The Kick-Off Word in Great Business Definitions: Guidelines for Building World-Class Business Glossaries
Extracted from: How to Define Business Terms in Plain English: A Primer, Ronald G. Ross, 2016 (free download). http://www.brsolutions.com/b_ipspeakprimers.php
There's a high premium on knowing how to craft great definitions. Every business analyst should know how. To get you started, here are some basic criteria for great business definitions:
- It should be easy to give examples for the thing defined, but there should be no counterexamples.
- Each definition should communicate the essence of what a thing is, not what it does, how it's used, or why it's important.
- The definition of a thing should focus on its unique characteristics.
- Each thing you define should be distinguishable from every other thing you define, using the definition alone.
- Each definition should be concise and as short as possible without loss of meaning. A definition should be readable.
One thing may surprise you about great business definitions. The very first noun in each definition is absolutely key. These first words are the secret sauce of excellent definitions. Here are four guidelines for establishing that first word.
Guideline 1. The definition for a term should start with a noun.
Discussion: A definition should express what a thing is, not what it does. So the first significant word in a definition should be a noun or noun phrase rather than a verb. This noun or noun phrase is called the kick-off word.
Example: governance process
Poor definition: identifies decision makers and the process and information required for a decision to be made and describes how approvals and prioritization decisions are made
This definition is built around two verbs, identifies and describes, which express something about what the concept does, not what it is. The concept being defined, governance process, is first and foremost a process. So the concept should be defined with that starting point.
Revised definition: a process by which appropriate decision makers use relevant information to make decisions regarding a change or solution, including means for obtaining approvals and priorities
This revised definition expresses what a governance process is by including an appropriate noun, process, to initiate the definition.
Guideline 2. The kick-off word of a definition should not be the term being defined.
Discussion: The first word in a definition should be some noun other than the term being defined.
Poor definition: a developer is responsible for the engineering of solutions
That a developer is a developer is a tautology. Saying so adds nothing.
Revised definition: a professional responsible for the engineering of solutions
The revised definition indicates that a developer is a professional. Understanding of the concept has been enhanced.
Poor definition: An indicator identifies a specific numerical measurement that indicates progress toward achieving an objective.
This definition is given as a complete sentence with the term being defined, indicator, as the kick-off word. Repeating the term in the definition is unnecessary and merely makes the definition wordier. Definitions should be given as phrases, not sentences. The basic idea is that the phrase could be substituted for the term in any business communication you write, with no change in meaning.
Revised definition: a numerical measurement that gauges progress toward achieving an objective
The revised definition is given as a phrase rather than a sentence. It does not embed the term being defined, indicator. In any business communication you write, instead of indicator you should be able to say "numerical measurement that gauges progress toward achieving an objective" and mean exactly the same thing.
Note also that the verb indicates in the original definition was changed to gauges in the revised version. A verb form of the term being defined generally should not be used in a definition for that term.
Guideline 3. A definition should not be simply a synonym of the term defined.
Discussion: A synonym of a term means exactly the same thing as the term itself. It provides no additional understanding.
Poor definition: an assessment
Evaluation and assessment mean the same thing. Identifying a synonym does not provide a definition.
Revised definition: a result of assessing, judging, appraising, or interpreting something
The revised definition brings clarity to the underlying concept. For example, it indicates that, for intended usage under this vocabulary, an evaluation is a result, not an act.
It can be useful to capture accepted synonym(s) of a term. A synonym is included as its own entry in a vocabulary, as follows. The term that follows "see" should be the term preferred for usage — in this example, evaluation.
assessment: see evaluation
Guideline 4. The kick-off word of a definition and the concept being defined should align.
Discussion: The initial noun or noun phrase in the definition of a concept should simply represent a more general (broader) concept or class of things than the concept being defined. The rest of the text in the definition after the kick-off word should indicate how the concept being defined is:
- distinguished from that more general concept or class, or
- is a special case or variation of that more general concept or class.
Poor definition: a generic name for a role with the responsibility for gathering and assimilating data or requirements
The first noun in this definition is name. A flesh-and-blood analyst, the thing being defined, cannot possibly be a name. Analyst and name are two distinct concepts; name is not a more general or broader concept or class of things than analyst. The terms do not align.
Revised definition: a professional responsible for gathering and assimilating data or requirements
The first noun in this revised definition is professional. Analyst and professional align. An analyst is simply one variation of professional.
Poor definition: a type of peer review in which participants review a proposed solution by stepping through its workings together
The kick-off word in this definition is type. A real-world walkthrough cannot possibly be a type. Walkthrough and type are two distinct concepts; type is not a more general or broader concept than walkthrough. The terms do not align.
Revised definition: a peer review in which participants review a proposed solution by stepping through its workings together
The first (compound) noun in this revised definition is peer review. Walkthrough and peer review align. A walkthrough is a variation of peer review. Peer review is a more general or broader concept or class than walkthrough. The rest of the text in the definition expresses how a walkthrough is a special case or variation of a peer review.
Proposed definition: qualitative statement of a state an organization is seeking to establish and maintain
The kick-off word in this definition is statement. Goal and statement are two distinct concepts; statement is not a more general or broader concept than goal. The terms do not align. A goal might be expressed by a statement, but that is not what a goal is.
Revised definition: a state an organization is seeking to establish and maintain, usually expressed qualitatively rather than quantitatively
The first noun in the revised definition is state. Goal and state align. A goal is a desired state. State is a more general or broader concept than goal. The rest of the text in the definition expresses how a goal is a special case of a state.
Poor definition: a human or nonhuman role that plays a part in a process
Assume human and nonhuman are being used in this definition as adjectives — that is, as modifiers of role. The kick-off word is therefore role. Actor and role are two distinct concepts; role is not a more general or broader concept than goal. The terms do not align. A role might be played by an actor, but that is something an actor does, not what an actor is.
Revised definition: a human, device, or system that plays a part in a process
Instead of a single first noun, this revised definition lists three: human, device, and system. If no single term is evident that covers all relevant variations of the more general or broader concept or class appropriate for the definition, a short list such as this one is acceptable.
Poor definition: a framework that determines which tasks and techniques can be used to solve a problem
The kick-off word in this definition is framework. Merriam-Webster Unabridged Dictionary (MWUD) yields no definition of methodology that supports it being a kind of framework. Methodology and framework are two distinct concepts; framework is not a more general or broader concept or class than methodology. The terms do not align.
MWUD does offer the following definition (1a) for methodology: a body of methods, procedures, working concepts, rules, and postulates employed by a science, art, or discipline. Therefore a better definition of methodology might be the following.
Revised definition: a body of methods, techniques, procedures, working concepts, and rules that can be used to solve a problem
The beginning noun phrase in this revised definition is body of methods, techniques, procedures, working concepts, and rules. A noun phrase such as this one is acceptable in initiating a definition. A methodology is a variation of the concept that whole noun phrase represents.
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