Reversing the Definition Game

I've played The Definition Game way too many times. In The Definition Game, a group of normally reasonable people argues interminably about the "right" definition for some important term. Mission, for example, or vision, or leadership, or management. And if you want a guaranteed way to distract your team for weeks, just ask them to define software architecture.

No matter words we're defining, the Game is always played the same way. We start with some word that we keep tripping over, and we propose and debate and revise and revise and revise myriad meanings until we're exhausted. Agreeing on a definition isn't strictly necessary, and, for some people, actually spoils the play.

I'm tired of that game, and I'll bet you are, too. So why do we keep playing? Because words matter. We want to communicate well, and to communicate well we need some agreement about what our words mean.

What are we trying to communicate? Meanings. Not words. Meanings. Our words matter only to the extent that they convey our meanings. Meaning is primary; words are secondary.

If meanings are more important than words, why do we play The Definition Game the way we do? Why do we hold the word fixed and try to assign it a meaning? Why not hold the meanings fixed, and assign words to them?

The next time you find yourself in the middle of The Definition Game, try changing the rules. Instead of holding the word fixed and assigning a meaning to it, try this. As in the standard Game, start with the troublesome word. Then, working separately, write out each important meaning that you associate with the word. Focus on the meanings that are most relevant to your work, the meanings you regularly try to convey.

Then play the game in reverse. Let go of needing to define the word. Instead, hold the meanings fixed, and find words for them. For each important meaning, work as a group to negotiate words to represent that meaning. You will probably end up using the original term—software architecture, for example—to stand for one or more of the meanings. And you may end up using a number of related terms for some of the other meanings. Enterprise systems architecture. Architecture pattern. Conceptual architecture. Physical architecture. Systems architecture. Architecture style. High-level design. Design document. Architecture description.

However you play The Definition Game, if you're playing to improve your communication—and be aware people sometimes play for other reasons—remember to return your attention frequently to the meanings you want to communicate. Meaning is primary; words are secondary.

What important meanings are you trying to convey?

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