Why “great” isn’t always a great word

I’m going to stop using the word “great” as a way to describe some aspect excellence. The word is used so often to describe excellence that we seldom challenges its use. As I was editing my upcoming book, Tribal Alchemy: Turning What You Have Into What You Need, I noticed how many times I used the word great to describe a tribe that behaved in positive or progressive ways. Here’s an example:

Great tribes ingeniously transform their raw materials–what they possess–

into what they need.

Sounds like a fine idea. Except it’s not true (or it’s probably not true).

You have to get to the third definition of “great” (Merriam-Webster) before you get to one that could be used the way I used it in the sentence above. The first two definitions have to do with “largeness.” Here’s definition 3:

: remarkable in magnitude, degree, or effectiveness <great bloodshed>

Even that definition requires some stretching in order to use it the way I did (which I changed, by the way).

So what’s the problem here?

When you use the word great to describe excellence of performance, you are using an umbrella word that doesn’t discriminate as to what kind of excellence you mean? To use the word “great” to describe a particular aspect of a group’s performance (great groups do this or that) is imprecise UNLESS the group actually excels at every group indicator of excellence. To use the word more precisely you would have to say: Great groups excel at X because they excel at every possible indicator of excellence, which includes X.

Now, I’ve worked for 30 years with tribes, groups, teams and any other word you want to use to describe collections of people. I’ve met very few, if any, great groups. That is, if we define “great” as a group that excels at every possible indicator of excellence. I know hundreds of groups that are great at something.

When we use the word great, what we are usually doing is segmenting a certain element of performance and identifying that a person or group is exceptional at that element. If that’s the case, why use the word great at all to describe the performance? Why not just use the word that reflects what the person or group does really well.

So let’s look again at the sentence that I edited from my upcoming book:

Great tribes ingeniously transform their raw materials–what they possess–

into what they need.

Again the problem with this sentence is that it assumes the tribe excels in all ways, including ingenuity. But that’s unlikely. Instead, here’s how I edited the sentence:

Ingenious tribes transform their raw materials–what they possess–into what they need.

End of story.

When tribes transform their raw materials into what they need they are ingenious, not great. You could say they are great at ingenuity, but why? “Ingenious” is a more precise way to identify what the tribe excels at. Further, the tribe may suck at other things; hence they would not be great in the more comprehensive and generic sense of the word.

Why does this matter?

Through words we create frames. And frames become ways of seeing which lead to ways of behaving.

Bestowing the word “great” on a person or an entire group should be reserved for rare cases. Michael Jordon was a great basketball player because he actually excelled in all aspects of the game. But when we overuse the word as way to describe someone that is excelling at one element of excellence, it produces a false sense of well, greatness. The prematurely labeled “great person or tribe” believes they are excelling in all areas because they are excelling in one. This can lead to arrogance, egotistical behavior and an inflated sense of accomplishment. And all of that can lead to well, a number of disasters–that include underachievement of results and overconfidence of skill. Quite the mixed drink.

This also matters because when we use “great” to describe one aspect of excellence rather than comprehensive excellence, it diminishes the importance of continuous improvement. If a tribe is ingenious, and for that ingenuity they are deemed “great” they do not know why they’re great. “Great” doesn’t tell them what they’re excelling at, just as “bad” doesn’t tell them what they suck at. Improvement requires that I target specific areas I’ve identified for growth. Targeting those areas requires precise language. Individuals and tribes would do well to be as precise in language as possible when they describe what they do and do not do well. This would make it much easier for them to pinpoint growth areas and increase the possibility of excellence.

I encourage you to join me in my more limited and narrow use of the word great. If we use more precise language to describe what we–or our tribes–excel at, or suck at–we may actually one day be, um…great.



Sign up to download Section One of Dave Fleming’s book, Tribal Alchemy: Mining Your Team’s Collective Ingenuity. You will also receive a weekly newsletter with tips for infusing ingenuity into your work.  
Written by Dave Fleming