By Terry Linhart

When businesses work to be innovative, a primary marker that it’s truly innovative is if it solves a solution for their customers. In fact, experts on innovation say that it’s not innovation unless it is validated by customers.

The same is true for nonprofits. We can create all of the greatest programs and services possible, but if no one shows or few report back that we helped them, then we need to head back to the meeting space and figure out something new.

Too many businesses, nonprofits, and churches are blocked from a vibrant future for lack of innovative thinking.

In our work, one of the secrets to innovation is simply arriving at a common set of definitions. I’ve watched a few of colleagues lead seminars helping boards and groups define their terms. Doing so gives them a shared vision for the next step that leads to mission and clear next steps. Definition provides alignment of people, mission, vision, and work.

But it’s more difficult to find definition that first advertised. Which is why we’re often brought in, to serve as outside facilitators in a definition process. Usually a one-day experience, bringing all of your people around a table (or around various tables) to work through “what do we mean when we say ____?” provides clarity and confidence. And those fix a lot of problems that are too often attributed to other factors.

Think through your past week wherever you work or serve. Try these steps:

  1. Write down 3-5 key words you use all of the time in your work. For me, it’s “learning,” “consulting,” “mentoring,” and “God.”
  2. Think of 2-3 people who work alongside you who may have various definitions for each those four and write down their definition to each word. You can have a different set of four people for each word.
  3. Look over your definitions and imagine how preparation, practice, and presentation are all affected by the definitions. In some cases, there could be a wide range! And competing ones!
  4. Now, write down how YOU would define each of those. How does your definition compare?

It’s interesting that even a simple exercise like this can provide greater clarity and confidence. When we come in for a “Definition Day” (we don’t call it that), we lead teams through a more thorough version of this process, one that’s tied to the particular mission, values, context, and vision of a particular group.

But here’s the secret benefit of definition: It creates greater informal accountability. Think about it: If everyone gets on the same page about fundamental words and their meaning, then they work to create greater alignment along the inherent values.

If that benefit wasn’t enough, here’s another: Definition gets you ahead of the reaction waves. There is a certain level of randomness in any organization. If there isn’t clear definition of common values and phrases, then as people react to issues and problems that arise, there is further randomness when all operate from different definitions. Which creates a need for further reactions. Clear definition gets us ahead of those waves.

If this has resonated with you, it may be worth giving it a try. Plan out a 2-3 hour period where you could facilitate a conversation about definitions. And, if you want to invest in something a little bigger, we’d love to share more how we could help in that. Just let us know!