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Another Competence: Restating (the) Obvious (to) Normally Yawning Management (A.C.R.O.N.Y.M.)

No project, program, or initiative can be considered real until it’s chosen its acronym, or had one chosen for it. X-TRM effort gets expended creating every proposal, to mint what will seem the perfect coin; pocket change intended to buy everything the effort aspires to be (EEA2B), while avoiding anything inadvertently embarrassing (AAIE); a plugged nickel.

A newcomer to one program noticed that their Master Yearly Program Plan (which she humorously pronounced My Pee Pee) was, in fact, quite a bit larger than other programs’ annual master program plans. No old-timer on that team had noticed their joke until the new kid showed up.

The acronymization of project work is not a new phenomenon. It’s as old as project work itself. I suspect that even the ancient Egyptians, understandably eager to avoid chiseling into stone any more hieroglyphs than absolutely necessary, resorted to abbreviations whenever possible. But our age has taken the practice to new X-TRMZ creating wholly new dialects for every effort.

This practice is really no different from what every family does. Every family fashions their own language featuring words created when, for instance, my daughter mistakenly called ‘discussing’ ‘disgusting,’ resulting in a dialect unique to my family, and meaningless to every other when we spoke of ‘disgusting things together.’

A similar thing happens to every high-performing team. They create their own lingo, hyper-meaningful to anyone on the team, and gibberish to everyone else. Their experiences together distill into what any outsider considers a strange brew, and it’s quite impossible for anyone not fluent to ever sip, let alone swallow it.

What holds the team together can fracture the broader community. The typical Agile programming team might as well be speaking Swahili as far as any outsider interacting with it is concerned. Agilists often slip into pattern-language descriptions more akin to ink blots to anyone not sharing their background or perspective.

These little abbreviations can slow everything down. Sure, they are hyper-useful for the core team members, but they can require an awful lot of explaining when a peripheral constituent stumbles over them. And no amount of additional explaining ever erases the notion, struck in the moment of initial confusion, that your special language means that you’re special in ways you never intended.

But there’s no escaping the fact that we’re never going back. Our thumbs are re-programming our brains. ITTIA, I Text, Therefore I Am. To abbreviate, human. To acronym, apparently divine.

There will be no unwinding this curious evolution, so we’d better learn how to accept this inevitability. Never again will we see a report unmired by abbreviation or scrubbed clean of obfuscating acronyms. These are features of modern life that will live well beyond our time. How will future archivists translate our lessons learned? IMHO, they will probably translate them about as well as we translate our ancestor’s archaic prose. Methinks each generation confuses their great-grandchildren, mostly because language has always been context-dependent. What anyone says is nearly meaningless outside of where they speak. Communication is a snake eating its own tail. Words help create the context that gives real meaning to the words while context colors every intended meaning, affecting the context itself.

As an example of a society thriving on abbreviations, I could not choose better than our own capital city, the District of Columbia, or DC as it is universally called. In DC, everything is known by an acronym, abbreviation, or family label. Here, the DoD pleads with the OMB for audit leniency while the USDA administers an ‘alphabet soup’ of “earmark” programs, which some consider just so much “pork." Just try to find one of the several “beltways” on any map. They exist in spoken language and no where else.

I recently visited with a woman who had served in senior staff positions ‘on the hill’ for over thirty years. I watched myself pretending to understand her patois, skipping over the indecipherables much as I do when reading very technical material. I assumed the curiosities would be defined as the context unfolded, and they mostly were. In the mean time, I chose not to stall the conversation by insisting that I understand every abbreviation the moment it appeared.

As unlikely as it always seems to the uninitiated, the whole thing holds together, testament to the remarkable human ability to simultaneously translate the colloquial into the actionable. After a time, translation becomes pre-conscious, and meaning reliably crosses the chasm. Communication ceases to be the illusion that we understand each other to become the certainty that we do. Somehow.

Acronymization is widely reviled. We want our projects, programs, and initiatives to leap from the starting blocks into the race. Yet even the ancient Romans understood that initial speed is the eternal enemy of the good and useful. That apparently wasted time spent milling around, searching for the perfect defining acronym, will be earned back with considerable interest later. The initiators are not simply acronym-smithing, but searching for an identity, a name that will serve them well.

My ancestors gave their children what seem today absurdly convoluted names like Erik son of Grindal, cousin of Sven, grandson of Thor, great grandson of Abner, and great, great grandson of Rudolf the King. Precise, yes, but difficult to fit into the space provided on modern forms. Gratefully, my parents labeled me simply David, including a wholly inappropriate and embarrassing middle name which I rejected before I was three, and my father’s family name, which I use only on formal occasions. Those who know me well call me David. Those who don’t, but wish to affect informality, call me Dave. My first wife called me, simply, “D.”

Noted consultant Eileen Strider of Strider and Cline, warns against choosing unfortunate acronyms. She says that a project will become whatever it’s labeled, citing the mess ERP (Enterprise Resource Planning) projects tend to leave behind. “If you don’t want your project to ERP up on your shoes,” she cautions, “call it something that doesn’t throw up.” Sound advice.

In my own consulting practice, I often see the unintended consequences of ill-chosen acronyms. The Pro-CLAIM project needed to keep some things secret. The NEXT project couldn’t get beyond its past. These names were chosen hopefully, but failed to deliver their magic. When the name falls short of explaining, those grown accustomed to using it are the last ones to suspect that their difficulties lie in their own unconscious insistence upon calling their apples oranges.

In these instances, I ask what seems obvious to me, “Where did this acronym come from?” Then I sit back to listen to the story. In telling the story, my client almost always realizes that their situation has changed since they first forged their identity. Maybe the original team is gone now, or the originating objectives have morphed, that the identity that just seemed so right then has lost all meaning and motivating force now. A simple, more mindful name change can transform everything then.

Those efforts given meaningless acronyms find ways to morph the inappropriate into the useful, sometimes by mocking their given name. Thus, SURGE becomes SPLURGE and SPARK, SNARK. These communities chuckle themselves toward success fueled by gallows humor.

Our administration has the acronym mills working extra shifts, but still some unfortunate labels inevitably slip past quality control. The Bail Out label just stuck over the given name Stimulus (Something Tried In Monumental Uncertainty to Level Unwanted Slide). If you’re frustrated by how slowly the new programs are starting, be reassured that whatever result they produce will be helped or hindered by the branding acronym the team creates, and ROMEs (Really Obvious Motivating Explanations) are rarely created in a day. They require some milling around time.

Whatever it’s called, the more complicated an effort, the more it needs a simple, easily grokable label to describe it. NASA engaged in a Space Race, not a series of outrageously expensive, politically contentious, speculative endeavors intended to safely transport a human to the moon and back.

The long-winded is the eternal enemy of our ever shorter attention spans.



©2009 by David A. Schmaltz - all rights reserved

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