Are They the Same or Different?

The definition of a scheme is a plot or a secret, devious plan. Notice those two key words: secret and devious. I have dealt with colleagues in the past who used the term "scheme" when I was saying "plan." I thought that they were just using the proper English term for the same thing. But as we talked about my plan and their scheme, it became quite obvious that what they were discussing matched the above-mentioned definition.

That begs the question: “Why do individuals equate one with the other?”

I have not studied this extensively, so I don’t have a definitive answer. However, I assume it is related to their upbringing and possibly their culture. If that is the case, it just comes naturally and is therefore very normal to them.

So, how does one deal with someone who calls plans "schemes"? My quick answer is, “Very carefully.” To assume that it is just a matter of semantics is to play a dangerous game. Since people such as myself see a scheme as a bad thing, allowing such a term to be said and bandied about can bring the same negative feelings from others you are dealing with.

If they feel the same about that word, they are not going to trust the plan or you. That is not a good way to start or maintain a relationship with anyone. Trust is essential to working together, and if that is not present, trouble can and probably will ensue.

The word “scheme” comes from the Latin word for “figure.” It is still used today to refer to a set of drawings and figures used to map out something. However, somewhere along the way it was equated to a plan or planning, and that is when it became a less-than-desirable term.

Schemes had a positive connotation at one time. In some cases, they still do. I remember as a boy, my father, an architect, called building plans and work schedules "schemas." There was nothing sinister or hidden about that. But that was a rare reference to that term. Many other times he just called them plans.

The problem is not so much the use of the word, but what it is referring to and how it is interchanged with the word "plan." We tend to get sloppy by doing this, not realizing that others are taking it a different way than what we mean to say.

So, what should we do about this?

We can start by being explicit about what we say to others. Then, there should be no mistake about what we are saying and what the meaning is. If someone else is using a term such as "scheme," we should make sure that we in turn know what they mean. It is not our place to correct them. We are way past that in our use of language. As long as we know their meaning and intent of what they are expressing, that should be sufficient.

In teaching my Project Management course, I stress how important communication is. To me, true communication is:

  1. Message is sent
  2. Message is received
  3. Message is understood (Not necessarily agreed to)
  4. Intent is discussed and an agreed-upon resolution is decided upon
  5. Action on the message is taken

Too often, we stop at steps one or two. That can and often does lead to trouble down the road. We think one thing, the receiver thinks something else, and the two do not match. Trouble then ensues.

In conclusion, please choose and use your words and terms properly. The English language, while confusing at times with words that sound alike while being spelled differently, is fairly precise in meaning and usage. Remember that a plan is a good thing, while a scheme is generally bad. Do not equate them, but use them in the right place and context or bear the consequences when you do not.

About the Author:

Peter H. Christian was a founding partner and president of espi, a business consulting firm in Northeastern PA. Previously, he was an Executive at Crayola Corporation. He has worked with over 300 clients in business development, profit improvement, operations, IS selection and implementation, and Project Management. He has 40+ years of experience in strategic and facility planning, CI, lean, and supply chain. He has helped companies realize millions of dollars in cost reductions and profit improvements, adding and retaining thousands of jobs. He has authored the Amazon bestselling business books, “What About the Vermin Problem?” and “Influences and Influencers” (4 out of 4 star review on Online Bookclub) which are highlighted in his profile. He is also published in a variety of professional magazines. He is most appreciative of Dr. Rodney Ridley, Donald Schalk, and Gaetan Gianinni of Alvernia University for their support in allowing him to teach Project Management at the University.

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