14.08.2019 - Angus Dorney


common workplace sayings that people may think are smart, but they are actually dumb

Nobody likes a smart ass, especially at work. Yet, there are common workplace sayings that people may think are smart, but they are actually dumb – I call them “dumb-smart” phrases.

When it comes to driving positive change in large organisations, language often gives a good indicator of how someone is thinking - or not thinking - when it comes to innovation. I’ve picked out my top five list of most irritating “dumb smart” things people say. I reckon there are more out there too!

“That’s above my pay grade” – This is usually said with a knowing look and a shrug. The problem is it sounds like the person saying it is humble, circumspect, and even responsible. But it’s really just another way to pass the buck and is incredibly self-limiting. After all, if you only see yourself at a low pay grade, it’s unlikely you are poised to climb higher. Moreover, it limits the discussion, so that any hope of actually solving the issue with is curtailed. Why is this dumb? Because if that’s your attitude, it always will be. You’re basically saying “I’m a cog in the machine so why bother? The machine wins every time.”

“I told you that wouldn’t work” – I really hate this phrase. Just about all great business ideas come with risk and uncertainty. When developing and implementing innovative digital products, sometimes multiple iterations will be needed to get it right. While this process can look like its “not working”, high performing teams take the learnings from “failing safely” on board and make the next step even better. If you’re seeking to look smart by taking glory in someone else’s short-term failure —which this phrase implicitly does— then you’re going to inhabit long-term failure. People who sit back, avoid accountability and throw rocks at innovation are not as smart as they think.

“We should be using Blockchain/AI/IoT [insert latest tech buzzword]” – People might think they sound smart dropping the latest technology buzzword, but it’s not smart if you are trying to shoehorn it into your organisation. Using tech for tech’s sake is just dumb. The smart approach is to start with the customer problem and work backwards to solve it – in fact, sometimes the best solution doesn’t even require a buzzword technical component at all!

“We don’t care what our competitors are doing.” – While this might sound as though you’re embracing a virtue, taking the high road, living your bliss, what it actually signals is a willingness to bury your head in the sand. There’s nothing to gain and everything to lose by being ignorant of the competition. Take it from Sun Tzu, legendary Chinese general and philosopher: “If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat. If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle.”

“Are we just training our people so they can leave?” – Talk about defeatist. You should strive to have the best people in your business and to provide them with an inspiring journey. You want partners, not prisoners! If you’re worried about upskilling employees because they might take that education and leave, then you have a culture problem to go along with your untrained staff (by the way, your staff will leave anyway). Organisations that provide their humans with opportunities to grow and to learn are those that foster the highest levels of curiosity, creativity and innovation. Now that’s smart.

Look, I don’t want to sound too harsh. All of us have probably used these words or others like them at some point, but like any culture shift - and innovation is all about culture - sometimes it starts (or ends) with a single phrase. “Smart dumb” phrases don’t help anyone, especially the person who delivers the misguided wisdom!


Angus Dorney

co-CEO of Kablamo


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