshold but are on the end of the spectrum closer to it will feel the encroachment, and they will resist.

So when people say slogans like those, what I think they are really saying is that they strongly prefer one end of the efficiency/creativity tradeoff space, and that they are resisting the inevitable bureaucratic drift. And for your problem space, they may be right. Or they may not. If they are, look on it as an opportunity to expand your horizons. Or weigh whether you want to work at that kind of place. If they're wrong, they should be weighing whether or not they want to work at that kind of place.

While the slogans themselves may be asinine, don't be too quick to dismiss the attitudes behind them. I mean, sure, some probably just want to eat at the cool kids table but explicating bureaucratic drift and an innate preference for avoiding it takes a lot of verbiage (look at how long this answer is!). It's much easier to use a pithy slogan that gestures at the desired cluster of related concepts.

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    That's an amazing perspective, I'm glad you brought it up and that you put it so well into words. I sometimes myself deal with the bureaucratic types (I'm one of those with a somewhat low tolerance for it.) I'll definitely bookmark this answer and come back to it every so often when I need great arguments to discuss execution speed and efficiency. Thank you! – filbranden Jun 12 at 4:27
  • This is a good answer. What OP has to consider is that if the people in the set N you describe like a given buzz word or slogan, his chances of defeating the use of that slogan or buzz word are virtually nil. Because the problem is not that people use slogans or buzz words; the problem is that a non-zero number of the N decision makers respond to them. – tbrookside Jun 12 at 13:54
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    And I guess it's also true, as you point out, that sometimes the use of the slogan is the right way to approach a given problem, when the "right" approach to that problem is sclerotic. – tbrookside Jun 12 at 13:56
  • @filbranden you're welcome. I am as I said high bureaucracy myself but I really think you folks need a seat at the table because I've seen what happens when you don't. You wind up in a meeting where someone says "we need to be more agile" and someone else without a hint of humor or irony says "we should schedule a meeting to come up with a process for being more agile" and then you start questioning your life choices. – Jared Smith Jun 12 at 14:52
  • @tbrookside "sclerotic" is the perfect word – Jared Smith Jun 12 at 14:52
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While I might think "WTF? Are you David Brent?" I'd try to say something like "That's great, so in concrete terms how would we ...". You put the ball back in their court without being overtly agressive about it.

It's like how the idiots who say "the customer is always right" are never the ones who have to actually deal with them when they order a pizza from your dry-cleaning shop.

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    Give me my pizza! – Michael McFarlane Jun 11 at 23:11
  • "...in matters of taste". Sometimes, people who sling slogans around should just be reminded of the full quote. Imagine if Americans suddenly stormed Washington D.C. while chanting "No Taxation!", and leaving off "without representation" – Chronocidal Jun 12 at 8:52
  • @Chronocidal: If you're trying to suggest that "The customer is always right" is a shortened version of "The customer is always right in matters of taste", then you are mistaken. If you're not trying to suggest that, then the meaning of your comment eludes me. – ruakh Jun 12 at 20:18
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I once answered to such excited claims that it is indeed very important (exclamation mark) to have an open mind (exclamation mark). (The crowd is cheering).

And then I mentioned that one still must be careful not to open it too much so that the brain does not fall out.

The second part was not particularly well received (and is approximately as stupid as "Just do it!") but at least no dumb decisions were made that day.

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  • Yes, pointing out the flaws in a slogan is rarely well received. Slogans replace thought with pattern. "Have an open mind" can mean "your point is wrong, listen to mine" and in those cases, you need to ask for the same in your audience. It can be hard to do, as there will be a verbal fight for the dominant idea (which rarely is the best idea, and often is the loudest one). If you are lucky, you can draft comparison points, and go over them; but, often slogan users use slogans to avoid deep inspection, not to facilitate it. – Edwin Buck Jun 11 at 15:56
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Think different.

Just do it.

Seriously, though, you're talking a Theory of Alien Minds competency.

Your understanding is layered, you see shades of gray, and you expect the truth to be layered and show shades of gray. Their understanding is simple and simplistic, and if you ask them to see shades of gray, their perception is not that you are taking time to be accurate, it will be that you are making it complicated, and more specifically that you are making something essentially straightforward and simple into something complicated.

Theory of Alien Minds is not a panacea; the best advice is probably the answer you accepted, of asking, "What do you mean by that?" However, the people quoting simplistic slogans are almost certainly acting in good faith and trying to be straightforward in handling something that is by nature simple. They are not being intellectually lazy; they are, in their eyes, being straightforward and true to how things are.

You, and your position, only stand to benefit if you can understand the slogan spammers as acting in good faith and trying to faithfully answer what must be a simple matter that others make complex. Now if I knew the details I would probably agree with you that XYZ decision is a strategic decision with non-obvious consequences, and I would probably see shades of gray, but your communication with people different from you only stands to benefit from seeing your opponents as fully human, as trying to advance your organization's real best interests and being straightforward in not overthinking things and wasting time on shades of gray that aren't there.

One possible corollary might (or might not) be finding a teachable moment where something is simplistic, and then offering Socratic questions showing the failure of a simplistic approach. I might comment, though, that that is risky; it's not the best Theory of Alien Minds.

Someone has mentioned the possibility of voting with your feet, and that is a possibility; however, short of that we do best to work within the possible and show empathy for our opponents.

P.S. It sounds like you are already doing this, but from a "for a bank of questions" concern, you will want to be choosing your battles. You complained about "slogan spammers" in "strategic decisions with long term consequences;" it sounds like you are not digging in against slogan spam in any and every decision, but when slogan spam will do the most damage. Someone in your shoes would be well-advised to limit digging in to when the organization can least afford the consequences of slogan spam-based decisionmaking. FWIW.

P.P.S. I just realized I left out the obligatory name-drop for The Art of War: "Hence the saying: If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat. If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle." You need to know your opponents, including what kinds of things make sense to them.

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You can spam them back. "Just do it!" can be responded to with "less haste, more speed" for example. If they say "think different" you can counter with "best practice" and "tried and true solution", or "managing risk" and "leveraging our skill set and knowledge base" (doing what we know).

The problem you have now is that slogan spamming gets good reactions so you need to fix that, and they will adjust their behaviour accordingly.

You can also add some extra meat to your own suggestions by throwing in a little spam of your own. It's best to use words that people don't really understand so that they agree with you to appear smarter than they are, such as synergize, big data, hyperlocal, futureware, next level, disruptive, ideation, holistic approach, quick win, boil the ocean, paradigm...

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  • Eat the elephant. – Alex M Jun 10 at 23:16
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    Goodness, meetings will degenerate into sloganese in short order, with nobody saying anything of substance. OP is trying to avoid just that. – Chieron Jun 11 at 9:37
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    Sometimes things have to get worse before they get better. But I'm not suggesting just make the whole meeting slogans, I'm saying use them to neutralize the slogan spammers and then make your actual case in normal human language. – user Jun 11 at 10:54
  • I don't think this can solve anything. – David Jul 22 at 14:18
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Are Things Just Not Getting Done?

@Jared Smith made some good points about bureaucratic tolerance, but I think one is missing out: frustration at things not getting done.

In a large organization, there will be people on guard to make sure the organization doesn't do stupid things, like breaking government regulations that could result in fines. We might sit in a meeting, someone comes up with an idea for a project, and we know there are some issues that have to be dealt with before the project could proceed, or else there'll be trouble. So we raise issues. But we're all swamped with other tasks and we don't actually do anything about those issues, nobody takes ownership. So the project grinds to a halt. Just do it! screams someone who wants the project to actually happen.

There can be a disconnect between on the one hand being prudent and blocking projects if there's an issue, and on the other hand nobody then taking ownership to deal with the issue so the project can be unblocked. In large organizations, people can feel acute responsibility not to do something bad but less responsibility to get things done, especially if they have enough other tasks to stay busy.

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