Terminology and definitions – getting out of control?

A big pile of books

Leif AnderssonWe are often using terminology and words that we haven’t agreed the definition on. Oh, but there is a definition you might say! Yes, but using a definition of terminology that is defined in a global, universal context is only a starting point, we need to make the definition understandable in our own, local context to make it usable and understandable to our employees and peers. This is the point where we often fail. We adopt a framework or model we want to use and when starting to adapt it, we just assume everybody has the same understanding and interpretation of a term and its definition. We don’t! Period! Definitions and glossaries that are put in a specific framework context tend to have a lot of words explaining them, and when trying to squeeze them into context we lose the fundamental, basic definition. We are lost in translation.

Heritage, education, background, personal values, drivers, etc make each person unique, and therefore they look at the world in different ways. Words mean different things to us, small things like the order of words in a definition can make two people map the definition in two different ways, so we need to work a little with terminology and definitions.

Below is a list of critical terms that I have noticed that we often use quite carelessly and sometimes interchangeably. I have put a lot of effort into looking up and analyzing the different definitions and it’s a jungle. You can search yourself and you will find simple and understandable definitions – and strange, detailed and context-specific definitions. I have not added any definitions in this blog, I have a whitepaper I’m working on where I will analyze the terms and definitions and try to come up with common, simple definitions and examples to accompany the terms below.

Critical terms (input and output related)

  • Need
  • Demand
  • Requirement
  • Result
  • Outcome
  • Benefit
  • Supply
  • Value


All terminology needs a common understanding, within the group that uses it and in the organization’s context. Even if different frameworks give terminology and we adopt those terms we still need to adapt them and make sense of them in our context. What if we use multiple frameworks, approaches and methods? Which definition of value to use then?

I think we have failed here and overrated global context-specific glossaries. We still need to work with the terms and definitions in our context.

When talking about input and output it is extremely important to agree on what we’re talk about, as a misunderstanding on input will probably not give the correct output. If we also misunderstand the output terms, we get in the way of fulfilling need (or value or whatever we call it in our organization).

We need to simplify definitions, we are making terminology too complex! Why do we need to put all definitions in the framework, method or approach context, when we often need to define them again in our specific context and organization. Why not just deliver a simple common definition and give practitioners the task of putting it in an organizational context and make meaning of it there.

One thing to also keep in mind is spoken language. Not all terminology is possible to correctly translate to other countries. An English term may not have a corresponding term in Swedish and then the translation can be mapped to an “almost that meaning” word and be misunderstood and wrongly used. An entire principle, process or concept can actually fail to be correctly adopted because of this.

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31 May 2018 markoer
Alternate text
Simple - but effective - suggestions.
Sometimes the barrier is the language. Sometimes on web you find synonyms tables, which are useful if you find yourself always using the same words - like this one: https://www.englisch-hilfen.de/en/words/synonyms.htm

Instead of "need" you can use lots of terms, such as
- demand
- obligation
- urgency
- committal
- compulsion
- duty
- essential
- exigency
- requisite
- urge

Each of them can convey the message in a much-fine-tuned way.

The semantic context is also important, as remarked. Often certain words do not overlap precisely the same semantic context in different languages, and there must be care in using them.
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