In the 25+ years I have been working in human factors I have seen a lot of supposedly new ideas given a catchy buzzword that does a good job of creating attention. I find myself going through this cycle every time a new one comes along:

  • That looks interesting – it could be really useful;
  • Hang on a minute, now I have looked at it I can see it is not really a new idea – I suppose a nifty title will at least get people talking;
  • People are talking but the discussion doesn’t seem to be going anywhere – a bit disappointing but I guess it can’t do any harm;
  • A few people have got really excited by the new idea – that’s OK because most people are sensible enough to see the limitations;
  • Now lots of people are discussing the idea – despite a lack of evidence or practical application;
  • The idea has become a distraction – people mistake the ‘noise’ created as a sign of credibility and are failing to actually do anything to address the real issues that need attention;
  • Oh well, I guess another buzzword will be introduced soon.

For a bit of fun I thought I would create a buzzword check-sheet – a handy tool to wield while you’re sifting through articles or tuning in to webinars. These words and phrases have earned their spots on the list for all sorts of quirky reasons.

Some of them have been used for many years, sound marvellous in theory, but, upon closer inspection have made very little tangible difference (3, 5, 10). Others are so vague that pinning down their actual meaning is impossible. They appear in sentences without ever truly revealing their relevance or benefit (4, 9, 12, 15).

Then there are those used by people who insist we’ve got big problems on our hands but fail to give any evidence to back up their argument (1, 14). Some merely slap a fresh coat of paint on practices that have been around for many years, but try to convince us that they offer something new and exciting. These little rascals can lead us down a rabbit hole of distraction when we should be focusing on practical solutions (7, 11, 13, 16).

And a couple of the words/phrases on the list seem to be commonly used in association with ineffective or downright counterproductive ideas (2, 6, 8).

The buzzwords currently on my list are

2Change the work not the worker
3Chronic unease
4Cognitive dissonance
5High reliability organisation (HRO)
6Human and Organisational Performance (HOP)
7Learning from normal work
9Psychological safety
10Safety culture
11Safety differently
12Systems thinking
13Safety 2
14There is no such thing as a root cause
16Work As Done vs Work As Imagined (WAD-WAI)
Buzzword check-sheet

While I’ve included this page in a light-hearted spirit, there is a serious underlying message. These buzzwords appear to be harmless linguistic quirks. But they can be powerful distractions that siphon resources away from time-tested, effective approaches.

In my line of work (major hazards), I’ve observed this phenomenon, but it appears even more pervasive in other sectors, with healthcare being a prime example. Although I haven’t directly worked in that sector I take an active interest in what is going on both as a potential patient and human factors professional. Whereas I can see numerous opportunities to apply well-established risk management methods what I actually see is a lot of poorly defined ideas with little evidence of practical application. This disconcerting observation underscores an urgent need to get away from buzzword driven initiatives and to prioritise tangible, proven solutions that can genuinely enhance outcomes and well-being.

Download the buzzword check-sheet here.