Two Business Legends: Urban Legends that Work at Work

Screen Shot 2015-11-01 at 7.51.26 PMBusiness legends are like urban legends; they are useful allegorical stories with questionable truths.

I’m sure you have heard of urban legends, stories that are not necessarily true, but believed and shared because they are short, entertaining, and culturally relevant. They can serve to help us justify a belief (a spider laid eggs in a camper’s cheek= it is rational to fear spiders), or support an objective (a tooth left in Coke overnight will be gone by morning= I don’t want you to drink so much soda.) I have found there are similar stories that are circulated in the corporate culture; I like to call them business legends, and I am fascinated by them! Here are two:

  1. The 70-20-10 Legend

Like urban legends, business legends are also stories that are not necessarily true, but are continually cultivated because they justify a business philosophy or objective. For example, business professionals who adopt the 70-20-10 model of learning tell the story of researchers who studied working adult learners. According to legend, these researchers were able to trace what employees learned back to how and where they learned it. The results: 70% of learning comes from on-the-job experiences, 20% from social experiences, and 10% from formal education. And while this model may give us the hard metallic taste of empirical data, it is squishy at best in origin (the best I could do was trace it to an 80/20 rule in a homeschool mom’s blog.) What thrills me about this from a linguistic perspective, however, is how incredibly useful it is to put these legends to work at work, regardless of how accurate they are. Like corporate speak (e.g., low-hanging fruit, or, don’t-let-the-grass-grow-too-long-on-this-one), the 70-20-10 model has evolved well beyond the legend; it has become a recognized symbol of situated learning, i.e., most of what we learn when we are at work is learned through our direct experiences while doing our jobs. And who can’t relate to this? It feels right, the shorthand works, so why not drink-the-Kool-Aid and use it to support your business’ philosophy?

2. The legend of the Crumbling Washington Monument

Another business legend I like is the one Six Sigma uses about the crumbling Washington Monument, a problem solved by turning off the lights. According to the business legend, The Washington Monument was falling apart because it had to be cleaned so often. Why? Because it was covered in bird droppings. Why? Because there were so many yummy spiders. Why? Because it was surrounded by a flurry of bugs. Why? Because it was illuminated by lights all night. This is such a delicious story that supports the benefits of deep analysis that I don’t even want to know if it is true or not! Alas, Joel Gross has done his research, and concluded that this story is not exact regarding how the monument crumbled, or how it was fixed. But at this point, does the accuracy of the story really matter if it serves its purpose?

In defense of all of those who use these business legends, I understand why you do; I do it as well. Business legends are succinct little analogies that bring us together. They are the low-hanging-fruit we use to quickly provide a common understanding, which is quite a feat in a business setting with vast cultural differences and habitus. They serve as a universal common ground, and are powerful tools in a culture of effective and efficient expedition. Why not run-one-up-the-flagpole yourself and see what happens?

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