What Does “World Class” Mean?

I heard the phrase “world class” three times today. I’ve decided to toss it on the scrap heap of “phrases that mean nothing to me anymore.” I’m finishing up Friedman’s The World Is Flat: A Brief History of the Twenty-first Century (which is awesome BTW – definitely a world class book – I’ll be done on my SF to Chicago trip Thursday night.) It dawned on me that the phrase “world class” isn’t indexed against anything. No one ever says, “that’s not world class, it’s American class.” While “China class” might refer to a room full of people studying Mandarin (or how China is whipping our American butts in education and so many other things), it doesn’t link in any meaningful way to the phrase “world class.” This is yet another phrase that the PR / marketing weenies have rendered irrelevant.

“We are building a world class management team. Our development organization is world class. We have a world class sales and marketing organization. Our company aspires to be world class.” C’mon – that means nothing.

In my first company, we talked briefly (I think about 60 seconds) about creating a mission “to be the best software consulting company in the world.” After all the MIT / Brown / Wellesley people in my company laughed (“hey Brad, who gives a damn about a stupid vague unattainable mission like that?”), I / we realized that vapid phrases didn’t inspire anything (except internal contempt). It took more than 60 seconds to come up with our mission, which was “We suck less.”

Now – “we suck less” means something. Our business was hard – if you were a provider or a customer / user of custom database applications in 1990, you understand what I mean.  We were usually the third or fourth company hired by our clients (our predecessors used up all the budget and then were fired because their stuff sucked) and the projects we were “starting on” were often already late and over budget before we even showed up at the party.

When we told our clients something like “we are better than the last guys”, they either groaned or laughed maniacally since they had already heard that a few times from the people that came before us. But when we told them “the thing we are doing is really hard, the guys before us sucked, but we are going to suck less and try our hardest to be successful for you” our clients usually related (at least when they laughed, it was with a smile on their face.)

We delivered more often then not. So – while we never achieved that elusive “world class” status, we definitely sucked less most of the time. And – when I wandered down the hallways saying “guys – focus on sucking less – that’s the key to our success”, people rallied a lot more than if I had shouted “we are going to be world class” from the rooftops.