August 4, 2011

Strategy Lessons from a "Jargon Diet": The Importance of Candid Conversations About Goals

In launching the Give Smart initiative, one of Susan Wolf Ditkoff's mantras has been to "de-jargonify."

By: Susan Wolf Ditkoff

Susan Wolf DitkoffIn launching the Give Smart initiative, one of my mantras has been to "de-jargonify." This goal has led me to realize that jargon presents not only a translation challenge. (For example, translate one word for another and the job’s done.) My “jargon diet” has taught me that the challenge is more fundamental. There are a number of terms–take your pick: theory of change, benchmark, output, outcome, I could go on–that mean very different things to different people. And there is often no one word that will suffice.

One of these words is at the core of our work at Bridgespan: "strategy." I’ve been writing about adaptive strategy lately–and I defined such strategy to include “a clear but flexible definition of success, clear criteria for what kinds of opportunities are in and out, nimble decision-making, an openness to new ideas, and a passionate commitment to continuous improvement.”

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So in the vein of my jargon diet, I thought I would try to clearly describe what I mean by the first criteria: "defining success." I have been tempted to skip this step many times in my work with clients, often at their bequest, because they think they and their staff already know the answer.  In my experience, however, the resulting conversation is often among the most soul-baring and important. Why? Because "defining success" involves that messy blend of head and heart: What do you care passionately about changing in the world, and how will you measure whether you can claim victory or admit failure? How could that not lead to a significant discussion?

As noted in Give Smart,  a working definition of success satisfies three criteria:

  1. It reflects the values and beliefs of the philanthropist
  2. It is bounded enough to help you decide what you will and will not fund. You can actually use it to make decisions
  3. It will allow you to gauge progress–or its absence

So what do you think are the markers of a good goal? How do you know when you are there? What techniques have you found useful in goal-setting?

For more on our thoughts on goal setting, and building a plan to attain the goals, see Defining Success.

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