From the Los Angeles Times, reprinted in the Star Tribune: “As vast swaths of the Western United States recuperated from the second massive power failure in six weeks, federal energy officials called an emergency meeting for today to address whether the region’s energy grid has been overwhelmed by burgeoning demand.”

If we replaced “power” and “energy” with “Internet”, the Infobahn doomsayers would be going to town. “I told you so,” they would say. Those of us who had predicted the Internet’s continued survival would mill around shame-faced, looking for a place to hide.

As it happens, though, this was a power outage, and while the experts acknowledge a problem, nobody is predicting the collapse of the national power grid. When AT&T’s long distance service failed the east coast a few years back it caused some red faces but nobody used the term “collapse” then, either.

I don’t believe the Internet will collapse, as I’ve said before. I expect local outages, service slowdowns, and other annoyances. The dynamics of supply and demand will, in my naïve world-view, prevent catastrophic overload. (Not that I have a useful opinion on the subject – I know far too little about it.)

Regardless of what really happens, at year’s end we’ll see a spate of articles debating whether the Internet collapsed this year or not. The Cassandra contingent, having predicted collapse, will point to a long string of local service failures, lost e-mail messages, brownouts and other events to buttress its point of view.

The Panglossians, in their best of all possible worlds, will explain that these events were local outages not catastrophic collapses; that e-mail failures usually happen between the company firewall and e-mail server, and that lots of things suffer temporary outages without their being called collapses.

Eventually everyone will throw up their hands and chalk it up to semantics.

And that’s just not good enough.

Not because this subject matters the tiniest little bit. Except for figuring out who gets to gloat, deciding who was right and who was wrong has zero importance. No, it’s using “semantics” as a rhetorical escape hatch that bothers me. We all do it. That doesn’t make it a good alternative to resolving problems. In fact, it’s no better than “agreeing to disagree.”

How many times have you tried to wrestle a subject to the ground in a group setting, only to have some helpful soul say, “We’re just arguing semantics now, so why don’t we move on.” End of discussion, end of subject, matter closed.

Except it’s not closed. Semantics is the study of meaning, and when we argue semantics, we’re revealing differences in what we mean. Arguing about the “right” usage of a word may not be a productive use of time. Discovering that different members of a group have meant very different things when using the same words, though, reveals both lack of consensus and a communications breakdown. Closing discussion at this point ensures that nobody understands what anyone else means.

Making sure everyone understands what decision ended up getting made is important. So when you have an argument over semantics you should highlight it, decide on a common definition, and resolve the issue in question based on the newly agreed-to meaning.

And then you need to determine whether there’s a second issue that needs probing based on the alternative definition to whatever term or phrase was at the heart of a dispute.

Regardless, if you find yourself falling back on “it’s just semantics” very often, you ought to take a hard look at your decision process. Somewhere, you’ve missed a step.

* * *

On an entirely different subject, for those of you who felt I took cheap shot at Bob Dole a few weeks ago in my column on encouraging risk … I feel your pain.

Bob Dole, in presenting his proposed budget cuts, supposedly said, “I’m not betting the farm. I’m betting the country!”

Who wrote this? Dole isn’t betting the country, nor should he. We’re in pretty good shape in these parts, bucko, and you only bet the country if it’s on the verge of collapse. Otherwise the downside risk vastly outweighs the upside gain.

I’m not going to debate budgets, deficits, or tax policy, tempting as that may be. Form your own opinion and vote accordingly. Election-year nonsense sounds pretty similar to management nonsense, though, and management nonsense is my stock and trade.

Ever hear an executive talk about betting the company on a new strategy? I have. I figured it was a bunch of hooey intended to energize the troops, so I ignored it. Betting the company only makes sense for companies in untenable situations.

Any number of executives also say they want to encourage risk-taking among their employees. Encouraging risk is faddish right now, but unless your corporate leadership is sincere in wanting you to bet some of the corporate coffers, you can usually ignore this as just more ManagementSpeak.

How can you tell? Here are some telltale signs:

1. The capital spending approval process. Who approves it? What does it get approved for? And most significantly, does your company impose a fixed annual limit, or just a rough guideline?

Capital, if you’re not familiar with the concept, is money companies invest, as opposed to operating expenses, which are costs of doing business. When companies impose a fixed capital spending limit they’re far more likely to allocate that money to safe, cost-reducing investments than on riskier, revenue-enhancing ones. Companies looking to enhance revenue won’t let a pre-set budget limit get in the way of profits.

Companies that are tight with capital rarely encourage real risk-taking. It’s too … well, risky.

2. Non-managerial employees have no spending authority. Here’s a great message: we want you to take risks, but we don’t trust you with a twenty-five buck spending decision.

One of the great moments of my management career was when I delegated the whole budgeting process to each work team reporting to me. I was free! The scary part: the team was far tighter with a buck than I ever was, and they complained every time I sent out a purchase order without asking them first.

3. People have to “take responsibility for their decisions.” Well of course they should, and yes, people who do dumb things should be help accountable for having done them – if those actions really were dumb, irresponsible, or otherwise wrong-headed.

The phrase in question too-often ends up as a euphemism for fixing blame and punishing failure. Want to eliminate risk in your organization? Find someone who stuck his or her neck out and give them a poor performance appraisal because, with perfect 20/20 hindsight, you can see they made the wrong call.

Word will get around.

4. Promotions go to people who “get along well with others.” You want to promote risk-taking in your organization? Then promote risk-takers, so they have more influence over your organization.

Don’t make the mistake of promoting people just because they take risks. You don’t want gamblers running your company. Promote them for the character and judgment they’ve shown by taking a risk and being right (but don’t punish them for being wrong, unless it’s clear they made an avoidable mistake).

Remember the second rule of management, “Form follows function”? Here’s a perfect example. If you want to encourage risk-taking in your organization (and don’t gripe about your company leadership until you’re sure your own house is in order) make sure your social systems reinforce and reward it.

People will take risks if their expected reward from success greatly exceeds their personal risk from failure. As my grandmother used to say, “Actions speak louder than words.”

How come my grandmother was so much smarter than so many corporate executives?