April 28, 2010

WWIF #12: What If We Declared a Terminology Truce?

I believe deeply in the power of language.  I believe language is imbued with meaning and a few simple words can inspire action and commitment.  And I believe that words do have consequences.

That said, I find myself tiring of the periodic word wars waged to debate whether strategic planning is dead, visioning is worthwhile, or relevance is a sufficient goal.  The people waging these conversations have good intentions and raise important questions about the meaning behind some of the words.

But often these battles lead us to merely create new words, substituting one term for another, and adding more litter to the jargon wasteland that already invokes mass sighing at team meetings.  And while every new term introduced might let a consultant write a new book or deliver a new speech, it doesn't necessarily deliver comparable benefits to those leading organizations.

What if we declared a terminology truce?  Can we quit trading terms and acknowledge that any successful organization needs at least the following?
  • A meaningful reason for existing (purpose or mission)
  • A clear sense of organizational identity (brand or core values)
  • A challenging future result worth creating (BHAG or vision)
  • Programs and services of increasing value to stakeholders (innovation)
  • Steps for achieving the desired results (strategy or plan)
  • A framework for leveraging resources in pursuit of the results (operational plan) 
This is why we exist.  This is who we are.  This is what we want to create.  This is the value we'll deliver.  This is how we will challenge the status quo.  This is how we will do our work.  Isn't that the essence of organization?

And some terms involved in this process have become distorted over time through misuse.  Take vision for an example.  I understand that the mere mention of a vision might cause eye-rolling in some groups, yet any organization must determine where it wants to be at some point in the future and craft a picture of what those results look like. 

The fact that some people have a bad connotation with the word vision doesn't mean we should substitute a new word for an act that is important.  What it suggests perhaps is that we talk about why people react that way to the word, what experiences they have had that make them resistant or cynical about the value of a vision, what role a vision could and should play in shaping results, and how they would use vision to be a positive tool.

The words themselves are not the problem.  The meaning (or in so many cases, lack of meaning) behind them is what we need to address.  So let's spend less time talking about terms and more time making meaningful choices that move our organizations forward.  Call it whatever you want.  The basics have to be in place.

1 comment:

barbara said...

Thanks, Jeff, for always bringing clarity to issues. Nicely framed perspective on a critical but oft misunderstood facet of our work. For me, simplifying the language allows the authentic intent to be the focus, not the verbiage. I have seen groups rebel against language they perceive as too MBA like..."it isn;t who we are".
Getting to results, and having fun engaging members in the process is worth all the words in the world.
Thanks for a nice Friday "lift".
Barbara Byrd Keenan