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Workgroup report: Make Meetings Twice as Smart: Start with the Words

The Center's USA Workgroup 1 debates a key word

Ever sat in a meeting wondering if your staff can actually hear each other?  Ever have to referee a spat because someone didn’t understanding a basic term? 

There’s a reason not to dismiss a discussion of a terms with, “Oh, that’s just semantics:” you’ll be smarter.  And you’ll save time and money.  And you’ll be admired.

We debate the semantics of “strategy”

A colleague’s wife was declined a promotion because she “didn’t think strategically enough.”  When she asked what that meant, she was told, “I don’t know.” (You wouldn’t laugh if it was your promotion.)

I dare you to ask six people what strategy means thinking three of those answers will match.

The Center’s Workgroup #1 took up that dare on 5 February 2020.  Susan Dineen, Steve Johannsen, Bill Mitchell, Zach Blumenfeld, Bryon Johnson and Kevin Hickman called the question, What does “strategy” mean—really?  Well, we proved the rule:  six experienced managers did not agree.  But, after an hour’s frank and productive discussion, we came to a common understanding—and learned a valuable management lesson.

We focused on the phrase strategic plan—and not thinking strategically or strategic partner.  We left those cans of worms unopened.

Some of us felt, after consulting a dictionary, that strategic plan was really the exact same thing as plan, that strategic plan just sounds fancier.  Others disagreed strongly, saying strategic plan is different from other plans because:

  • It’s goals and projects are transformative, deserving extra focus and resources
  • It includes a compelling statement of purpose—the Why of the work
  • It describes the guidelines and principles of that work

The first group argued back, aren’t all those things implied in the word plan to begin with? 

The debate led us to a clear and common understanding of what any kind of plan should do:  they chart deadlines and accountability, describe behaviors and attitudes that need to change, and affirm the importance of individual and collective work.

So, we didn’t end with perfect agreement on the definition, but the debate led us to a clear and shared understanding.  That’s why taking time for “semantics” is crucial to competence.

It’s okay to disagree, but it’s not okay to not know you disagree.  If you don’t know you disagree, all the subsequent work is going to be misdirected. 

Get smarter by asking the dumb questions

Studies prove miscommunications wastes 10-20% of everyone’s time at work.  That’s 10-20% of payroll dollars that could otherwise be profit.

First, start meetings asking for definitions of the key terms.  Our debate proved it saves an enormous amount of time and cost. Yes, people might resist. They might try the “it’s just semantics dodge.”  But persevere:  they’ll soon find it feels good to be understood.

Second, visit The GMs Index of terms ( the standard language of management.  On one screen it includes definitions, 3 discussion questions and 2-6 approved resources.   Now, no one’s going to say out loud, “I never knew what marketing was.”  But they can look at term “2.0 Marketing and sales,” nod sagely and say, “I knew that all along.”

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