In my first office job, we kept a box on a desk. It was a very ordinary box, except we had painted it white and written “THE BOX” on it in big letters. Now and then people asked us what it was for and we’d say, “Ah, that’s the box we’re thinking outside.” Most people got the joke—poor as it was—but sometimes a visitor would be enthused and excited. “That’s great.” They might say, “That’s really helpful.”
I’ve maybe heard “thinking outside the box” used without irony twice or three times in my life—I’ve not seen it in the wild for a decade. More often, I’ve heard it used as stand-in for a whole horde of metaphors, euphemisms, twists of jargon and pinches of wishful thinking that you might collectively describe as “business speak.” It’s a world of helicopter views over blue skies, drill downs and bleeding edges, a world where we touch base on issues before the close of play but are always, always taking things forward.
For as long as this world has existed it’s been ridiculed, the softest of targets—a low-hanging fruit, you might almost say. Ask a newspaper comment box to name the worst excesses of management speak and you’ll unlock a flood of cathartic mockery, contempt and sheer spleen—not to mention a fair haul of eyeballs, which makes the fearless assault on biz-speak one of those pieces that keeps on being written.
Meanwhile the language itself continues, with brass-necked imperviousness to ridicule. After reading a half-dozen or so pieces from the last decade mocking it, I started to feel that perhaps business speak was being hard done by. Some of it is leaden—”key” as an adjective, the ubiquitous “learnings”—and some is fussy, but there’s a compact, vigorous metaphoric sense to much business language that deserves better than contempt.
Think for a second about the much-derided “blue-sky thinking”—a variant on “outside the box” that encourages knowledge workers to think laterally or creatively. Strip it of context and overuse and it’s a lovely phrase, conjuring lying on one’s back on a summer’s day, or the freewheeling motion of birds in flight. You could substitute “imaginative” for “blue sky,” or “get to the bottom of” for the aggressive “drill down,” but you’d be missing the point. Most of this language originates with trying to spark people into seeing an everyday task—problem-solving or researching—with fresh eyes. On Twitter I saw one marketing academic rail against a press release for not using “everyday words” to describe a particular technique. “Evolved” was one of them. [...]