Strategic risk management is the process of identifying, analyzing, and controlling uncertainties that keep an organization from achieving its objectives. Of the many tools available to increase your strategic risk intelligence—such as a root-cause analysis or a workflow diagram—one is especially useful. It’s simple but often overlooked: the humble dictionary.
I happen to really like dictionaries. In my school years, you could find me in a corner of the playground reading books during recess. My passion wasn’t just a fascination with words. The truth is, I had trouble figuring people out. As an INTP, I found it helpful to research words that didn’t make sense, and this gave me the confidence to relate to people of all backgrounds.
I believe most business problems occur when leaders are unwilling or unable to see “blind spots” in their organization, which is why my clients get a “Give-It-To-Me-Straight” approach. Facing problems head-on allows us to see unpleasant truths that are barriers to success. But before we can jump into “fix-it mode,” it’s essential to know exactly what the problem is. And to do this, we need to agree on the meaning behind words.
Why Use a Dictionary?
A dictionary is an alphabetized set of terms that describes the spelling, pronunciation, and meanings of referenced words.
If you travel internationally, you’ll know how it feels to know the right words, yet remain totally confused. Simply using correct words in the correct order does not guarantee comprehension. And if there’s no shared understanding, communication did not take place.
This is especially important in organizational management due to the vast amount of interpersonal exchange between staff, management, departments, vendors, customers, and the public. Even small mistakes can result in massive errors like these:
- $125 million Mars Climate Orbiter disaster, when NASA failed to clarify the unit of measurement; scientists used pound-seconds to calculate the Orbiter’s entry on Mars, while the craft was programmed with Newton-seconds.
- 1,744 deaths and $1.7 billion in malpractice costs could be avoided with better hospital communication, according to a study by CRICO Strategies with Harvard University
- $400 billion annual losses in US companies is attributable to “bad writing”
How a Dictionary Works
A dictionary does more than just list words and their meanings. It also serves as a central repository, providing a “one-stop shop” for essential terms used in your organization. It benefits us in 3 primary ways:
- Reasoning: Clarifies the spelling, pronunciation, & meaning of important terms; makes them understandable; and minimizes confusion
- Relationships: Tells us where, when, and how concepts interact
- Rules: Provides control over which words to use, and in what order
Errors are less likely to occur when we agree on the context (what’s happening), usage (how words are formed and expressed), and meaning (intended significance) of the situation. To reduce the chance of unknowns, we can start by agreeing on which terms are essential and then defining those.
Organizations with high risk intelligence make sure all terms and concepts originate from one primary source. In IT, a data dictionary goes a step further: it describes defines the content, format, and structure of a set of data; the relationships between each element; and rules by which access is controlled. For example, I once worked in a database which had a field for “Name” and another for “Last Name.” This led to a lot of confusion: Is “Name” a first name only, or should it contain the full given name? Is it duplicated from another field? The more clearly you define your words, the less frustration you’ll have later on.
In “The Princess Bride,” great fictional fencing master Inigo Montoya was very concerned about defining terms clearly when he told Vizzini:
“You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”
The best time to define terms is at the beginning of a process. Many organizations have silos of information; each department has their own definition for the same words. This can result in embarrassment or even worse. I recall during one healthcare meeting, our IT specialist was discussing “Old timer’s disease” instead of “Alzheimer’s disease,” and “Lasix” (a diuretic) rather than “Lasik” (laser eye surgery). Although mispronunciations may sound funny at the time, communication errors add up to billions of dollars in damage. The best approach is to clarify everything early on.
Creating Your Dictionary
A dictionary doesn’t have to be complex. It doesn’t even have to be professionally printed and bound. In fact, one of my clients developed a list of the commonly used words in his industry and printed out a rough draft. When he showed the list to his staff at their weekly meeting, he was shocked by the positive response. Every employees wanted a copy, and several suggested new terms to add. Rather than a “boring list of words,” this process gave the company more clarity, a practical team-building tool, and became a reference point for future discussions.
Here are some guidelines to help you create a centralized dictionary in your organization:
- First, consider terms that are used most often with your customers, internally in day-to-day operations, and in the industry at large. If you want, this can begin as a brain-storming session at your next staff meeting.
- Research what each word means in commonly accepted standards; use online dictionaries, industry publications, and your internal corporate reference materials.
- Consider the context, usage, and meaning of each word (what is implied, how it is delivered, what the next step should be), and create a definition that best describes the meaning of the word for the most people possible.
- Review the draft definitions with your team, and create a final version.
- Publish the dictionary in an easily accessible format.
- Share the terms and definitions at staff meetings, in marketing materials, on your website, and in conversations with clients.
- Finally, update your dictionary regularly, add new terms as they emerge, and alert your team so they can adjust their own reference materials.
It’s a good idea to review your dictionary every few months, and continue to involve your staff and management team in future “definition projects” such as Policies and Procedures, Workflow Diagramming, and Job Descriptions.
You can see an example of an organizational dictionary here on my website. I used all the steps above and continue to update it regularly. Have fun storming the castle!
In my next few posts, I’ll discuss the Two Precursors of Meaning and the Building Blocks of Risk.
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Grace LaConte is a Strategic Risk Expert who helps executive leaders find and fix organizational vulnerabilities. Using her experience as a Risk Officer and Director in healthcare and technology companies, Grace shares a refreshingly honest approach to uncovering hidden risk opportunities. Learn more at http://laconteconsulting.com, or connect with her on Twitter @lacontestrategy..