5 Comebacks When People Want the Weasel Wordsby Stacey Barr |
Weasel words are the enemy of measurability. When a goal is written with them – agile, benefits, capacity, diversity, efficiency, fit for purpose, holistic, livability, productivity, sustainability, and so on – that goal is impossible to meaningfully measure. But yet there is often resistance to removing those weasel words.
We need to work through that resistance, and not accept any excuse for keeping them there. Here are the five common excuses for keeping weasel words, and comebacks you can use to diffuse those excuses.
Excuse #1: We need to keep the goal broad enough for everyone to find their own contribution to it.
That’s a myth. People find it frustrating, and they turn off and can even become cynical about the strategy when it’s written so vaguely. This is why many strategic plans just sit on the shelf, gathering dust.
Excuse #2: Our goal is very sophisticated and we need sophisticated words to convey it.
The executive team might think they have a good handle on the practical meaning of their weasel words, but strategic plans aren’t written for executives. It’s the rest of the organisation’s efforts that will execute that strategy. If they don’t understand it, it won’t be executed.
Excuse #3: We won’t be able to agree on words to replace the weasel words.
If you can’t agree on the words to replace the weasel words, it likely means you don’t have a shared understanding of their intent in the first place. Big problem! It means that the best conversation you can have is definitely the conversation about what those weasel words mean to each of you, and how to converge on what they should mean.
Excuse #4: We don’t want to be held accountable for anything too specific; we need room to move.
This is a fear of accountability. And that fear is the thing to address first, before the weasel words. What’s your definition of accountability (it is, after all, a weasel word itself)? If it’s about hitting targets, it’s all wrong. Accountability is taking action when action is needed. And that can only happen when everyone is clear about what action is needed and why.
Excuse #5: We’d end up with too many specific goals if we deweaseled.
It’s true: often when a goal is deweaseled, it turns into half a dozen specific results. That’s too many. It’s a sign that your strategy isn’t really strategic. It’s more like a shopping list of everything that is important, rather than a ruthless prioritisation of what is most important and urgent to focus on right now. Remember Peter Drucker’s message: strategy is more about what not to do.
Simply practice one of these comebacks, in your own words, next time you see someone resisting focus, clarity and specificity in formulating or trying to measure their strategy.
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Here is perhaps another “reason” to justify weasels. This manager told me: “look, weasel words are not that bad. They sound good and they motivate people which is important so I’m not going to jettison them”. I was speechless.
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