Ben Holliday

Shared working definitions

The purpose of defining something is to create a shared understanding of words, ideas, and processes with a wider group of people.

If you’re going to talk about ideas and ways of working such as ‘digital’, ‘agile’, or ‘service design’, then it’s important to first set out what these things mean.

When doing this, having a ‘perfect’ definition or finding definitions that everyone agrees with is unrealistic. It’s also not a good use of time.

As an example. It’s hard to agree a perfect definition for ‘service design’. There are plenty of good definitions you can work from in your organisation, but there’s no universally accepted definition of what service design is, how far it reaches, and its remit or application as a process, job role, or way of working.

To save yourself getting caught in a cycle of unhelpful conversations the trick is to work towards a shared working definition. This means something that’s generally accepted rather than a perfect definition that has total agreement.

Shared working definitions work well because we can assume that most definitions are wrong, at least in part. Working this way we expect a definition and our understanding of something to change and evolve over time, especially as we better understand the context of the organisations we’re working with.

I try to start workshops, talks, and sometimes even individual conversations by defining a working context to start the conversation from. For example “…this is how I understand service design”, or “…this is how we understand and think about digital”, or “…this is how we understand transformation and change”.

Shared understanding is something you have to create with different groups of people. Each definition is only as valuable as the next set of conversations it opens up. If you’re defining something it should be so you can collectively agree on how you intend to do something, or prioritise a future set of actions.

Back to our example. Having a shared working definition for ‘service design’ is a way of framing more important conversations you need to have if you’re managing change. Increasingly, a focus on service design, starting with agreeing what service design means, can be part of a broader conversation about organisation design. Ultimately, any definition of service design is only as good as the services it helps you to understand, design and improve, and the questions it makes you ask of the organisation that delivers them.

I always say that shared working definitions should feel at least 80% good enough. They can change and they should change over time. They should change with an organisation. While in the meantime the organisations that don’t make progress lack enough shared understanding to move forwards.

This blog post is also published on Medium.

This is my blog where I’ve been writing for 18 years. You can follow all of my posts by subscribing to this RSS feed. You can also find me on Bluesky, less frequently now on X (formally Twitter), and on LinkedIn.