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Phrases to ban from the language

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From now on, nobody is allowed to say:

“It’s really very simple.”

No. It’s not. I don’t care what the subject is — ethics, the cloud, implementing business strategy, system administration, or Mideast policy. If you think it’s simple, it just means you don’t know enough about the subject to understand how complicated it is.

“Do the right thing.”

Weren’t you listening? Ethics isn’t simple. What you think the right thing to do is just might not match what I think the right thing is to do.

Example: You have two employees. One has been the annual winner of the Mother Theresa act-alike contest five years running but codes so slowly the company’s business strategy will change twice before her modules pass UAT. The other writes perfect code that makes business users ecstatic as if he was taking dictation, but was runner-up in last year’s Worst Person Alive competition, in part because of his personal blog, Kicking Spaniels When Nobody’s Looking.

You have to downsize by one. Which one goes? You’re certain that’s the right thing to do? Really?

“Best practice.”

If you use this phrase you haven’t read the KJR Manifesto. Time you did.

In the meantime, please stop asking me to assess your business processes as compared to best practices.

Look. If there was such a thing as best practice, you could just buy a copy of Best Possible Process Designs and tell your process managers to organize work this way.

Take a process. Any process. On paper, sketch out how you’d organize it to maximize throughput. Now, on a different sheet of paper, sketch out how you’d organize it to minimize your capital investment and fixed operating costs.

If they look anything alike, you’re either a genius at process design or you know nothing about the nature of optimization.

There are no best practices. Only practices that fit best.

“You know what I think?”

There are only two possible answers to this question, yes and no. If I answer no, you’ll tell me, and your opinion will probably start, “It’s really very simple.”

So my safe answer is yes, which could only be honest if you’ve already explained your thinking about whatever subject it is. If you have, there are only two possibilities: I remember, or I don’t. If I do, you don’t have to explain it again. If I don’t, I obviously didn’t think it was worth remembering last time.

What makes you think repetition will make me change my mind?

“That’s how I was raised.”

Oh, so you’re blaming your parents? You are, by now, presumably an adult. Take responsibility for your opinions, please. Also your moral code and your choice of religion. If, as an adult, you continue to blindly follow whatever instructions your parents gave you as a child, I doubt you’re interesting enough to pay attention to as an adult.

You probably were a boring child too, for that matter. But I don’t blame you. That’s how you were raised.

“I’m the kind of person who …”

Stop right there, please, because I’m the kind of person who divides all of humanity into two kinds of people, those who divide the world into two kinds of people and those who don’t.

Now … what category of humanity were you saying you belong to? And please tell me, assuming I care what sort of person you are, why would you think I’d find your assertions about yourself to be credible?

If I want to know what kind of person you are, I’ll ask you for references.

Or else I’ll pay attention to what you actually do.


As in, the “pro-choice crowd.” Or the “gun rights crowd.” Or the any-position-someone-wants-to-disparage crowd.

“Crowd” is a handy way to sway an audience to your cause when you have no actual evidence or logic to present, right up there with “some” (“Some will tell you the earth is round.”) and the ever-popular “them” as ways to dehumanize those who disagree with you.

“There’s a reason we have rules.”

Yes, there is a reason for every rule we have. And wouldn’t it be lovely if everyone who blindly enforces rules kept those reasons in mind instead?

See, rules are blunt instruments. More often than not they fit the circumstances, but there are times they don’t. We call those times “exceptions.” If you don’t believe in exceptions, you’re clearly the kind of person who prefers memorization to thinking.


I actually saw this not long ago, but thankfully its use has declined since the Sopranos left the air. Consider it a placeholder for every trendy phrase writers toss into their prose on the theory that borrowed wit is still witty.

It isn’t.

Some things really are very simple.

Comments (9)

  • Great column, Bob!

    I would like to adopt a more nuanced stance on “It’s really very simple”, though.

    I understand that you’re talking about is when people who view a complex thing as simple through complete ignorance, like the client who says “Building a new web site for my company is really very simple. Just some code and stuff and there you are! Nothing to it!”.

    There is another phenomenon that occurs when studying a field. At first, it looks simple because you see only the bare outline of it, or what you think is the outline. As you dig into it, you see that it’s really got a lot of complexity to it that you had not seen before.

    But then, something interesting happens. It gets simple again. This is caused by learning the basic laws governing the area and seeing how each new fact fits into the overall scheme. Soon, new facts can be slotted in easily and unknown facts can be inferred by seeing how the framework is populated (or not populated). This is the point where you’re “getting it”.

    Of course, this only applies to a field of study that is actually governed by overall principles, as opposed to whimsical arbitrary dictums passed down by someone. But then, even in that case it’s really very simple – get the hell out of there!

  • I agree with a lot of what you said, but there is such a thing as do the right thing. Usually, you know exactly what the right thing is, but are afraid to say it or implement it. Doing the right thing may be many things, but it’s seldom blindly following a rule.

    As a black kid growing up on Chicago’s, us black folks almost always knew what the right thing was with respect to black white race relations. It was very frustrating watching JFK not do the right thing by not pushing any major civil rights act. Or, Barack Obama counsel the black Harvard professor not to pursue legal redress for the violence done to him by a white cop with a history of racist behavior towards blacks.

    Doing the right thing often takes real courage, but there are times when you really don’t have enough information and perspective to have that internal sense of what the right thing is. As I see it, doing the right thing is really a mystical process, rather than a calculation. You could see it as a black spin on Kant’s categorical imperative.

    I can imagine the WWII Nazi general Albert Kesselring, at some point realizing that the murder of Jews and others by his fellow Nazis was completely unacceptable, but not being at all clear what actions constituted the right thing. Actually, the right thing would have been to violate his soldier’s code and assassinated Hitler at his earliest opportunity. His colleague Rommel came to that conclusion, but that would be a bitter and problematic choice to make, though looking back at 70 years later, I think it would have been the right one.

    So, I guess I would say your comments only apply rarely, but it’s to notice when they do apply.

    • I’m sure there are times when the right thing is evident. My experience is that usually, the wrong thing is what’s evident. What’s the right thing to do? Much more complicated most of the time.

      • For me, it’s when my “do the right thing” instincts don’t resonate with what my head is telling me what should be the right thing to do. Very tough, at that point. My personal “go to” tactic is to ask people I trust who have a different style of doing things, but get results I value, for their take. But even then, I don’t always get the clarity I hope for. At that point, I don’t usually find cliches very helpful. Thanks for your response.

  • Love love love it! I’ve read your column for years and never, until now, did I deem it necessary to comment. This is brilliant. I agree completely.

  • I would like to add two additional phrases;
    “take it to the next level” and “just sayin'”.

    I hope this takes your column to the next level. Just sayin’.

  • You said “What makes you think repetition will make me change my mind?” in response to phrase You know what I think (which I definitely think should be banned you know).

    Repetition works to change people’s minds. It’s in one of those management books. Seven times to repeat is supposed to work. It’s one of them there CEO thangs.

    And it doesn’t have to work on you or on everybody; it just has to work on enough of the crowd to be effective, like anything evolutionary.

    • Yes, the seven-by-seven rule: Explain something seven different times in seven different ways. As I understand it, this is to get people to understand something, which isn’t quite the same thing as persuading them.

  • Another phrase I would like to the see banned is “Can’t you just…” While we technologists do like to overcomplicate things from time to time, the condescension in “Can’t you just…” grates on my nerves every time I hear it.

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