Mar 1, 1996 12:00 PM,
Ted Uzzle, Editor
Cliche is a wonderful word. It originated in French about 1820 meaning a cast, solid printing plate that included an entire page or multiple pages to be printed. Magazines are still printed from cast plates of many pages, so in an ironic sense S&VC, and all other mass-printed magazines, are made from cliches. That is still the primary meaning of cliche in French, although later in the 19th century it acquired the secondary meaning of a photographer’s negative from which many prints may be made.
Cliche emerged in English about a century ago as a term of literary criticism. It means a trite or hackneyed phrase or attitude, saving its lazy user the bother of sincerity or careful thought. This meaning has traveled from English back to French, a dubious contribution of our language to theirs.We all use cliches to add a tiny bit of emphasis. Some things are old; those even older are compared to the hills. Some things are done thoroughly; for even greater care, we turn stones.
In the age of the sound bite, we live in a cliche-ridden, cliche-driven world. That’s not just a literary objection. So many of the cliches are wrong; we are deceived and led astray. Let’s consider some cliches.Cliche‚: People don’t read anymore. According to the American Bookseller’s Association, more book copies are sold today per capita than at any previous time in American history. That doesn’t prove those buyers are reading all those books, but they are spending the money.
Just in the subject of electronic systems design and installation, consider the number of books and magazines available today compared to 25 years ago. I challenge the cliche: More reading is going on than ever before.
Cliche‚: Our company is market-driven (or customer-driven). Most companies are competitor-driven. Nothing is particularly wrong with that. So profound is the addiction to cliche‚ that you’ll get a bloody nose if you say so. Other companies are technology- and invention-driven, the gyro gearloose companies. Our industry has a few capital-driven companies. Hardly a single customer-driven or market-driven company exists anywhere.
I challenge the cliche: Very few companies are customer-driven. The most direct evidence I can offer is this: Look at the way companies treat their own employees who deal with customers. Sales positions have turned into temporary work. What about marketing positions back at the factory, those who are hired to treat you as customers? Look how many companies are engaged in corporate bulimia in their marketing departments: binge and purge, binge and purge, binge and purge.
Cliche: A need for our business (or our jobs) will always exist. It’s time for all of us to wake up and smell the homeless. In 1989 503,000 bank tellers were employed in the United States. Four years later 446,000 were, and it’ll be down to 223,000 by the year 2003. In 1956 250,000 telephone operators were in the United States. Today they number 60,000, and that figure is still dropping.
Right away that tells us how customer-driven the banks and the telephone operating companies are. But look deeper: Neither bank tellers nor telephone operators would have foreseen the combination of technological, regulatory and business imperatives that would thin their herds. Our businesses, as we know them, will disappear in our lifetimes. The only arguments are about how long and into what.Cliche: When you stop growing, you start dying. The damage this cliche has done to American business is inconceivable. Samuel Gompers, the great builder of the American labor movement, was asked, “What does labor want?” He replied, monosyllabically and famously, “More.” A century later American business has adopted this as its prime directive.
I challenge the cliche. Here’s an ancient cliche about businesses that go bust: the buggy-whip manufacturer that didn’t diversify. Yes, well, I challenge that one, too. In your own experience you’ve seen great companies, market leaders, slide into obscurity. How many did so because they failed to expand? How many did so because they were so busy expanding they neglected the core business? How many stripped resources from their core business to bankroll expansion? “Mind the store” will always be fabulous business advice.
It’s a cliche to say we live in a new age. We need clear vision and careful thought to survive. We need to end the worship of cliches.