You can't think out of a box built of TLAs

-April 01, 2016

You're in a meeting and the presenter uses as TLA that you don’t recognize. Do you:

  1. Stay quiet, pretend that you know the TLA because everyone else seems to.
  2. Risk being called out as the ignorant novice by asking the speaker to define the TLA.
  3. Recognize that if you don't know the TLA, at least 20% of the others don’t either, so you ask the speaker to define the TLA so the meeting isn't a waste of time.
  4. Ask for a definition of the TLA and tell the speaker to avoid industry jargon and other NIH symptoms so that the company geniuses, like you, can unleash their creativity.

Since it happens so often, most of the time we go with (a) Just ride it out and hope that you decipher what the TLA means before you’re called out.

Jargon is a necessary evil that is too often mistaken for the language of experts. Speaking in jargon specific to a company or an industry can give the illusion of speeding things along. But do the extra two syllables spent saying "printed circuit board" instead of PCB or "analog-to-digital converter" instead of ADC really waste that much time and energy?

Do you believe that if someone doesn't understand the jargon of your field that this person can't contribute?

It's an easy trap to fall into, especially for those who have just learned the language. After all, if you don't know what TLA stands for, how can you possibly contribute to a discussion of TLAs?

Cartoon by Ransom, used with permission.

The problem is that people are too fond of creating internal languages, inside jokes, fraternities, and cliques. But, closed societies are good at just one thing: building walls to keep others out.

In the 21st century, every profession and nearly every vocation relies on the ability to innovate. If we know one thing about creativity and innovation, it's that innovation emerges when concepts from one field are introduced to a disparate field; when established methods from one discipline are modified for a different discipline. Here’s how Marc Tucker, CEO of the National Center on Education and the Economy put it:

One thing we know about creativity is that it typically occurs when people who have mastered two or more quite different fields use the framework in one to think afresh about the other. Intuitively, you know this is true. Leonardo da Vinci was a great artist, scientist and inventor, and each specialty nourished the other. He was a great lateral thinker. But if you spend your whole life in one silo, you will never have either the knowledge or mental agility to do the synthesis, connect the dots, which is usually where the next great breakthrough is found.

In other words, lateral thought is the birthplace of innovation and creativity and it tends to happen when people switch fields.

Unfortunately, it's hard to switch fields, especially if your new field has a particular affection for TLAs—of course, every field likes its own jargon. Job descriptions for every profession end with a litany of TLAs. The beautiful irony is that human resources software filters resumes that contain the desired TLAs and HR officials might know what the TLAs stand for but rarely know what they mean.

Almost 15 years ago, a research physicist joined a high tech firm. His research background centered around developing techniques for finding weak signals buried in loud noise; he called them optimization algorithms and he had a whole catalog of TLAs for them. One day, a sales engineer asked him to accompany her on a customer visit. The customer’s company faced huge product delays because they lacked expertise in signal optimization. The sales engineer introduced him as an expert who could help right now, today. Sighs of relief emanated from one end of the conference table and skeptical looks from the other. The customer began a PowerPoint presentation that was rife with TLAs. As the so-called expert option (a), “stay quiet, pretend that you know the TLA because everyone else seems to,” was not an option. What could I do? I took Option (b), "risk being called out as the ignorant novice by asking the speaker to define the TLA."

The executives who had released sighs of relief gasped in horror, some of the engineers who had offered skeptical looks nodded knowingly as if in a fit of schadenfreude: “Ha, this so-called expert knows less than I do!” But one engineer leaned back and whispered, like a ventriloquist, DFE stands for decision feedback equalization. The TLA unveiled was still jargon; I wasn't sure what the decision was or what equalization really meant, but with a little context I had no trouble winging it.

I solved their problem by modifying a type of MEM so that it would reconstruct noisy digital signals.

I've used this space to advocate for diversity before (and I will again). We're after diversity of ideas and those come from people with diverse backgrounds. Hiring people because their resumes are littered with the TLAs of your field can fill a position, but you probably won’t get the talent necessary to disrupt an industry. Great meritocracies draft players based on how good they are, not on the positions they play.

Be that annoying dude! Be that pushy dame! When someone uses jargon that you don't understand, or that you suspect someone in the room doesn’t understand, go with option (d): ask for a definition of the TLA and tell the speaker to avoid industry jargon and other NIH symptoms so that the company geniuses, like you, can unleash their creativity.

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