Sunday, June 13, 2010

Definitions and Value

Last time, we talked about Claims of Fact and the salient issues to raise to settle them. Claims of Definition and Claims of Value (or quality) are related, so I will cover them together this week.

Definitions are very important in face-to-face communication. The easiest way to slip something by someone is to use non-standard definitions, and business is full of them. Even though we work in the same industry and even at the same company for years, we may not share the same definition for even routine activities. Document release, product launch, manufacturing plan are examples of common terms that we may not have a shared meaning for and differences can become quite significant.

A Claim of Definition is one in which the PURPOSE of the claim is to define something. In politics, we have examples that have been around for a long time. For instance, “Capital punishment is murder.” The PURPOSE of the claim is to define capital punishment. The term used as the definition has a specific meaning (the unlawful taking of a human life). If we allow the definition to go unquestioned, we are allowing that capital punishment is illegal. Another example from the political world is “A fetus is a human being”. If we allow that definition to stand, then it is logical to extend rights and privileges due every human being to every fetus. I am not trying to test your political viewpoint here; just illustrating that definitions have weight and meaning and should be clarified and shared.

When we say in our business that “a document is ready to release” or “the product is ready to launch” what constitutes readiness? What is a release? A launch? Does it matter if there are different definitions for those terms in this conversation? We ask 3 questions to evaluate a Claim of Definition.

• The first question we ask about a claim of definition is “Is it relevant if the term is defined?” If it doesn’t matter, then let it pass. If we need to know what it means, then this is a CRITICALLY important question. Don’t miss it.

• The second question we ask is “Is the definition fair?” That is, does it represent a biased point of view or not? Sometimes we might not like the definition, but if it is unbiased we need to consider it. For instance, in the case of “the product is ready to launch”, we may be listening to an engineer who means that “the design is complete” or a marketing manager describing that “the campaign is designed”. Both of these could be true, but the bias may lead us to believe that more has been done than is true

• The third question we ask is “How do we choose between competing definitions?”. You say the product is ready to launch, and I say it’s not. How do we choose? We may suggest that we defer to an authoritative source like a Systems Engineering definition, or a Project Management definition, or just a dictionary if it applies. We may agree that we need some criteria that define what “product launch” means to us. We may defer to the definition that the company president uses. Maybe we’ll ask our customers what would constitute readiness “is the training ready yet?” Whatever method we use to make the choice, the choice needs to be made.

I can’t overemphasize the importance of clear and common definitions.

A Claim of Value (aka A Claim of Quality) is one in which the claim compares two or more things with respect to their value or quality. In the political world, they sound like “Democracy is better than Socialism”, or “City government is unsatisfactory”, or “The environment is more important than industry”. These are examples in which we are comparing something to another, or attributing a quality to something. Frequently, the speaker is capitalizing on a general sentiment. You may feel city government is unsatisfactory for some reason, and I might mean something totally different. As long as I don’t get into the details, you will think we are on the same side. Similarly, someone may make the claim that "eating organic is better than not". By what measure... health? expense? status?

Business examples for this kind of claim are many; “Quality is more important than on-time delivery”, “Function is more important than form”, “Our service is very good”. These kind of claims are made regularly and are often un questioned. There are three questions for a Claim of Value.

• The first question is – “Which value should be used to evaluate the subject?” When we say Quality is more important than on-time delivery, do we mean from a financial perspective? From a customer relations perspective? From a cycle time perspective? If we can determine the point of view from which this is being evaluated, we have a good chance of simplifying the claim.

• The second question is – “What standards are used to measure competing values?” This is similar to the first question we ask in a Claim of Fact. Are we comparing this to customer needs? Industry norms? Military Standards? Our own business restrictions?

• The third question is – “Have those standards been met?” Whatever standards we settled on at the second question must be measurable to the degree that we can settle the question.

Imagine that someone says that “Our quality is good enough” and, when asked, the person means that or product always passes our own final inspection. Wouldn’t it seem that we might want another perspective before we accept the claim?

You need to ask the questions…..

Next time, we’ll talk about the last of the four claims – Claims of Policy. These are the most difficult, and the one’s we deal with most often – “What should we do….”

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