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This chapter is from the book

by Lucy Kellaway

What’s in a word? Lucy Kellaway, who writes a column for the Financial Times, found what’s in several of them by reading the annual report of a prominent consulting firm. The field of strategy has from time to time (1965–2005) been known to use buzzwords too, not the least "strategy" itself. So heed her words.

Last week I found myself on the Tube (London’s subway system) with nothing to read but Accenture’s 2002 annual report. As the London Underground barely functions at the moment, I had a long time to study it and by the time I finally arrived at London Bridge, I knew it as intimately as the passionate, world-class people who wrote it.

An annual report is meant to give a snapshot of a company’s finances at year end. This one also gives something else, rarer and more useful: a linguistic snapshot of current business usage. In just a few short pages it assembles the most popular clichés, making it a valuable document that will allow future generations to understand how the business world thought and wrote as of December 31, 2002.

For those who do not have a copy of Accenture's report, or whose preferred Tube reading is about why Wacko Jacko is a great dad, I have compiled a list of the most popular words and phrases that no business writing should be without. What interests me are not the clumsy bits of jargon such as "business process outsourcing capabilities," which form the backbone of the report, but the normal words, fed to us over and over again, until we become desensitised, left with no idea of what they mean at all:

  • Deliver. This verb is straight in at number one. If you think "delivery" is something that involves a truck, and which Ikea charges for, you are sadly out of date. Accenture delivers all manner of things, none of which requires a truck or even a bicycle. "Innovation Delivered," it says on the cover, which sounds splendid and is ambiguous enough to be unchallengeable.

  • Inside, there are five D-words in one short paragraph. Under the heading "Global Strategic Delivery Approach," we learn that "the ultimate goal is to deliver price competitive solutions." This is done through "a global network of delivery centres," which "enhance the ability to deliver results." This sounds a bit circular—but maybe that's the point.

    There are also more advanced grammatical forms—deliverables, and delivering on something. The grocery van delivers on Tuesday; Accenture "delivers on great ideas."

  • Value. The Accenture report shows there are 101 Ways With Value. You can unleash and unlock it (see below). You can create it. You can capture it. You can have a "value opportunity." And, of course, it is not safe to leave the house without a "value proposition" in your back pocket. Does "value" mean the same in all these cases? Is it so vague that it means nothing at all?

  • Solutions. These are the new products and services. They are what we deliver. Last year I wrote an entire column on the solutions craze and this report is filled with them. There are "scalable solutions," "solutions units," "outsourcing solutions," and "robust and repeatable solutions," to name just a very, very few.

  • To drive. I drive a Ford Galaxy. Accenture does a lot of driving, too, but its driving doesn't involve wheels. Instead, it "drives" growth. Or new revenues. Or change. All this driving gives the impression that the entity behind the wheel is in control—which is almost bound not to be the case.

  • To leverage. This noun-as-verb has been in the charts for a long time but still deserves a mention. "We have a long track record of success leveraging . . . solutions." "We leverage our global scale." Also leveraged are assets and expertise. I think this verb means "to do," or "to make the most of" but I wouldn't swear to it.

  • To unleash. "Unleashing" is what you do when you take your dog for a walk, and then it usually cocks its leg on something. But now "to unleash" is a useful verb that can be applied to almost any positive activity—creativity, value, and so on. And if you don't want to "unleash," you can "unlock" instead.

  • Unparalleled. This golden oldie is as good as ever. It works nicely as follows: "Enabling us to deliver innovation at unparalleled speed." "Unparalleled speed" must mean faster than the speed of light—which really would be innovation delivered.

  • Track record. Never say "record" without the word "track" in front of it and "proven," or "unparalleled" after it.

Once you have mastered the above you are ready for whole sentences. The Accenture report interlaces snappy short ones, preferably clichés, aphorisms, truisms, and so on, with meatier phrases. "There is no time like the present." Or "We live in turbulent times." Or "Why Accenture?" (Why, indeed?) And then, having lulled readers into thinking they are with you, you hit them with something like: "Outsourcing is charged with aggressively expanding our global network of delivery centres as well as what we call our 'solutions workforce' to help us lower our technology solutions costs." Phew!

As an English student, I was sometimes given a difficult Shakespeare passage to take apart phrase by phrase. I always found that when I had finished I liked it better and understood it more.

When I first glanced at the Accenture report on the Tube platform, I felt I had got the drift of it. But now I have broken it down into little bits, I have lost my confidence and can’t say I understand a single word.

Source: Originally published with the title "Delivering on Clichés: Accenture’s Annual Report Almost Makes Sense—Until You Read it Phrase by Phrase," Financial Times, February 17, 2003, London edition, p. 12.

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