The importance of defining abstract terms

By Tania Melnyczuk

It¬†all boils down to the same thing, doesn’t¬†it?

  • “We want to get¬†Project Management going.”
  • “We want a standard process for all our projects.”
  • “We want to get a Project Management system up and running.”
  • “We want all our project managers to use Microsoft Project.”
  • “We want to implement a Project Management methodology.”
  • “We want to implement a Project Management strategy.”
  • “We want to move towards ‘management by projects’.”
  • “We want our project staff¬†to be formally¬†certified.”

To some¬†people who have worked on projects, many of the statements above will seem similar, or even synonymous. System, methodology, strategy… whaddevaaa. It’s all just¬†corporatespeak, right?


They¬†may be related, but they’re all different.

Why the difference matters

Each of the wants expressed above translates to a different brief, and each brief translates to a different project.

In a project, time, money and other resources are spent on trying to meet a need, to create a specific outcome. If we assume that the same need and desired outcome are behind each of the divergent statements above, we can see that we have a problem: Since each of the projects would be different, the project to deliver on the want would not necessarily meet the real need or deliver the desired outcome. In fact, like headache pills taken for a tummy bug, the wrong project may actually make the whole situation worse.

In projects, defining abstract terms helps us see the broader context. Once this is done, we can decide exactly which details to work on to give us the best return.

Working towards clarity

In projects where the end product is easy to visualise, we can¬†move fairly quickly from the abstract to the concrete: “So you want a¬†shopping centre with an upmarket feel. What does upmarket mean to you? Nouveau riche or classic? Oh, and size? Floorspace? How many storeys? How many shops?” and eventually, “Are these the right tiles for the entryways?”

If you were the client, you¬†may not have known what the architect meant by “nouveau riche or classic”, but it would soon have become¬†clear from the pictures presented to you.

Working towards clarity in organisational change projects

In projects which must bring about changed ways of working, you will often be dealing with abstract concepts for some time. A good collective understanding of the terms is very important to ensure that everyone is actually working on the same thing, and that that thing is also the right thing. System, methodology, strategy…understanding the difference is key. If you decide on your tangible products too quickly, you may make the wrong choice, because your most salient challenges and needs may not have been defined at the right level.

Working through the challenge

When Marius and I work with teams in organisations, the team¬†sometimes moves quickly to a point of (apparent) consensus on a goal, based on the contributions of participants. A¬†goal may be formulated something¬†like, “To implement a project management system which will allow us to see what we’ve completed, how much we’ve spent, and when we can expect to be finished.”

Based on the goal statement above, Marius would typically ask everyone to (separately, anonymously) write down¬†what they mean by system. Answers vary from the¬†very vague (“a way of doing things”) to the very specific (“the latest version of Microsoft Project installed on everyone’s computer, with templates suited to our projects”).

His¬†next open question¬†to the group is usually, “Are these answers all the same?”

Faced with the disparity of answers, many people say no.

However,¬†in some organisations, saying no is so uncomfortable¬†that people begin to question the necessity of this line of facilitation, protesting that “we all actually agree, we’re just expressing it in different ways!”¬†The subtext here is usually, “Please don’t drive a confrontation, we have enough fights around here already.¬†Let’s just move on and implement any old thing!”

From the outside, it’s easy to see why pushing on without consensus would end up in even further confrontation and waste of life down the line.

Why we need to define abstract terms

Abstract ideas play themselves out in concrete ways. Marxism was an abstract idea¬†in a book, until someone turned it into a way of running a country.¬†From then on, every person’s daily life changed. Where people lived changed. What they did for work changed. Where they got¬†food changed. Everything changed. Today, some people say the idea wasn’t actually that bad, it was just implemented in the wrong places by the wrong people at the wrong times.

In Project Management, we need to clearly define what we mean by terms like system, method, methodology, framework, process, vision, strategy and tactic. Everything will change because of what we implement based on how we understand such terms. Once we can use such terms in conversation with each other based on a common understanding of their meaning, we can start to define common goals too, and conceptualise projects to meet those goals.

And yes, we typically define ‘goal’ too!

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Tania Melnyczuk

Director of Programme Design at and the Collaboration Director of the Autistic Strategies Network.


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