Clarity creates alignment, and alignment boosts performance.
There is a great line in the classic movie Cool Hand Luke with Paul Newman. In one of the memorable scenes, the prison warden says to Luke (in a very Southern drawl), “What we have here is a failure to communicate.” It didn’t go well for Luke.
Why is clarity so critical?
The practice of creating clarity has two simple objectives. Sharing information with people so they can perform their jobs at a high level, and keeping everyone on the same page, pulling in the same direction, towards meaningful objectives. Clarity creates alignment—simple concept; challenging to do well. The job of creating clarity is never done. New people come into the organization, priorities change, so much communication coming in with texts, emails, phone calls, one-on-conversations, video calls, and more video calls, and team meetings. If that isn’t enough, the world is changing right under our feet. What may have been true and clear last week may not be true or clear today. In her book titled, “Clarity First,” Karen Martin asserts that High degrees of clarity create high performing organizations; low clarity drags organizations into an abyss of poor performance with frustrated leaders, disengaged employees and dissatisfied customers. Because no organization creates clarity perfectly, the ones that do it well have a distinct advantage over those just winging it.
The impact on performance.
Consider these two projects.
The first project has a clear purpose, a budget, a well-defined scope, and the right people on the team who are clear about the roles. The project has a clear set of deliverables and a time frame to deliver them. In this project, there are regular team meetings with candid conversations about what is going well, what is not, and how to course-correct. Any changes in scope are well communicated to everyone. As a result, team members leave each meeting with clarity about the path forward. So, what is the likelihood of this project delivering the expected outcomes on time and on budget? How will the team members feel about working on this project?
The second project has the same good intentions as the first project, as well as good people. The objectives and scope of the project are a little fuzzy. Not everyone is clear about their role and how it intersects with other people’s roles on the project. This team also has meetings to discuss the project. Changes to the project may not be explained to everyone sufficiently. So, team members don’t always leave with what course corrections need to be made. This team keeps going down the original path, pushing them off-track. Same questions: What is the likelihood of this project delivering the expected outcomes on time and on budget? How will these team members feel about working on this project?
The same principles apply to teams and organizations.
What happened with these two projects also happens with teams and organizations. The teams and organizations with ongoing clarity stand a strong chance of everyone pulling in the same direction towards the same goals, resulting in alignment and strong performance. The teams and organizations that lack ongoing clarity have people pulling in different directions towards different goals, resulting in wasted time and energy. Like the projects, teams, and organizations that have ongoing clarity have a distinct advantage over those who lack it.
Where is clarity important?
Consider these areas of what I call the “Clarity Ladder.”
- Purpose. Communicating purpose provides everyone with the “Why” the company exists. It can be a source of pride and enthusiasm.
- Strategy. Everyone who is clear about the strategy knows how they connect to the big picture.
- Values. Values are a set of promises to your people and customers. Think about the implications of how your company lives up to that set of promises. Creating loyalty or cynicism?
- Priorities. When everything is a priority, nothing is a priority. Clarity of priorities provides focus.
- Projects and Initiatives. As discussed in the projects above, clarity impacts outcomes.
- Significant changes. Anyone who is not informed of a significant change does not work in current reality, causing frustration, resentment and poor engagement.
- Individual responsibilities. Many surveys reveal more than half of employees in the U.S. are not clear about their responsibilities. Clarity of expectations supports higher performance. The reverse is also true.
There are many approaches to creating clarity.
A great starting point to begin creating clarity is asking yourself two questions: 1) What is THE most important thing I want my teams to be crystal clear about? You will have many, but pick your top priority. 2) Are they? Having clarity in your mind is only half the job. Once you have really considered those questions, you may realize you have some communicating to do. One of the keys to communicating effectively is to engage our audience clearly and concisely. Who wants to read a two-page email or listen to a long talk or presentation that causes people to get out their phones and send or receive texts? A process that has helped me is called “Know-Feel-Do” and has been around for twenty years or so. The beauty is its simplicity. It can be used in emails, one-on-one meetings, and formal presentations. A critical component of this model is to focus on the needs of the listener(s).
What? How many presentations have you heard that had so many points that you couldn’t tell what the message was? So, be clear about what you want people to know. Be precise and concise, so there is a clear takeaway.
So What? For communications to resonate with people, it has to be more than just information. It has to connect at a personal level. So, answer the “so what?” question people are thinking. Why does this information matter to them? The “what” and “so what” connects the brain to the heart.
Now What? In the marketing world, they call it a CTA (call to action). So, what exactly do you want people to do as a result of this communication? Information for the sake of information usually gets lost in the other piles of information. Make a clear call to action. Now what – are you asking people to do?
Here is an example. This is a company leader communicating to the leadership team.
What. We have just analyzed the culture survey, and Pat is going to share the results. The first takeaway from this presentation is that we are doing some things really well. The key takeaway is we also have some areas that require our attention to strengthen our culture.
So What? Thanks, Pat, for the overview. We can all be really proud of the things we are doing well. I credit your leadership for this. It’s also important to know that making the needed improvements are vital to our success. I believe culture is a competitive advantage, so I want to instill a sense of urgency for making these improvements, myself included.
Now What? I am asking each of you to review the survey data for your business unit and present your plan for making improvements at the next leadership meeting in two weeks. What I am looking for in your presentations are: what is a strength in your unit, what are the 2-3 most important improvements to be made, and what their impact will be. Each presentation will be allotted 20 minutes. What questions do you have?
My encouragement to you is to give the what, so what, now what approach a try with your emails. Once you get the hang of it, start applying the method to discussions and presentation for matters like company values, goals, strategy, priorities, expectations, company initiatives, etc. Honing this leadership skill will accelerate your performance and the performance of your team. It harnesses the power of having people on the same page, pulling in the same direction.
Know this, your leadership matters. Keep learning, growing and developing your leaders!
Dr. Mark Hinderliter works with clients to develop inspiring leaders and great workplaces. His experience as a Senior Vice President for a billion-dollar global enterprise along with a PhD in Organization and Management are a unique fusion of real-world experience and academic credentials.
Mark is a Veteran-owned Business Owner and the host of the podcast, “Creating Great Workplaces.”