10 Project Management Buzzwords and What They Mean


Jargon is how professionals or people within a specialized group talk. It’s like code or shorthand, really, a way to address specifics to their trade or interests. Think of it as special words or expressions that are opaque to most but clearly understood by those in the know.

But what if you’re not in the know? Then those buzzwords used by your coworkers can be hard to decipher. It might seem dense or, worse, a way to exclude people and make them feel outside of the process. But in truth jargon has a precise meaning; it’s not fluff but an efficient way to communicate and collaborate with your team.

Of course, communication is only effective when both parties speak the language. Therefore, as a start, we offer 10 of the top project management buzzwords from the jargon-heavy world of project management. While not all of these buzzwords are exclusive to project management, they’re used in our field, so we explain what they mean and why they’re important.

what do project management buzzwords mean?

1. Jump the Shark

Jump the shark comes from an old TV show, Happy Days. You might be too young to remember this sitcom that was developed from the hit movie American Graffiti, which followed the humorous trials and tribulations of teenagers in the rock-and-roll 1950s.

The term comes from a later season of the once-iconic and hugely popular program. As shows lose their appeal, the producers often will scramble to stir up interest by introducing new characters or outlandish plots. For Happy Days that meant having its juvenile delinquent star, Henry Winkler who played Fonzie, jump a tankful of sharks on his motorcycle.

Therefore, the meaning of jump the shark is when your endeavor is no longer successful. Worse than the task or project being a failure is the fact that you’re possibly pushing a bad idea further than it can travel in hopes that it will eventually get to where you want.

2. Bandwidth

Bandwidth is a word that indicates the range of frequencies within a given band, such as when transmitting a signal. But in terms of business use, it applies to the energy or mental capacity required to deal with a situation or task.

The term grew out of the narrow field of radio electronics to mainstream use with the proliferation of the internet. With its transition into the vernacular, the word began to be used as a substitute for time, such as “I don’t have the bandwidth to do that now,” rather than indicating energy or mental capacity.

3. Paradigm Shift

A paradigm shift is something that comes along and changes everything, especially thought processes. The term comes from a book called The Structure of Scientific Revolution by Thomas Kuhn, and it was jargon related strictly to the hard sciences. It defined how after a period of relative peace is interrupted by intellectual revolutions, which replace one way of thinking with another.

In project management, however, the term paradigm shift is used when dealing with change management. That is, when one method is exchanged by another method.

4. Scope Creep

While the above examples can be found in other professions and even common speech, scope creep is exclusively a project management buzzword. Scope is the work that must be completed to complete a project successfully. Creep is to quietly sneak up on someone, usually with bad intentions.

When the two words meet its not hard to figure out what they mean as a couple. It’s basically when there are changes that occur in a project’s scope during the execution of the project. Scope creep is usually the result of a project that is not clearly defined, documented or controlled.

As jargon goes, scope creep is very expressive. It’s easy to picture some nefarious character lurking about and forcing the project beyond its original parameters. Like the bogeyman it recalls, project managers are always on the lookout for scope creep as it can be disastrous for the project’s success.

5. Get One’s Ducks in a Row

You’ve probably heard this one, which simply means having things organized efficiently so that you can proceed effectively. It has been part of managerial jargon since the 1980s, but its origins stretch back farther than that.

Researchers have found it being used as early as 1932, when it appeared in the Washington Post of June 13, in reference to the depression and how it was critical to get one’s ducks in a row to get out of that economic quagmire. But that wasn’t the first reference, which can be traced back to a paper called The Plaindealer on November 15, 1889 in an article about democrats working on a strong ticket for an upcoming election.

Where does the term come from? That’s a matter of debate. It could be when playing pool, when sinking a ball in the front of a pocket is called a duck because it’s easy, or it could be from the fairway game of shooting mechanical ducks in a row. Or maybe it’s observational, as when baby ducks follow their mother in a line.

6. Scalable

Scalable is being able to change size. It applies to a business, project or situation that has room to grow. So, it means your project can adapt as necessary to grow or contract. It might also be applied to resources, such as when a team is asked if they can be scalable, meaning they can handle more work.

7. Deliverables

Often jargon is just replacing one word with another. It’s a way to make the meaning of the word feel exclusive to the industry or work you’re doing. Such is the case with deliverables, which means the product that will be delivered at the end of the project. This is a word that feels at home in a project but seems obscure outside of the profession.

8. Mission Critical

It sounds like a knockoff of Mission: Impossible, but it’s not nearly as exciting, though it can be very stressful. When referring to something as mission critical in a project, you’re referring to a part of the project that is essential and can’t be removed.

There are always tasks that aren’t as much of a priority as others. These tasks can be eliminated or delayed if the schedule is tightening and a project manager needs to squeeze more time to get other, more important things done.

Mission critical tasks are off the table when you’re trying to manage tasks or delete them. Mission critical tasks are those that must be done.

9. Synergy

When the creation of the whole is greater than its parts, you have synergy. The idea has been around for a long time. The word comes from the Greek meaning working together.

The idea of synergy was first popularized in the field of physiology as far back as the 19th century. But it has since developed into a cornerstone of corporate culture where it refers to merges or acquisitions that lead to financial gain.

In management it speaks to teamwork and how the combined efforts of individuals will lead to success. But synergies can also be negative if the union leads to a negative effect on the operation, quality, etc.

10. Sprints

A sprint is a short distance that is run at full speed. That’s the track and field definition. But in project management the word has come to be applied to the Agile way of thinking about a project. It is used in Scrum, which is a popular Agile framework in software development.

A sprint in this context is an iteration, or a short duration of usually a week or no longer than a month to work on a specific effort. Sprint refers to workflow, both in action, planning and review. Its relation to the type of running is obvious, as teams work hard and fast to get something done.

Knowing the jargon of your industry is one way to become fluent in it. Another is having the tools to make it easier to do your job. ProjectManager.com is a cloud-based software that has features that makes project management more efficient and productive. With real-time dashboards to measure and report on progress and online Gantt charts to visualize schedules, ProjectManager.com makes you a more effective manager. See for yourself by taking this free 30-day trial.

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