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...
A Fictional Character in "War Against the Chtorr"
by David Gerrold, Author
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
- Specific = Non-Specific: it should sound specific
and focused, but really not actually say much.
- Style over Substance: see “Affect over Effect”
- Affect over Effect: see “Style over Substance”
- 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
―because it is the first time.
We may not know a priori what "right" is―because 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: Do it right first time
If it really is the first time, we probably cannot do it "right"
- We don't know how to do it
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,
- 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
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.
- Do we really provide our people with all they need to do the
- 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