Take a deep breath

In which Dr Aust hails a vintage piece of Corporate-balls.

One of the occasional pleasures of blogging is the unexpected emails you get offering tip-offs or material, relating to something you have blogged about. For instance, my friend David Colquhoun, having written extensively about bogus B.Sc. degrees in Unreality, often gets plain-brown-envelope anonymous deliveries of material relating to such – usually, one assumes, from academics with an actual sense of responsibility who are ashamed of what their own institutions are doing.

Dr Aust, not being in the same celebrity skeptic bracket, does not get the same level of mole-mail, but nonetheless, things do appear from time to time. They sometimes come via people I know, but just as often from people I don’t.

Now, Dr Aust is a long time collector of vintage manager-bollocks, so it is a special pleasure to post the following photos, which arrived a few days ago, relayed on by a friend of a friend from an anonymous source somewhere deep in the bowels of Big Pharma.

Take a close look at these two pictures.

You might think this is a picture of a simple packet of sunflower seeds.

But you would be wrong.

Look closer.

The corporate PR-speak is unmistakeable.

“Igniting Passion”

“Unleashing potential”

“delivering benefit to our patients”

[Funny – I never knew that drug companies had “patients”. I thought that was doctors. Silly me]

And in case you can’t read it,  the smaller lettering in the top left hand corner reads:

“Inspire to Innovate”


I don’t know about “Inspire”, but it certainly caused me to take a large breath in. After I’d spent half a minute speechless with laughter.

Anyway, the answer is that it IS a packet of sunflower seeds, but it is also much, much more.

According to the accompanying email, this is a key part of a campaign to reinvigorate the innovative-ness of a Large PharmaCo’s Worker Bees.

The idea, I gather, is that the Worker Bee should plant these seeds in their garden, or window box, and then, as the sunflowers gradually emerge and grow, they will remind the Worker Bee to ignite their passion to “grow” new ideas from small seeds of innovation.

Or not.

Now, sunflowers are nice things to have in your garden, no question. But when you see stuff like this you do have to wonder if the company management think all their workers are completely brain-dead.

And as for the slogans….

“Inspire to Innovate”, in particular, is one of those  meaningless exhortatory mantras, dreamt up presumably by a PR consultant, that cause such eye-rolling in the sort of broadly cynical milieu that Dr Aust works in. Not that that means Universities are immune from the enthusiasm for such slogans, of course. One of Dr Aust’s former Faculty Deans, a genuinely nice and usually impeccably down-to-earth bloke, once had a rush of blood and told a Faculty meeting in apparent seriousness that he thought our new Faculty watchword should be:

“To Infinity – AND BEYOND!”

[This was many years ago now, when the movie Toy Story was just out].

A spate of alternatives soon emerged in the corridors and tearooms, as such things will:

“To Inanity – AND BEYOND!”

“To Insanity – AND BEYOND!”

And finally, one which comes back to mind especially in these latter days of uncertain University finances:

“To Insolvency – AND BEYOND!”

Now, it is one thing when the Boss dreams up one of these little bon mots half-way through a dreary meeting. It is another when a company has a PR department doing it, or pays a PR consultancy good money to “strategize” or “vision” or “futurize” and then come up with this sort of platitudinous nonsense. Do they really not have anything better to spend their money on?

Personally I find it almost impossible to imagine that anyone’s reaction is REALLY some variant on:

“Great. Super. I feel SOOOO STOKED to innovate!”.

I would be predicting something more like eye-rolling, followed by complete indifference.

Though perhaps the PR folk will be doing an impact assessment for their campaign? I can see the MCQ now:

When you received your “Innovation Pack” did you feel
A despairing
B embarrassed
C underwhelmed
D queasy
E all of the above

Because most people can see through vapid slogans.

Finally, whenever I see a slogan which has the form:

“[Imperative] [Verb]” (like “Inspire to innovate”)

I am reminded of this wonderful movie scene from my all-time favourite Clint Eastwood western, The Outlaw Josey Wales:

So perhaps there IS a message there, after all.

For if your employer is treating you to this kind of stuff, I sincerely hope that you, too, will endeavour to persevere.


PS  Getting serious for a moment, perhaps you may think that I am being a bit too negative. There is, dare I say it, little doubt Dr Aust is a grumpy old so-and-so, and he usually feels even grumpier in the Winter.  Anyway, the question of whether there actually IS a way to encourage people to be more “innovative” is sort of interesting.  There is a bit of discussion here, and some ideas in a video that Dr Grumble posted over here.

The not terribly startling message seems mainly to be to leave your more innovatively-inclined employees alone to get on with it. This is, of course, rather what Universities traditionally did until the Govt and University managers had the idea that it would be a good thing to start micro-managing everything. And having lots of “campaigns” and “initiatives”, of course. Anyway, watch the video if you are interested.

Suffice it to say, though, that sunflowers are not involved.


24 Responses to “Take a deep breath”

  1. stephenemoss Says:

    Love it. A post to raise a smile on this chill winter’s evening. It remains endlessly baffling why managers feel the need to come up with these inane exhortations, and it would be funny and harmless if it weren’t for the fact that it’s the overheads on the grants that we, the academics, generate, that get wasted on paying their salaries. Why don’t they understand that instructing staff to ‘inspire to innovate’ is about as likely to succeed as telling them to ‘expire to excavate’.

  2. Tweets that mention Take a deep breath « Dr Aust’s Spleen -- Topsy.com Says:

    […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Stephen Moss, Dr Aust. Dr Aust said: Blogpost: "Take a deep breath:" http://wp.me/p7r3S-lq Dr Aust receives a choice bit of managerial nonsense from an anonymous mole […]

  3. David Colquhoun Says:

    Best laugh/cry of the year so far. You got some real crackers

  4. Dr Zorro Says:

    “Never tell people how to do things. Tell them what to do and they will surprise you with their ingenuity.”
    General George S. Patton

  5. EricTheHalf Says:

    This brings back to memory the old story about the “Think!” campaign.

    There was even a “Think!” sticker over the sinks in the loo. Some wag stuck their own sign next to the soap dispenser. It said “Thoap!”

  6. Guy Chapman Says:

    I have spent quite a long time dealing wiht the attempts of Bircham International University to whitewash its article on Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bircham_International_University

    As a result I received a nicely written letter offering me an honorary doctorate from Bircham for services to the university! I did not take it up, perhaps I should have and then I could stand alongside Gillian McKeith.

  7. theoriginaljohnnyfantastic Says:


  8. Eileen Says:

    The niece who works in marketing (of alcohol) earns the same as the daughters who are a nurse and a paramedic combined. Not sure what that says really…

  9. apgaylard Says:

    Nice post, it strikes a chord. I once received a packet of forget-me-not seeds from the Institute of Physics. Try as I may I cannot remember where I’ve left them.

  10. draust Says:

    Thanks all for the comments. I must give most of the credit, though, to the A.N.Other Big PharmaCo.

    @Stephen M: I suspect a combination of that old favourite:

    “we must be seen to be trying to do something”

    (particularly true for managers on inflated salaries, I’m guessing) with

    “We’ve paid for this so I guess now we’d better use it….”

    (see reply to Eileen below)

    @Dr Zorro: Yes, one of my personal pet hates is bureaucracy fiends who get given a minor managerial role and then insist on trying to lay down, not just what the endpoint should be that you are aiming at (like “all exams for students get set and checked for accuracy and suitability”, to give a boring academic example) but also precisely how you should go about getting this done (who you should invite to a committee to spend hrs doing the checking, all Qs must go back to original setters to correct even minor and obvious misspellings etc etc). Many of these people I have met missed their calling as tax inspectors, or possibly traffic wardens.

    @EricTheHalf: I like the pun!

    @Elaine: Yes, I remember you saying that before. Depressing, though given the hordes of highly-paid spin doctors, PR flacks and marketing suits used to sell us how the country is run, one can’t be too surprised when people who market things you can actually buy get overpaid. I wonder if they actually get paid less, or sacked, though, when the marketing campaign doesn’t work? Hmm.

    I have a suspicion that once a company has paid a PR or “branding” outfits’s eye-watering fees for devising a “campaign”, they then probably have to use it simply to avoid losing face. And the PR people would then get paid either way.

    Which is of course a classic law of selling bullshit; you can either crow about the success, or on failure you can say:

    “Well, if only you’d paid for the FULL EXTENDED campaign that we recommended”.

    @AP: Why were the IoP sending you seeds?! Were they feeling neglected?

    PS Is your blog in permanent dormancy. BTW? I actually borrowed some of your old “Operation Rudolph” pictures for a talk on psuedoscience I was doing the other day

    @Guy Chapman: Had never heard of the outfit you linked to, but it looks very iffy. Our rule of thumb at the University of Gloomfield, as you would imagine, is that if somewhere is NOT accredited then we automatically would not accept its degrees as real. Years ago we used to have giant hard-bound compendia of “real Universities” that we would look institutions up in if we got (e.g.) postgrad applications from students listing degrees from places we had never heard of. Nowadays we just look on the internet.

    Sadly, though, as long as there are suckers out there, there will be people trying to take their money off them.

  11. apgaylard Says:

    The seeds were a ‘motivational’ reward for a years worth of interviewing and assessing CEng applicants. It’s a good job that my motivation for this role is not dependant on the IoP’s largess.

    Unfortunately I’ve not got the time/motivation for blogging at the moment; work is busy, doing lots of writing at work, so blogging feels like work not fun …. I hope to get back into it in the summer. Glad that some of my pictures were useful.

  12. Carl Says:

    > Personally I find it almost impossible to imagine that anyone’s reaction is REALLY some variant on:
    > “Great. Super. I feel SOOOO STOKED to innovate!”.

    I can easily imagine colleagues whose reaction would be to say exactly that. This would be the more sarcastic colleagues, of course. (Followed by the total indifference, and possibly even the eye-rolling, that you also mentioned.)

  13. draust Says:

    See what you mean, Carl. Perhaps I should have said “anyone’s sincere reaction”.

    Now you come to mention it, I guess my own reaction, had I worked there, might have been along those lines. Or possibly rolling about laughing.

    Actually, now I come to think of it, the risible

    “…”grow ideas” …hence plant seeds”

    – wheeze reminds me of the neglected Peter Sellers / Hal Ashby / Jerzy Kosinski movie classic Being There (movie trailer here, and a particularly apposite clip here).

  14. Nicholas Hayes Says:

    In terms of innovation, I suppose you could salt and roast ’em.

  15. Rob Says:

    Endeavour to persevere… Brilliant. Shows the long history of management bollocks.

  16. draust Says:

    @Nicholas Hayes – Ah – hadn’t thought of that. So perhaps giving them is a “Decision Making” training ploy too… * sigh *

    @Rob – Yes, it is pretty striking. Though I dare say that, as long as there have been anything resembling managers, there has been bullshit.

  17. MT Says:

    My experience has been that management often actively discourages innovation at the same time it is in theory all for it. Innovation changes things, gives people a good reason to ask for a pay rise, promotion, makes managers look less competent than their subordinates, makes them adjust work processes. Why innovate when you can make bucket loads shining your arse doing not very much?

  18. draust Says:


    I think that is a widely-held view amongst the “rank and file” – or possibly “those at the coalface” – in most organisations.

    Somewhat refreshingly, the boss at our place has recently sent out an open call for us to tell him

    “What things, that we make you do, waste the most time for you?”.

    I am looking forward to seeing what the replies come up with, though some of them – like “bureacracy” or “the HR Department” or “inputting the same information into multiple in-house census exercises”, or

    “us being made to fill in multi-part online forms to save administration from having to do some work”

    – are a racing certainty.

  19. Neuroskeptic Says:

    Ha ha! This is brilliant. But tragic. Brilliantly tragic.

  20. Julie Says:

    Hi Dr Aust,

    This is nothing to do with this post, but I’m looking for your post on the interactive map of trusts and how long it takes for them to do operations. I tried your wee search window, but I can’t find the button that actually makes it search. I know, I’m probably really stupid for that. Anyway, would appreciate it..

  21. draust Says:

    Doesn’t sound like anything of mine, Julie. Think you must be confusing me with one of the Medbloggers. You could try asking Dr Grumble if he remembers who had the map.

  22. Julie Says:

    Hi Dr Aust,

    Apologies; it was on Antifroth. You and Midgely have a similar blog layout and I got mixed up. Thanks anyway,

  23. Julie Says:


    This is the map, if you’re interested;


  24. draust Says:

    Thanks for the URL, Julie. Not sure I’ve got the mental energy to peruse it at the moment – it has been a long and tiring week at work (we do get them even in academia) and as I came through the door yesterday evening I discovered our two year-old busy succumbing to the seasonal norovirus. Anyway, I may print them out at work next week and show them to Mrs Dr Aust, provided she and I are not vomiting by then.

    Re. the blog layout, I do keep meaning to spruce it up and get a proper header image, but never quite get around to it. I fear this is yet another piece of evidence that procrastination is my biggest talent.

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