Apr 162006
 

Facilitators, has this happened to you?

You have a nice four-hour block for your working requirements / product planning / process re-engineering / whatever meeting. You allot a “generous” 30-minute chunk near the beginning for the definition of terms. You put a few domain-specific words up on a flipchart to get ideas flowing, point to the first term, and prompt the team:

“So, everybody, what is the definition of _______ ?”

(Two hours later…)

DefinitionsOne phrase is detailed to a precision that would satisfy most German engineers, the total number of terms to define has tripled — but none of them have been defined — and you have had to break up three near fist-fights.

A common vocabulary is important, but does it have to be this hard? I recently had a delightful experience which suggests that it does not.

If the team goal is a body of work which must be as clear and precise as possible, then perhaps you have some collaborative writing ahead… it’s time to scrap the original agenda and buckle down to it.

However, if all you are trying to do is “get all on the same page” — ack, sorry about that, I mean “develop a common vocabulary such that each word or phrase maps to the same concepts for each member of the team,” then you might benefit from what I’m calling the Affinity Definition Game. To play:

First, generate your list of terms in the usual groupthink team way (seed list, brainstorming, group writing, etc.)Atypical Bachelor

Second, have the “is the pope a bachelor” discussion:

  1. Ask, “is the pope a bachelor?”
  2. For people who say he isn’t, ask what they think a bachelor is.
  3. You’ll probably get some concepts like “single, bar-hopping, swank apartment, expensive stereo equipment, sports car,” etc.
  4. Point out the concept of affinity: a young single man with a sports car has more “bachelor-ness” than an older unmarried man, who has more bachelorness than the pope.

Third, give out the instructions for the game:

  1. The team is looking for nearby concepts. These are concepts with strong affinity to the term in the way that “swank apartment” has strong affinity to “bachelor.”
  2. The nearby concepts should not contain any words which appear in the term itself. Synonyms should probably be avoided. Think of the board game Tabooâ„¢.
  3. No wordsmithing.
  4. Don’t get sidetracked by the words in the term, focus on the associations. Remember the “is the pope a bachelor?” discussion.Typical Bachelor

Game on! Collect concepts with strong affinity to the term in the participants’ minds:

  1. Ask “what do you most strongly associate with ____?” Write down key adjectives or descriptive phrases from the responses.
  2. Filter or correct the suggestion only if words in the term (or synonyms) are appearing.
  3. Highlight any associations with especially strong emotional agreement; shouts of “oh yeah!” or loud groans could both mean that something has really hit the mark.
  4. When the flow of associated words/phrases seems to be winding down, move on. Be patient, but don’t try to pump the well dry. If a strong association pops up later, you can record it later.
  5. Did I mention no wordsmithing?

When you are done, you will not have a list of terms and their definitions. You will have a list of terms and the nearby concepts which the group most strongly associates with the terms. To abuse the Tao Te Ching a bit, the term will be “defined” by the nearby concepts just as a wheel’s hub is defined at the point where a spokes meet.

How is this useful? If, for “engineering design review” the team generated

  • validation
  • technical details, blueprints
  • mindless tedium
  • approval of plans (group decided it was a synonym)
  • correction
  • stamp-of-approval document

then what you have is a set of qualities which can be used to test the “engineering design review-ness” of something. You also have a shared understanding of an engineering design review, even if the term has not been detailed to a dictionary-like level of precision.

Shared IdeaIf you can get the team to generate an entire vocabulary with that level of shared understanding in less time than it takes to create full definitions for three words, then you have that much more time to get on with accomplishing your goal together.

And that’s what it’s all about.