As I sat down to write this latest blog post in the Simplify series, I once again pondered the conversations I have been having with clients and other business leaders over the last few months and was struck by a central theme that seems to be popping up in most of them: the importance of clarity and negative impact the lack of it has on teams and organizations. I think the primary reason this issue is hitting my radar is a key question I am asking some of these leaders to answer: What were the biggest challenges for you and your team last year, other than the pandemic, that you wish to address more effectively this year? Consistently, I am hearing a desire to improve accountability, increase efficiency, foster greater ownership, improve communication and achieve better overall results. I would suggest the answer to all of these challenges, or the beginning of the answer, can be found by dramatically improving clarity.
Why is clarity so difficult to consistently achieve? One big reason is we may be too busy and racing from task to task rather than thoughtfully creating clarity in our spheres of influence at work and requiring clarity from others. Why are we so busy? Perhaps it is because we are negatively affected by the inefficiency created by the lack of clarity and the dysfunctional way it takes over our calendars with repetitive meetings and calls to rehash the same conversations and continually start over (visualize a hamster on a flywheel). Perhaps we have accepted the lack of clarity as “the way we do things around here” which I addressed in a previous blog post, The Normalization of Defects. Maybe, just maybe, the challenge with clarity is connected to a lack of candor. Are we willing to clearly and publicly identify issues in front of our colleagues and commit to greater accountability with deadlines? Are we willing to respectfully, but candidly, question how we do things within our teams and organizations in an effort to make them better?
If we can agree that clarity may be an issue for us, our team and our company, how do we address it? Let’s begin by focusing on five types of clarity that can positively impact decision-making, how business meetings are conducted, overall efficiency and execution:
- Do we have clarity around the “why”? Why is this project necessary and what will it solve? Why are we having this meeting? Is there an agenda and do we know why we are here and what we need to get done? The “why” question is the most important and can be applied to almost every action and decision. If we can clearly answer the “why”, can we connect it back to our overall strategy? Consider the lessons from the first and second posts in this series, Creating Space and The Ripple Effect of Our Actions to better incorporate the “why” question into our daily routine and connect it to better outcomes with the people we encounter each day.
- Do we have clarity on tasks and deadlines? What specifically are we asking others to do? What are the details? When exactly is the assignment/task due? For example, sending someone into battle to “hurry up and fix the company sales problem” is setting them up for failure. We need to marry specificity to actions and tasks, including clear deadlines. Consider this example: “Mike will be creating a process to increase revenue by 5% in professional services before the end of Q2 and will have his action plan on how to do this ready to present in our next staff meeting.” Doing this aspect of clarity well is directly connected to dramatically improving accountability.
- Do we have clarity of ownership? I see a rampant problem in companies today with lack of clarity around ownership. A common scenario is a leader will challenge the team to do something significant in a meeting, but fail to assign specific ownership or ask for someone to step up and publicly take ownership. Confusion and chaos is the result as more than one person may assume they own solving the problem and time and resources are wasted with duplicative efforts. Clarifying “who owns it?” should always be a given.
- Do we have role clarity? This aspect of clarity goes beyond task ownership and is more about defining the sandbox we will play in, what we are accountable for and how we will specifically do our job, contribute to a project or help in solving a problem faced by the team. Role clarity also defines the overall scope and responsibilities of our job. There will always be some unavoidable degree of overlap in certain roles, but an emphasis on clarifying roles, duties and decision-making rights (in writing) can make this problem more palatable and reduce unnecessary friction.
- Do we have clarity of communication? Ambiguity and overall lack of clarity in leadership communication often contributes to misunderstandings, inefficiency and poor execution. Every email or text from a leader needs to create clarity, not confusion or chaos. Who is my audience? What am I trying to convey? Have I given them clear action steps? Did I explain the “why”? The thoughts below are primarily associated with improving business meetings, but I am focusing on this because most of the communication dysfunction I observe takes place in poorly run meetings and the resulting follow-up. Consider this short list of action steps for every business meeting:
- Never have a meeting without a clear agenda, ideally shared 48 hours in advance.
- Always assign a scribe to take notes (rotate this assignment on team), specifically listing a summary of key points from the meeting, task ownership, the specific tasks in detail and due dates.
- Disseminate meeting notes to all participants within 24 hours of meeting.
- Helpful Tip: Want to go deeper in addressing dysfunctional business meetings? Please read this post.
I recognize this may seem like a lot of hard work when we are all likely very busy. But, I encourage the readers of this post to consider that embracing greater clarity will actually reduce your workload, make you more efficient and enhance your ability to execute. If we have become the proverbial hamster on the flywheel, it is time to get off.
Here are easy approaches to try, beginning this week: Ask yourself each of the five clarity questions I posed in this post before big decisions, certainly before and during every meeting and before communicating with your colleagues. Create space on your calendar to be more thoughtful about clarity. Don’t worry if your attempts at clarity are not perfect. Focus on simply making the effort and be committed to making changes. Discuss the topic with your colleagues. Go for small wins. Try to be the role model for everyone else. Keep trying and the clarity you can offer those within your sphere of influence will improve.
*Stay tuned for what’s next in the Simplify blog post series: “Are You Successful?”