Creating a Shared Vocabulary- More than Buzzwords
It's pretty well established that corporate buzzwords are the butt of many jokes. When we talk about shared vocabulary it is easy to get caught up in this idea. However, in this post, I'm referring to the constants that live in textbooks and planning retreats. Nearly every business uses them, but are we all using these terms in the correct context?
This isn't an issue that I ever thought about until I began my service on the Fort Worth School Board. In my professional life as an entrepreneur, I was very familiar with strategic planning processes. It took being in a space where I witnessed these terms being weaponized with ambiguity and misuse, that I realized how easy it is to manipulate vocabulary to maintain the status quo.
For a more recent example, let's discuss the word “strategy" I have observed clients using this term incorrectly more times than I can count. It's common for words and phrases to morph and evolve over time, that's how language works. In these instances the issue isn't use, it is the foggy haze that lives in the space between expectations and assumptions. This isn't a big deal in the day-to-day lives of most people, but for business leaders, ambiguity around vocabulary can become confusing and in some cases even toxic to office culture.
In a recent conversation with a group of urban policy leaders, this discussion was brought up. In some of their entities, the governance process of articulating their vision and values may be called strategic planning, goal setting, or most simply “visioning.” I have been present at public meetings recently where some of these lawmakers have begun to ask for clarity when things are not specific. That is very reassuring for those of us invested in having a very clear understanding of what to expect from our local government.
Just a few days before that, I facilitated a training session with leaders of a local non-profit that turned into a lively, but respectful debate. The subject? Is strategic planning the process of the board setting organizational goals or if it is the process of organizational leaders deciding which inputs will be used to achieve organizational goals. FYI, I will facilitate debates seeking clarity and understanding any day of the week!
Meanwhile, in another organization I’m working with, the Strategic Plan they drafted was 100% operational, and in some instances had board members responsible for strategic deliverables! Of course, this is no fault of their own. Success as an entrepreneur requires a thread of resourcefulness, and most of us are working with what we have at our disposal. Helping businesses like this is what we live for at CLS!
Common Vocabulary Creates Shared Understanding and Clarity
I want to be clear. I am aware of these things called dictionaries and agree that they are a fantastic source for establishing the actual definitions of words. This doesn’t change the fact that a term or phrase can be used outside of its original context, misunderstood, or in some cases created specifically by an organization for their internal use. Establishing a shared vocabulary simply creates a shared understanding and common language around a particular effort. More importantly, this cuts down on workplace ambiguity and reduces the likelihood of misunderstandings.
There is a good argument for establishing that your team uses generally used terms consistent with their usage in the business world. When conducting development activities to secure investments or writing grants for specific projects, it pays (literally) to know the difference between a strategy and an outcome.
Whatever the decision of your team is, the most important part is that all stakeholders have clarity in how we communicate with them. To help, I have identified some of the most common words and phrases below and hope to bring clarity to their uses in the context of organizational management.
Collective Leadership Strategies Organizational Management Glossary
Goals- Simply stated, a goal is something that you want to see happen. Within an organization, there are several types of goals. The most important thing here is defining who has ownership of creating which goals and who is responsible for creating progress towards them.
Organizational Goal- This type of goal is very high level, and corresponds explicitly to how the organization will meet its purpose. Organizational goals are specific to the vision that has been articulated by the board/owners. This is how the highest-ranking executive leader of an organization measures success toward achieving that vision. There are best practices for how organizational goals are written, but that is a completely different conversation. We call these outcome goals in our organization.
Strategic Goal- When we look one step deeper into the organization beyond the vision and values that are articulated by the board/ownership, we begin to look at the Strategy that the executive leader has outlined. An organization’s strategy belongs exclusively to its executive leader. In most cases, this is the CEO, Executive Director, or President (NOT president of the board). The board creates organizational goals, then the executive leader determines what the strategy will be to reach said goal. Each element of the strategy, generally, will have a direct report who is a subject matter expert responsible for implementing the strategic domains related to their area of expertise. Strategic goals help that person and the executive leader measure the effectiveness of the inputs they have chosen in their strategy.
Operational Goal- now as we go deeper into the organization we begin to wade into the weeds with operational inputs. Each level of operational inputs should be tied to operational goals, and every operational goal should have an owner (who creates the goal) and an implementer (who is accountable for the results to the owner).
Metrics- These are the measurements used by your team to determine how you are making progress toward your goals. Metrics should exist at every level of the value chain and apply to everyone in the organization. It should be articulated who is directly responsible for what metrics with accountability being established vertically and across the corporate ladder. For example, the CEO of an organization is immediately responsible for all organizational outcomes. Likewise, the lowest rung on the corporate ladder should also know and understand how they are responsible for helping the organization achieve organizational goals, and they should have operational goals that they are accountable for achieving. Metrics should be SMART, have a population, measurement, starting and ending date, starting point, and ending point.
Non-negotiable- other terms include, but are not limited to constraints, guardrails, or boundaries. These are all used interchangeably depending on the organization in reference to articulated non-negotiable that the board puts in place to protect the values of the organization. It is just as important for an organization to clarify what they WILL NOT do as it is to state what they do really well.
Outcome- The high-level final result that the board has identified for the organization to produce. Outcomes should be directly reflective of the vision.
Output- Also known as a strategic output, this is the byproduct of a strategic decision. Outputs can be measured as a snapshot in the midst of a cycle to track the progress of a given strategy and may be used as an indicator of whether or not the strategy is effective at meeting an aligned goal.
Purpose- This is the ultimate reason an organization exists. Schools exist to educate kids. Homeless shelters exist to get people off the streets. Daycares exist to provide childcare. All of these kinds of organizations might participate in different kinds of activities, but their most specific reason for being is unarguable.
Strategy/Input- A well-defined plan, decision, or set of decisions identified for the purpose of achieving goals at the highest level of the organization. Have you ever heard, “more than one way to skin a cat?“ (I personally prefer to say there’s more than one way to peel a potato.) Well, the way you choose is your strategy. In business, we often refer to the strategy diamond (2005, Hambrick and Frederick). This is a framework widely used because of its effectiveness in articulating the activities of a business, especially for investors. This framework breaks strategic decisions down into arenas, vehicles, differentiators, staging and pacing, and economic logic.
Theory of Action- this is a high-level delivery model that a company might use to define its belief system and how the organization works internally, how it is controlled, and how change happens.
Values- defines the guiding principles that give direction to an organization.
Vision- defines what the organization strives to do. How specifically will we create an impact?
Do you struggle with unclear terminology in your workplace? What are some steps that you can take to help your team bring clarity to the situation? What are some examples of shared vocabulary in your organization?
Hambrick, D. C., Fredrickson J. W., 2005. Are you sure you have a strategy? Academy of Management Executive, Vol. 19, No. 4