Finding clarity as a leader

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Every leader knows that clarity is important – but usually only in a general sort of way. There is no urgency to pursue greater clarity because we don’t really know how unclear things are, or how much difference greater clarity could make to how our organisations perform

This is an edited version of an article that originally appeared on Management Today

Clarity is the next performance frontier and it represents an enormous opportunity hidden in plain sight. In one study, by a Fortune 50 organisation, it was determined that employees are really productive only about 20% of each day this means there are only a couple of hours a day when employees can cruise with confidence because they know exactly what they are trying to accomplish, how they will proceed, with whom, and with the luxury of focus. The rest of their day is consumed by unproductive meetings, dragged-out decisions, vague requests, general confusion, shifting priorities, endless email chains, mistakes, conflict and more.

So, what should a leader do? 

Your first concerns probably gravitate toward the clarity of your vision, strategy or goals; this may be where you are most clear but, in order to assess your level of clarity, you need to consider questions such as:

  • Are your objectives specific enough? Does everyone understand what success looks like with enough specificity to make smart decisions and juggle priorities? Vague objectives are of little value to employees making myriad daily decisions in support of organisational goals.
  • Do your objectives and priorities make it clear what you won’t do, so that employees are able to say ‘No’ when appropriate? Employees who aren’t empowered to say ‘No’ can’t manage their time and avoid over-committing.
  • Are your vision and strategy sufficiently focused? When resources, including employee time, are spread too thin, what gets done is determined by the squeakiest wheel, risk avoidance and personal preferences, not organisational priorities.

Are clear objectives sufficient?

While creating clarity of organisational objectives is obviously crucial, it represents only the tip of the iceberg. Your ability to bring your vision to fruition requires millions of actions by numerous employees. Big accomplishments are achieved through a series of small accomplishments – and the efficiency and effectiveness with which those small accomplishments are achieved depend totally on the ability of all employees to create the ‘clarity-in-the-moment’ that allows them to cruise with confidence through the right tasks. Specificity and focus don’t just apply to top-level decisions; the efficiency and effectiveness of every task depends on specificity and focus. 

How can you expect employees to achieve that level of clarity when overwhelmed by unproductive meetings, overflowing inboxes, shifting priorities, vague requests, etc?  How can you expect them to make decisions – easily the most common and most important skill required – when they’ve probably never been taught how to make decisions, and certainly can’t rely on a sound method known to all their colleagues? How can they address ‘appalling disclarity’ when their clarity vocabulary is limited to ‘this seems a little unclear’? 

What does ‘appalling disclarity’ look like?

One example ‘appalling disclarity’: treadmill verbs. 

Do you ever ask someone to ‘please review this’? You probably do because it is incredibly common. But ‘review’ is what can be called a ‘treadmill verb’. You can review forever. There is no way to know when you have finished. You can review for grammar, punctuation and spelling. Or sentence structure. Or flow. Credibility. Persuasiveness. Accuracy. Customer promises. Appropriate attribution. Legal concerns. Alignment with priorities. ‘Please review’ is an appallingly unclear request. 

Or maybe you ask employees to report. ‘Report’ is another treadmill verb. You can report forever. There is no destination. No way to know when you are finished. Ask someone to report and you have issued an open invitation to talk without purpose.

The solution

Make clarity a priority. Learn how to recognise the ‘disclarity’ that surrounds us. Learn the language of clarity and ensure all employees have a cognitive toolkit that transforms talk into true progress.

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