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The computing field is always
in need of new clichés

                        Alan J. Perlis
                        American Computer Scientist 1922-1990

Any great truth can, and eventually will, be expressed as a cliche...

                        Solomon Short
                        A Fictional Character in "War Against the Chtorr"
by David Gerrold, Author

ACM DL Author-ize serviceThe business of software: The cliché defense
Phillip G. Armour
Communications of the ACM - Barbara Liskov: ACM's A.M. Turing Award Winner, 2009

The Structure of the Cliche

A management Cliché is a fine device.  Using it, an initiator (the “cliché-er”) can simply and effectively attain superiority over the unfortunate target (the “cliché-ee”).  I know of whole organizations that are run primarily on clichés though not, of course, run effectively.

But from a systems and data structure point of view what are the key attributes of a cliché?

  • Brevity: must be sound bite size.
  • Scope: covers a wide range of human activity with few words.
  • Specific = Non-Specific: it should sound specific and focused, but really not actually say much.
  • Style over Substance: see “Affect over Effect” below.
  • Affect over Effect: see “Style over Substance” above.
  • Truth: it should have a veneer of truth, just to make it hard to argue against.
  • Effort: It should require significant effort on the part of the recipient (the cliché-ee).
  • No Effort: it should not require any effort on the part of the deliverer (the cliché-er), except for spouting the cliché.
  • Success: any success in resolving the cliché should accrue to the cliché-er.
  • Failure: that would be an implementation problem and is clearly the fault of the cliché-ee.
  • Status: it must strongly reinforce the status of the cliché-er over the cliché-ee.

How to Defend Against a Cliché

The Cliché: Do it right first time
If it really is the first time, we probably cannot do it "right" because:

  • We don't know how to do itbecause it is the first time.
  • We may not know a priori what "right" isbecause is is the first time
  • Doing it "wrong" may be the best (or only) way to figure out how to do it "right"

The Cliché: Work smarter not harder
This is a pretty sneaky cliché.  The defense is:

  • If we were smart enough to know we're not working smart enough, and...
  • If we were smart enough to know there was another, smarter way of working, and...
  • If we were smart enough to know how to transition from the not-very-smart way of working to the smarter way of working...
  • We'd already be doing it.

So clearly, we are not smart enough to work smarter.

The Cliché: Quality is the most important thing

  • Just what is quality?
  • Who can provide us with guidance on this in advance (as opposed to second-guessing after the event).
  • Are we prepared to do what we need to do to obtain the quality we say we must have?
  • Are we prepared to balance the other "most important" attributes of the product against quality (such as cost, delivery date, etc.)?

The Cliché: Our customer are the most important thing

  • Are we identifying all the customers?
  • Have we built the appropriate customer data-collection and customer facing systems and relationships necessary to treat the customer as the most important thing?
  • Are we appropriately balancing supporting the future customer needs against the current customer needs, say by building capability in our people and extensibility in our systems?

The Cliché: Our people are the most important thing
Few clichés have the power to generate a cynical response quite like this one.  It often telegraphs a blatant attempt at control that insults our intelligence.  Defend by:

  • Do we really provide our people with all they need to do the job?
  • This includes: material, information, resources (including time and budget), motivation, support, guidance, clear goals, appropriate rewards, consistent support processes, etc., etc., etc.

If not then it's just, well, a cliché


The Cliché Defense