Leadership Toolbox: Terms of Reference

By | December 20, 2016

[December 20, 2016]  Confusion, chaos, and frustration will result from simple miscommunications and, unsurprisingly, is a fundamental problem whenever humans are involved with one another.  At its most basic level, good leadership means establishing formal definitions in a leadership toolbox for selected concepts as a way to avoid potential misunderstandings; we call these terms of reference.

Miscommunications will occur regardless of what humans do but when terms of reference are used, even at the most basic level, improved communications will result.  Formally, terms of reference are used in the early stages of project management but can, of course, be used anywhere there might be confusion.  Terms of reference can define what has to be achieved, who will take part in it, how it will be achieved, and when it will be achieved.

Those I know who use terms of reference do so to show how a task or mission can be defined, developed, and verified.  They also lay out the basis for making future decisions and for developing a common understanding for all stakeholders.  Such things as success, criteria, risk factors, and constraints are laid out in an agreed upon way.  I have found this to be crucial when complex problems or issues are to be resolved at the leadership level.

When working at the senior Flag officer level in the U.S. military, we always used terms of reference to establish at least the baseline for future discussions.  Such terms are debated, analyzed, and established early to avoid problems later when the mission was underway.  Such actions may seem to be too simplistic or too old fashioned.  But I’ve seen those who thought that way who regretted it later when avoidable mistakes were made.

The U.S. military, NASA, Boeing aircraft, and numerous large engineering and architectural firms, have all made huge technical (and infamous) mistakes that have made them legends in the wrong way.  Terms of reference will not solve all miscommunications but they can certainly help educate and guide people toward the right direction.

My highest recommendation goes to having a detailed set of terms of reference and having them in your leadership toolbox will help make success possible.

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[Note:]  I have a small mini-series on Leadership Toolboxes here at theLeaderMaker.com.


Author: Douglas R. Satterfield

Hello. I'm Doug and I provide at least one article everyday on some leadership topic. I welcome comments and also guests who would like to write an article. Thanks for reading my blog.