The Boring necessity of wordsmithing

I never thought I would say what I am about to. I remember sitting in my chair at the start of my career listening to this discussion about the definition of words and thinking it was utter rubbish. The topic at hand was how to define “Net Revenue”. I thought, “this is an absolute waste of time, what difference does it make…let’s just get on with what we need to do”. Now I am slightly more experienced (or perhaps mostly older) and have come to the same conclusion myself. Words, and their definition, really matters…and they don’t matter a bit. They matter a lot.

The chaos and conflict that arise from misunderstanding and having to re-visit things over and over takes a toll on everyone. I am not sure we can ever deal with something complicated without any misunderstandings and issues, but we can at least try to start off well. When you speak and try to agree on things. Be Precise!

As a consultant, the two words I encountered that causes the most confusion are TRANSFORMATION and INTEGRATION. These are seriously big words, and the cause of a lot of agreements turning into massive disagreements.

I am not saying that I know what they mean, and I don’t see a big problem in them meaning different things on a case by case basis, but there is definitely a need that they mean the same thing to different people involved in the same transformation or integration.

Transformation, “A marked change in form, nature, or appearance. (e.g. ‘British society underwent a radical transformation’)”

Synonyms include: Change, modification, conversion, evolution, revision etc

Integration, “The action or process of integrating. (e.g. ‘economic and political integration’)”

Synonyms include: combination, amalgamation, consolidation, fusing, blending, meshing

In short it means to change or to combine. What they mean as standard nouns is less interesting. We want to know what they mean in the business context, and that is far from clear to everyone. This is the long and hard thinking that should take place before either a transformation or integration is started. What is the actual goal? What to change, how to approach this?

I saw an interesting four-fielder while at Deloitte (Four-fielder in a consulting firm, what a surprise, right?).


It was talking about integration and assuming a business integrating with another had four different methods depending on “similarity in size” and “similarity in type of businesses” of the two that were to become one (or not, depending on the definition). There is a big difference between completely integrating two companies, so you can no longer tell them apart and let a new business continue to run on its own systems and processes with a bit of consolidation and common governance over the top. Integration would be the word being used for both, but these will be two very different projects.

Same goes for transformation. Usually it is seen as “major change that happens quickly”, but slower consistent change can easily also fit the word Change. Agree to do some transformation is easy, agree exactly what it means is not.

It seems silly that a definition of a word would cause such issues for major projects, but I think they do. It happens on smaller scale between people every day, how common is: “oh, I thought you meant…” as a result of long discussions? It makes sense to take Jordan Peterson’s (the Canadian Psychologist) advice on this and “be precise in your speech” (and probably in e-mails as well). It is however faster and simpler to clear your inbox using blanket or vague responses. It is also comfortable to stay vague to make sure there is room to change one’s mind later depending on what happens, but I am sure it’s not the best way to get something done.




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