The Importance of Proper Definition

The definition of definition is “a statement expressing the essential nature of something.” At least that’s one way Webster defines the word.  But why is a definition so important?  Because definitions enable us to have a common understanding of a word or subject; they allow us to all be on the same page when discussing or reading about an issue.  And while we tend to make sure we properly define our words and phrases so that all understand, how well do we do that with our projects, programs or initiatives?

Most times we do it poorly, perhaps only scratching the surface of what we intend to do, how we intend to do it, and what impact we believe it will have.  So why do we do something so important so poorly?  After the fact, when the project is implemented – usually behind schedule, over budget, and underwhelming to desired expectations – we rationalize that it would have taken too much time and we really needed to get started. This was, after all, a VERY important project.  We romanticize with each other about the “battles” we had to fight to get it done (the war stories), and promise to do better the next time!  But the next time, it’s another VERY important project, and we repeat.

The rationalization (or excuses) we make really have less to do with the fact that we needed to start, and more to do with the fact that to properly define something, to get to its essential nature, is hard.  It doesn’t just happen.  It takes a lot of work.

Properly defining a project is essential to the success of the project – how it will work, the value it will provide, who will benefit, how we will know if we’re successful, what risks are present, what is and isn’t included, who owns the process, and so on.  These require a lot of thought and preparation before what we traditionally thought was “getting started.”

President Abraham Lincoln once said, “Give me six hours to chop down a tree and I will spend the first four sharpening the axe.”  So the next time you have a project, give some thought to properly defining what you are trying to do. Take the time to sharpen the axe – it just might save you some time in the long run.

Let me know your thoughts!

Until next time,



3 thoughts on “The Importance of Proper Definition

  1. Hi Glenn,

    I was glad to come across this blog post. Do you happen to know of any scholarly sources that provide a definition of the term ‘definition’ and may happen to discuss why definitions are important? Much appreciated.

  2. We lack a satisfactory universal definition of identity. So what’s the problem?

    Well, see the following:

    “Athletic identity is the degree to which an individual identifies with the athlete role and looks to others for acknowledgement of that role”

    REALLY? The degree to which an individual identifies with something is the intensity with which he/she associates with that thing (no need for the word “identity” here)

    The degree to which an athlete looks to others for acknowledgement of his/her role is the intensity with which the individual wishes to be accepted, recognized etc. (again, no need for use of the word “identity” here)

    Staying with sports – What about “offensive” and “defensive” identities as in: “Even modest improvement from the quarterback position would help the Gators begin establishing their new offensive identity”? As in

    The Gators new offensive “strategy” would be a better word than “identity” in this case

    The problem goes on and on and on ….

    Just look at this:

    Yes, let’s get back to basics. Definitions ARE important.

    The Gerald Keogh Identity Series is examining “identity” online (until the end of 2017); we hope to propose a solid definition for IDENTITY. Follow us on

    Glenn, your article is dated 2012 – but it is not “dated”

    Let’s get back to basics and leave confusion behind.Yes, PROPER definitions are not only important they are ESSENTIAL for modern life.

  3. Pingback: Confusion defined | Serenity is a fuzzy belly

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