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  • Writer's pictureChuck Cusumano

Watch Your (Business) Language

By Chuck Cusumano and Jillian Broaddus

The business world can feel like a complex place to navigate – especially when it comes to language.

If you have spent any amount of time in the business world – whether a quick traipse or a long journey – you probably know that there are a myriad of terms, definitions, and phrases that exist in this realm – some of which you might have never heard unless you entered into the business world.

As consultants, many of the companies that we work with have their own set of jargon, buzz words, and custom acronyms. In fact, we often want to put the term “multilingual” in big, bold letters on our business cards because we have had to learn so many different corporate languages.

Just the other day, we were having a conversation with a CEO. He mentioned to us that so many of the words and phrases that he thinks are good are not appreciated by his employees.

Here is his example:

“I always admire leaders in my organization that have great discipline. However, no one wants to discipline the people they lead! So, it is good if you have it – but does no one want to do the work to get it?”

He said the same was true about performance. Many of his leaders were asking if the company would pay for them to have a performance coach.

Apparently, having a personal performance coach shows you are on your way up in an organization. However, several employees that were put on personal performance plans quit the company because they felt they were on the way down or out.

The coach and the plan are both there to help you perform better – so why the big difference?

By now you are probably thinking something like, “We see what you are up to here! This is one of those turn of phrase games!" Or for those of you who read our blog weekly, you are thinking this sounds like a definition blog – AGAIN.

Well, both of those assumptions are correct. However, we believe it is so important in life (and in business) to make sure you get your words right that we are making the effort to tackle another language mix-up we hear so many leaders use incorrectly.

Choosing the correct terminology is a must if you want to be successful.

A small slip in word choice can change the entire outcome of a conversation. And unfortunately, in today’s fast-paced world, people rarely give you the chance to explain yourself (or even give you the benefit of the doubt – but that is an entirely different blog!).

So, here is what we advise to all of our clients: WATCH YOUR (BUSINESS) LANGUAGE.

How to Watch Your Language

Let us start with something simple to get the ball rolling.

Watch your language when you use terms like system, process, and procedure.

Why? Because they are not interchangeable and are not designed to mean the same things. They do, however, control how your life and your business run and operate on a daily basis, so getting these words mixed up can slow down or break an entire foundation!

The best way to avoid these mix-ups? Defining these important terms:

  • Systems: groups or combinations of things forming a complex or unitary whole. Think of it as the ‘what’ or ‘thing’ that you do. Or even the ‘core’. It is the higher-level element with the goal to be efficient.

  • Processes: sequences of activities inside the systems that allow them to work. Processes are the ‘how’ you do it. A process’s goal is to be effective so that the system can be efficient.

  • Procedures: lower-level activities that are more detailed in defining and ordering the specific tasks to ensure that the process can run.

In a more general way of explaining these terms, let us think of it this way:

An individual’s steps to building a ham sandwich are the procedures that support the process of “feeding yourself,” which in turn supports the system of “human life.” In other words, you need food to eat so that you can live.

Would we not want to have the most efficient way to live? (systems)

Of course, and the way we do that is by having effective activities (processes) like eating, sleeping, and exercise that have specific steps (procedures) of how we go about sleeping, eating, and exercising.

As we mentioned in a blog a few weeks back, many companies devise a system to achieve a business outcome.

Unfortunately, since they are unaware of the differences in the terminology we just defined, the system either does not have a defined process to allow it to work or the processes are so difficult to communicate that it does not get adopted by the employees. This renders it ineffective in achieving or supporting the system.

To compound the problem, the leaders then devise another process in an attempt to enforce the adoption of the first failed process. Instead, if the leaders would have watched their language, they would have identified the source of the failure – poorly written procedures (or no procedures at all).

The process failed because there were no procedures to allow for its easy adoption. Leaders, please stop piling processes on top of failed processes.

What We Can Learn From Whack-A-Mole

Remember the kids’ game at the arcade, Whack-a-Mole?

C’mon, you know the one – there is a big sledgehammer attached to a rope and you try to smash down the moles before they pop all the way up?

Well, it is likely that many of us can attest that our jobs or our lives sometimes feel like the game of Whack-a-Mole. Every time we focus on fixing something – before we even get halfway into the solution – another solution or procedure is sent out and we must deal with that one as well.

And suddenly, before we know it, we have all of these competing tasks (procedures), and all we know to do is check them off our list as fast as we can.

But they keep coming faster and faster – and more and more! So we just whack them, whack them, and whack them. It is nothing but exhausting, demoralizing, and a recipe for burnout.

So – what should we do? Just put down the sledgehammer and let all the moles come up!

Here is the best way to proceed:

  1. Inventory all the issues

  2. Categorize them in as few groups as will allow

  3. Prioritize the groups

  4. Eliminate the processes that overlap with other processes or problems

  5. Create a simple process with clear steps (procedures) to address the items in your highest priority group

  6. Measure your success and make fine-tuned adjustments as necessary

  7. Watch your language and only do or address items you can actually create a clear and concise process for

And there you have it – it really is that simple!

If you want or desire help in designing systems for your business or even your life, give us a shout at

We excel at system design, troubleshooting, and are rather good at Whack-a-Mole if you want to challenge us to a game!

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