2020’s most overused business metaphors

We are exposed to them on a daily basis . . . business metaphors that are either now completely nonsensical or have been repeated so often they have completely lost any meaning.

You know them: “Let’s drill down . . .”, or perhaps, “We first need to pick the low hanging fruit”, or maybe “he’s been drinking the business Kool-Aid”

Unfortunately, these initially useful metaphors have become so embedded in modern business culture they are now more difficult to eradicate than a grove of rampaging bougainvillea.

Don’t get us wrong, we love a good metaphor. They are a great tool, an extremely useful shorthand that vividly expresses an idea or concept in amazingly few words.

The problem begins when they are embedded and repeated ad nauseum to the point where these originally clever metaphors have been ground down into worn out clichés.

That’s the moment when everybody stops listening.

One way to weed dead metaphors out of the business vocabulary is to call them out – and then vote them out.

Here’re our top ten overused terms. We want your say on which is the most irritating – the one that is now dead to you.

  • Low hanging fruit. Describes the easy and quick wins that are accruable to a new body of work. Provides a sense of momentum and achievement – before progress starts to bog down.
  • Window of opportunity. A perennial candidate. It’s been around for a long time and shows no sign of slowing down. Basically means, “we haven’t got much time to take advantage of X”.
  • Drill down. Has its origins in the resource industry where retrieved core samples inform geologists about what’s going on under the surface. In a business sense, there’s “gold” to be discovered in the analysis behind a company’s performance statistics or other data.
  • Corporate values. What’s the problem? Well, people have values, entities don’t.
  • Lots of moving parts. An apt description for a project, program or other complex body of work with numerous components.
  • Drinking the Kool-Aid. A sarcastic reference to a true believer who may have synthesised the company line without critical examination. The historic context is more disturbing and refers to the 1978 Jonestown (Guyana) mass suicide where some 900 cult members are said to have drunk poisoned cordial on command from their leader, Jim Jones.
  • Boil the ocean. Doing (or not doing) a lot of work for a small return ie “We don’t need to boil the ocean on this one”.
  • Reach out. Wow, this one would have to be a candidate as a daily offender. How many of us find ourselves continually “reaching out” to all manner of stakeholders? (While we’re at it – isn’t it about time to retire “stakeholders”?)
  • Take offline. Apparently, we’re all living in either a digital or analogue world. In a business context going “offline” usually refers to some colleagues needing a separate meeting or communication beyond the one they are actually in at the time.
  • Best practice. This one has been around for as long as “window of opportunity”, but does anybody really have an idea of what is global “best practice” in any particular area of business? Who measures best practice and how? How can it be applicable to all kinds of scenarios? Has it become an unchallenged lip service standard?

Here are some others that jostled for nomination:

Swim lane, scalable, synergise, bandwidth, robust, leverage, solution, ecosystem, bleeding edge, ducks in a row, think outside the box, move the needle, peel the onion, take it to the next level.

Don’t see your favourite? Let us know what you’d add to our list.


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