Please stop your verbal diarrhea about your “business journey,” good sir

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The business buzzword list is about 55 miles long by this point (if you’re writing in size-6 font), and we can add a new one: “business journey.” Leaders love to breathlessly talk about how their company is on some business journey. There is a lot of psychology to this, obviously. It tosses it all back to the days of explorers, which seems adventurous and was something we all learned about in school. A journey needs a leader, so saying “business journey” repeatedly underscores their own value. A lot of work is about building up your own relevance in the name of increased self-worth, so “business journey” checks that box as well.

The big issue, of course, is that most companies make a product or service. Essentially, it’s a widget. It might be toilet paper or it might be a machine learning app. I don’t really care if it’s A or B, because it’s usually a thing designed to add a revenue stream. This, in turn, has created a ton of choice overload — we produce shit essentially to make money, whether or not anyone needs it. (“Show me that growth,” an executive meows.) I personally don’t see “the production of potentially unnecessary stuff” as a “business journey,” but I suppose this is one of 92,813 reasons why I don’t run an enterprise company right now.

Welcome to Buzzword Boulevard, business journey.

MIT on the business journey

Nice shot across the bow in this article:

Managers’ vested interest in “journey” reflects conventional wisdom about how to approach or narrate the pursuit of corporate goals. There is a fine line, however, between relying on conventional wisdom to achieve results and relying on hackneyed language to manage your business. The trip between the two sides of this line is short. When conventions shift, familiar and once acceptable ideas can quickly become unacceptable.

The part the quote nails is “conventional wisdom about how to approach or narrate the pursuit of corporate goals.” It’s 2017. We’re going to have cars that drive themselves at scale in less than a decade. Most of the tools we hand managers, though, are from about 1911. Maybe the term “conventional wisdom” needs to take a back seat nowadays, yea?

The priority issue

Most companies have no clue how to set priorities — to the point that 70% of employees are adding no value, or 21.4 million middle managers are bloating your payroll. This happens, in the most basic terms, because the “core value” of a company is usually “make money at the expense of anyone who gets in the way,” as opposed to a real set of core values. Now, a real set of core values — which have been shown to be tied to profits — would constitute a “business journey.” That would be cool! You’d actually understand where the company was going, what was guiding it, and your role within it.

The priority issue is the single-biggest issue that faces most companies. It seeps into bad decision-making, terrible product roll-outs, stalker-ish marketing, etc. It’s also a major factor in employee turnover. A good business journey narrative could help solve this priority problem at companies.

What happens instead?

Business journey becomes a buzzword, so executives say it in meetings and then violate every tenet of it in day-to-day actions. “Our business journey is about our people growing together,” a CFO purrs — 15 minutes before signing an automation deal that lays off 7,154 people. This is how a lot of people and companies roll.

I try to think about work in different ways, and I also try to call out some managerial BS we’ve all experienced. If that kinda sorta interests you, I do a newsletter every Thursday. Feel free to join up.

“Business journey” is also, oftentimes, a convenient way for managers to establish “sense of urgency” cultures or put employees on PIPs. “You’re not following our business journey,” a middle manager screeches, “so I’m sending you to HR.” In reality, aside from essentially inventing deliverables all day, that manager has no idea what the business journey is either. Don’t believe me? Read this research.

The business journey as storytelling

Business storytelling is really important to investors these days, so having a cool origin story and business journey would seem to play into that. A lot of dudes I’ve worked with, instead of developing these narratives, would rather spend 72 hours honing their pitch deck or jam up rows and rows of spreadsheet data than think about the actual purpose of their company and where it’s headed. I know most of us still compete on product, price, and process (people a distant fourth), but if you buy Simon Sinek, the “start with why” deal begins with company purpose. What is the business journey here, honestly?

A word on the role of managerial tricks

We love to deify the newest highly-valued startup on the block — Slack! — especially if it’s a productivity tool or something seen as “hacking work.” This is what we often ignore in those discussions. Many of these tools are designed to allow managers more “tricks” in their bag. Instead of talking to people and explaining priority, workflow, and issues — the business journey as it evolves, essentially — these software suites allow them to hide in portals and emails.

I realize we’re racing towards automation, and that’s cool from a cost perspective, but … the human element has been entirely ripped from management in a lot of ways. (It left HR in the last decade too.) As noted in that MIT quote above, “business journey” is another managerial trick. It allows bad managers to frame a narrative around a vague thing and use that narrative to force people into low-value, shallow work. None of us win in that equation.

What else would you add on business journey? Was I too negative here? Are some leaders framing up “business journey” correctly?

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