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Les McKeown's Predictable Success Blog

  • October 14, 2009
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The importance of shared vocabulary in high performing teams 

High performing organizations and teams display an interesting characteristic – they use an optimum amount of shared vocabulary.’Shared vocabulary’, is an innate, shared understanding about what certain words or phrases mean. Of course, the words and phrases change from organization to organization and from team to team – it might be ‘leadership’ or ‘customer service’ or ‘this month’s sales budget’ or even ‘optimum inventory level’ – but whatever the word or phrase is, everyone involved understands clearly, unambiguously and without exception exactly what is meant by it.

Low-performing organizations on the other hand, wrestle in a mire of conflicting opinions and ambiguous interpretation of even the most fundamental concepts. It’s hard to hit your revenue goals when no-one agrees precisely what they are. It’s hard to display consistent leadership when there’s no joint agreement as to what ‘leadership’ means. It’s hard to deliver consistent customer service when there’s no unified agreement as to what precisely that means.

‘Shared vocabulary’ is not the same as ‘agreed policy’. Many organizations have plentiful ‘agreed policies’, but little or no shared vocabulary. Agreed policies are decided by committees and promulgated in manuals and memos. On their own, they’re just words on a page. An ‘agreed policy’ only becomes shared vocabulary when the people involved in implementing the policy develop and share an innate understanding, and agreement to, what the agreed policy means in reality, in practice.

Highly adaptive organizations and teams have more shared vocabulary than agreed policies. They prefer shared vocabulary to agreed policies because their shared vocabulary is a living, changing, adaptive tool, while agreed policies are brittle, written in stone (or on paper) and are out of date the day after they’re written.

Too much shared vocabulary can be a bad thing – indicative of a cult-like, unthinking, unquestioning culture that quashes independent thinking, but too little shared vocabulary is worse.

If there are fewer than three material, important things about which you can put your hand on your heart and say ‘everyone on my team absolutely knows what we mean by this’, then you should be worried. If there are more than ten or so, you might want to loosen the knot a little.

Here’s the key question – what are the seven, eight or nine things about which your team should have a shared vocabulary?


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