Phrases I hate: “Can’t we just”

Picture yourself in a meeting. An uncomfortable silence has descended on the room. Everyone around the table wears a pensive or pained expression. The business team has just been told that the work they want done will take X amount of weeks. Someone taps a pencil lightly on their notepad. At last the silence is broken: “Can’t we just….”

I have witnessed this scenario so many times that I refuse to even hear what comes after it. In analytics and engineering this type of response from the business is typical and even though it is often perceived as being arrogant and dismissive, it is generally a benign attempt at finding an alternative solution. Still, it hurts me every time I have to respond to it and I’m going to explain why.

When you say “Can’t we just…”, what you’re really telling me is that surely there must be a faster, better, cheaper way of doing what you’re asking that I haven’t thought of. The scope of the solution that I’ve given is unacceptable to you because a) you’ve already promised a client that it can be done tomorrow, b) you’ve already promised your boss that it can be done tomorrow, or c) it won’t get done until after the annual review process so you will not be able to take credit for it during the current review cycle.

I understand that there are competitive pressures from which those of us in the “back-office” are often insulated. But I have also worked in customer-facing roles so I know that the demands of customers are often fiercely irrational. I am more than happy to serve as the technical liaison in client meetings so that I can explain why we need to take X weeks and spend Y dollars to get the problem solved. Setting expectations with customers—or worse, journalists—is a very delicate task and I extend a great deal of respect to those in the organization who can do this well.

What I do not appreciate, however, is the implication that I have wasted my time and effort to scope out a needlessly complex solution while you—not an expert—upon ten seconds of reflection have come up with a simple answer that I was too stupid to consider.

At one place I worked, this got so bad that the words “Can’t we just” were the secret trigger that would instantly derail any meeting in which they were uttered. We got so fed up with it that, in an effort to gently—but also sarcastically—educate the business that this wasn’t a proper response, the moment someone said this in a meeting we would all immediately stand up and start acting “crazy.” One of us would launch into a handstand, another would open and shut the window shades repeatedly while singing Michael Bolton lyrics, and in one particularly infuriating instance, a colleague of mine proceeded to smear cream cheese from the snack table all over his face and then “shave” himself with a little plastic knife. It took awhile, but eventually people began to understand why we were so upset and the evil phrase disappeared.

Phrases I hate: “Let’s not boil the ocean”

To ‘boil the ocean’ is a newly trending phrase that has begun to appear in the context of ‘Big Data’ (don’t even get me started on that one!) and is used to mean applying an enormous amount of work to a massive amount of data. As if analytics involved a gigantic cooking pot in which our daily tasks consist of bringing oceans of data to a boil to allow the insights that lurk beneath more tepid waters to float to the top amidst a simmering stew of crunching numbers. As metaphors go, this one is so terrifically debasing precisely because it devalues the tremendous work involved in dealing with large data sets and reduces it—boils it down—to the simple operation of turning a burner on ‘High’ and passively watching the pot to see what happens.

Of course, analytics isn’t anything like that. In analytic work, the 80/20 rule is distributed closer to 99/1 where the fun part of building a useful model that extracts insights from the data takes just one part time versus the 99 parts spent banging the data into any kind of organized shape so that it can be modelled in the first place. So, when one characterizes the work as ‘boiling the ocean’, one is severerly undercutting any appreciation for the myriad subtleties and careful nuances that are required to work with raw data and prepare it for the saucepan.

The phrase becomes even more demeaning when it is used in the negative: ‘let’s not boil the ocean here.’ This came up once in a meeting to scope out a new project. We had a lot of data, but not nearly all that we needed to answer the business questions being raised. I put together a brief outline of what we would need to do if we wanted to do the job properly. After a quick estimate of the level of effort specified in a small but not insignificant number of weeks, it was then that someone suggested perhaps we could do it faster if we were simply to avoid ‘boiling.’

Yes, wouldn’t that be wonderful? What they were asking, in other words, was “Can’t we just do a half-assed job that would give us a ballpark result that would be good enough, in, say, a day or two?” A day or two may even be too generous since I’m sure they really wanted the answer in a couple of hours. The problem with this thinking is that it will not work. You cannnot skip the data preparation work, let alone data collection if you do not even have the data that is needed to answer the question. Even with the data, your model will still, per C.P.E. Box, be wrong, but it may actually be useful. To cut corners of the magnitude required to provide a quick answer will result in a perfectly useless model that will be worse than not using data at all and just making something up.

So, no, I’m sorry but we really need to boil this ocean, unless you’re prepared to drink the undistilled sewer water that is festering in the pipes.

Phrases I hate: “Times that by ten”

You can multiply x by ten, and x times 10 equals 10x, but you can’t ‘times x’ by anything. This belongs in the same category of sloppy speech as the well-cited ‘a whole nother’. I understand that you want to multiply something by ten. What I do not understand is why you cannot simply say “multiply that by ten.”

When I first heard this I wondered if ‘times’ could properly be used in this way as an imperative verb. Technically, then, you would say ‘time that by ten’, which sounds even more ridiculous. If you could ‘times that by ten’, then in the past tense you would have to say “I timesed that by ten”, or “I timed that by ten,” and while the former isn’t even a proper word, the latter makes it sound as though you were using a stopwatch in some fashion. What are you doing when you are ‘timesing’ that by ten? You are multiplying it. You multiply x by ten, yesterday you multiplied x by ten. Can’t we just stop using stupid substitutes for actual words that work very well?

Phrases I hate: Sentences without pronouns

Lately a growing trend in email communication would have the sender completely eliminate all traces of pronouns as subjects in sentence construction. I’m sure you’ve come across examples like this:

“Was thinking about your email. Want to take a closer look. Hoping we can make quick progress.”

I suppose certain excuses can be made for harried business travelers forced to make the most of a twenty minute layover by responding to a torrent of backed-up emails using a horridly uncomfortable input device. Unfortunately, I’ve seen this style creep deeper into standard business language even in emails that I know were typed up on a computer. What is behind this hesitation to omit subject pronouns?

This is actually part of a larger issue that involves the subtleties of power. Email is a revolutionary form of business communication because anyone in the company has the power to add to their collective knowledge by firing one out to a message list. Traditionally, knowledge creation in organizations has been the sole privilege of executives who have secretaries to whom they can dictate memos and distribute them on official letterhead and deliver in those funny inter-office envelopes to a central mail room. As email gained prominence, the executives must have felt threatened because suddenly their ideas were not the only ones that were floating around the company’s thought space. How did the execs react to this? They coudn’t ignore email, or risk becoming irrelevant. But they found a way to assert their power even with this ostensibly democratic technology.

I was once told by a colleague that he deliberately leaves misspellings in emails to illustrate his importance, and to implicitly assert power over the receiver, who is evidently not important enough to have to worry about proper spelling, punctuation, or usage. This was an eye-opener for me because I had always treated email the same way as any other form of writing: I write in complete sentences, take time to compose my thoughts before writing, and spell-check the final result before sending it. I suppose this makes me look like a pawn, since only a subordinate would take such care with their written work. The executive, on the other hand, is far too busy and important to stoop to such low levels.

Here is an experiment: compare a sample of emails from your boss to a sample from your direct reports. I wager that you will find the first sample will be far sloppier than the second.

I use this as an indicator of how someone views me and my role. When I’m sent an email that is carelessly written, omits pronouns, contains spelling errors, I can tell that the sender thinks of me as clearly below them. It is sometimes useful to use the ploy right back at them, to show them that this is not productive speech:

Got your reply. Going to think aboutit. Might take some tim.