In a previous life I was a science undergrad. I’m the “scientific method” type, which means I insist that everything can be measured, even if I have to die trying. Another aspect of science that I always appreciated was when a new molecule was discovered, theory developed, compound invented, you make up a new name for it. That way, it is distinguished from everything else. You might be able to name it whatever you like (e.g. the Sonic Hedgehog gene), or be forced to give it a boring alphanumeric name. Either way, it is a unique identifier. When you read it, you know exactly what the author means. Or if you don’t you look in a dictionary which provides you with the single version of the truth. Clean and scientific.
But reality intruded, there were one too many lab fires and I finally realised that the frayed holes in my labcoat were not bad workmanship but from the acid I kept spilling on myself. I ventured into pastures new.
And immediately encountered problems. In business, people use the same words to mean all kinds of different things. Crucially, during a conversation, people don’t check that they have the same understanding of these words. We’re fooled into assuming we do because they are generic words. Quality, Process, Governance, Assurance. Anyone who says “What does Quality mean?” risks their colleagues thinking them a moron. Well, I am that moron! ISO 9001 says Quality is “the degree to which a set of inherent characteristics fulfills requirements”. Ok, fine. PRINCE2 says it is “generally defined as the totality of features and inherent or assigned characteristics of a product, person, process, service and/or system that bear on its ability to show that it meets expectations or satisfies stated needs, requirements or specification”. The two definitions do not disagree. But if you use the first and I use the second, they are still different. We have different expectations.
I had this problem just the other day. I innocently used the phrase “industrial strength”, meaning strong enough to meet the specific demands of my industry. But I was talking about software. To developers. I guess that phrase has been adopted by open source sceptics because I was told using it as an antonym to open source is irritating. I didn’t realise it was a loaded term, they didn’t realise I’m kind of a noob. But because they actually told me what it means to them, now I know and I won’t make the same mistake again.
Another example; back before I embarked on my quest to ask all the stupid questions, I sat through a whole meeting being almost, but not entirely, sure that “wash its own face” means “cover its own costs”. I should have just asked, Amor has made some impressive progress towards reducing business jargon and has been great with responding to feedback.
I’m not saying we have to start making up words and imposing inappropriately concrete definitions. My suspicion is that really understanding business language requires personal experience. When I am in a poor quality environment, suffering the consequences and empowered to improve them, then I will really understand what quality is. In the meantime, if we could keep to plain English I’d appreciate it. (I’d like to keep “cascade” though, it makes me think of the exotic waterfalls in Herbal Essences adverts).