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Getting Clear About Clarity

By Gordon Blocker - December 2015

In my work as a principal consultant helping clients create clarity, I’ve seen a variety of responses and rates of success. Some find traction quickly. Others, however, are caught in old paradigms and cannot break out. It seems simple, but it’s not always an easy task. The first thing I usually address is to make sure that people understand the purpose of clarity. Why clarity? What is its purpose and impact?The goal of clarity is not to generate new information. The goal is transformation. Answers to our six critical questions actually fuel effective problem solving and decision-making.

The essence of clarity is summed up by something Jeff Gibson, president of Table Group Consulting, recently said, “The need for more policies and procedures is offset by the strength and alignment of good clarity. Sometimes we see clients double down on a breadth of infrastructure when they miss the depth/power of simple clarity (purpose, values, anchors).” Said another way: healthy organizations don’t need to get people to comply with complex policies and procedures when they can commit to simple clarity.

Here are some other common traps and assumptions our clients face:

Clarity is not a long list of generic ideals and virtues.

Clarityis used by leaders to show exactly who they are and who they are not.

The first trap leaders fall in to when creating clarity is trying to be all things to all people. When we say yes to everything, our people can get confused. Anyone can generate a long list of ideals and virtues that virtually everyone aspires to, but when such lists proliferate through mission and vision statements, these can be viewed as akin to motherhood and apple pie, and people stop paying attention. Rather, it is far more helpful to orient clarity around communicating what makes us unique, and sometimes who we are not versus who we are.

Not long ago, I workedwith a client on clarity question #2 How do we behave? – or core values.As we started, someoneinterruptedsaying,”Wait! We already have core values.””Okay,” I said, “let’s start there. Everyone pull out a piece of paper and writethem down and then we’ll discuss them.” It was an awkward moment when everyone stared back at me and could not come up with even one value. So, we pulled them up off of the websiteand started talking about them. Again, there was discomfortas the team acknowledgedthat few, if any, of their values truly described what wascore to their organization.

Core values are essential. But, if you have 8 to 10 core values (some have more!) it’s hard to call any of them truly core. Priorities are important to know. But, if everything’s important, then nothing is important. No advantage there.

Clarityis not a marketing exercise.

Clarity is real work to help leaders make decisions and solve problems.

Often times, team members will treat creating clarity as primarily an exercise to get the information out to an external audience. As Patrick Lencioni says in The Advantage, it can be “a real danger…when leaders confuse their motivation for identifying their purpose with trying to come up with something that will sound impressive on a billboard, in an annual report, or on an employee sweatshirt.” In other words, marketing can be driven by clarity, but clarity cannot be driven by marketing.

In reality, once clarity is established, the work has just begun for a leadership team. Clarity represents tools for decision-making that we can use constantly. Here are some examples:

  • Want to save the company thousands of dollars from another disastrous hire guided by ambiguous decision-making? You can ask, “How do we behave?” and use your clarity for behavioral interviewing and employee development.
  • Entertaining an enticing (but potentially distracting) opportunity in a new market? You can use the “How do we succeed?” question to filter out opportunistic, short-sighted decisions.
  • Need to focus your team around a major priority? Force the clarity question #5: What’s the most important thing right now?

When we take our clarity and use it in business decisions, our people will get the message. Clarity is not creating information. It’s about tools that lead to transformation.

Clarity is nota wordsmithing exercise to create something slick.

Clarity is meant for easy consumption, conversation, and everyday use.

There’s nothing inspiring about a message you can’t understand, much less commit to memory. As leaders, we have sometimes forgotten what it is like to be new employees and show up on Day 1. Our employees are asking, “What’s the priority?”, “What’s my role?” and other fundamental questions we assume that they know.

Clarity is not a complex explanation so that leaders understand various tensions and nuances. Clarity is simple and accessible so that everyone understands the intent.

In short, we challenge clients to put clarity in simple terms that everyone can understand. And once they’ve said itover and over, people start acting on it andtransformation occurs. This virtuous cycle promotes a strong organizational climate, high productivity and overall organizational health.