Woolly thinking and Wollongong Snails

Before I get on to woolly thinking and the destruction of the English language I have some news just in from ‘down under’. A new class of molecules adapted from the white rock sea snail  could help fight off cancer cells, according to new research from the University of Wollongong and the Illawarra Health and Medical Research Institute. Of course it is early days and it could be five to ten years before any new drugs are available.  These new molecules killed 100% of drug-resistant lab-grown cancer cells in 48 hours, ten times the effectiveness in the same time of one existing chemotherapy drug used against breast cancer.

The molecules were reported to be particularly potent against colorectal, prostate and breast cancers. They are in the pre-clinical trial phase of development. The lead researcher Dr Kara Perrow said “These drugs could be used as the next-in-line therapy after the first round of chemotherapy fails, as a completely new therapy to replace the current standard of care, or used in combination with a number of anti-cancer drugs to reduce the chance of multi-drug resistance arising.”

So good news for the longer term, but I am going to switch to the present and past and talk about something that is nothing to do with cancer other than the cancer of woolly thinking.

Years ago I remember coming out of a meeting thinking that for the first time for months I was dealing with somebody who was clear-cut and direct in his thinking and explanations. No management-speak; perhaps it was significant that he was an engineer in a management position not just a manager.  I didn’t entirely agree with his conclusions but could respect them (and him). This memory came to mind recently when I saw a comment which immediately set my woolly thinking alarm bells ringing. It was “I now need to make sure those lessons are learnt going forward.” ‘Going forward!’ – what does that add to the sentence. Absolutely nothing. You are not going to learn lessons going backwards or sideways are you? All it does is make my hackles rise.

I have always though that clear thinking and good English go together and that over-reliance on current management-speak is an indicator of woolly thinking. So here is another hackles-rising sentence “We will feedback to anyone who isn’t able to come on the outcomes”. How long has feedback been a verb? Why ‘outcomes’ rather than ‘results’?  If he was thinking clearly rather than hiding behind jargon he would have said “If you can’t come to the meeting I will let you know what happened.”. Direct, personal and good English.

Then in management-speak we find TLAs and FLAs (Three Letter Acronyms and Four Letter Acronyms if you were wondering). For years I wondered what DKNY emblazoned on clothing meant until in a flash of inspiration I realised it must mean Don’t Know Nuthin’ Yet!  TLAs (and FLAs) are a useful tool for keeping outsiders confused and often are used to herald a new initiative.

Any such new initiative would cause a colleague to remark “I see the chief executive has got to Chapter 3 of  Management for Dummies“. MBWA is a favourite of new incumbents. They decide that it is important to be seen in the business and so will walk around getting noticed. Sometimes they may actually talk to people. The rare few may also listen. This is Management By Walking About. It gives the manager a warm feeling while unnerving staff. This effect wears off after time and then new initiatives have to be found (probably in Chapter 4).

But back to marmalised English and woolly thoughts.


Woolly thinking may also spill over into evading responsibility. In one case an executive had not taken certain actions which he should have done if he had followed his company’s Policies and Procedures.  So does he take responsibility?  You might think so when he writes “I also accept my responsibility . . . “  until  we finish reading the sentence:  “I also accept my responsibility in terms of the lessons that need to be learnt from the things that didn’t go well.” So all about learning lessons rather than taking responsibility for what happens.

Learning lessons has become popular ‘get out of jail free’ card when what is needed is to have a plaque on the desk saying “The buck stops here”. This seems to have been replaced by a picture of an unshorn sheep with the caption “Prevaricate, it’s better than facing facts”


In contrast my mind slips back to the Falklands War when Lord Carrington took full responsibility for the complacency and failures in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office to foresee the Argentinian invasion  and so resigned. An honourable man. Today’s politicians and jobsworths would bluff it out,  spread the blame and be determined that lessons needed to be learnt.

Is it too much to ask that we bring back clear thinking, good English, and acceptance of responsibility?


An antidote to management-speak is the reaction of the local MP to a (fatal) attack on a woman swimming just south of Cape Tribulation in far north Queensland. No mention of “learning lessons going forwards” or “feedbacking on outcomes”. Instead he told reporters “This is a tragedy but it was avoidable, you can only get there by ferry, and there are signs there saying watch out for the bloody crocodiles. If you go in swimming at 10 o’clock at night, you’re going to get consumed. People have to have some level of responsibility for their own actions.” A straight talking response to a sad event.

(This croc attack is put into perspective on Australian Geographic’s website.)

See the links below for the previous post – and the next one.


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