Clarity First: How Smart Leaders and Organizations Achieve Outstanding Performance
March 05, 2018
Karen Martin writes about the vital importance of organizational clarity, and helps you achieve it.
The comments and feedback Karen Martin received in the wake of her first book, The Outstanding Organization, made one thing perfectly clear: the importance of clarity. It was one of four fundamental behaviors and conditions—the others were, focus, discipline, and engagement—she believes are absent in most organizations. She dedicated a chapter to the importance of clarity, and "to this day that chapter receives far more attention, generates more questions, and evokes more emotion than any of the others."
That response convinced her that she needed to devote an entire book to the topic, a feat she's now completed in Clarity First: How Smart Leaders and Organizations Achieve Outstanding Performance, being released by McGraw-Hill later this week. The topic resonated with people because it is "strikingly elusive."
"Ambiguity," Martin writes, "is the corporate default state, a condition so pervasive that 'tolerance for ambiguity' has become a cliché of corporate job postings, a must-have character trait for candidates." And ambiguity has its short-term benefits to those that let it be the default—mostly in a lack of accountability, responsibility, results, or requirements which allows for flexibility in finding your way forward. But all of that "tempts organizations to be reactive: instead of addressing the most important issues, they address those attracting attention at this moment. Ambiguity prevents organizations from operating with focus, discipline, and engagement." The world is full of ambiguity and messiness, which makes that "tolerance for ambiguity" a seemingly understandable imperative. What most organizations don't understand is why providing clarity is so important because of that very fact. She makes that point by referencing Tim Harford's brilliant book on "The Power of Disorder to Transform Our Lives":
Tim Harford, author of the New York Times bestseller Messy, posits … that creativity, innovation, and other types of performance are aided by some degree of messiness. People who operate in methodical ways or according to established norms, in contrast, may become constrained by them and fail to reach the highest levels of performance.
But here, again, the tendency is to falsely equate mess with ambiguity, just as people equate certainty with clarity. Mess and ambiguity are not equivalents. They are peers. You can have a messy situation with many moving parts and utmost flexibility about how to explore it, and you can have complete ambiguity about why you are in that situation and what you hope to change about it. Alternatively, you can have that same messy situation and the same flexibility alongside clarity about why you are there and what—in general terms—you hope to accomplish. Ambiguity makes any kind of work harder to do, but it almost guarantees a disaster when it comes to messy work. Clarity, in contrast, makes messy work easier and more productive.
The first Martin does is clarify exactly what clarity is, how it is different than transparency and certainty, why it isn't more common, and why it is so essential in an uncertain and messy world. Having a clear purpose, a clear set of priorities and processes, and a clear way to accurately gauge performance and solve problems (The five P’s) are all essential. Each of those topics has a chapter dedicated to it, and having spent her early career as a clinical scientist, you can rest assured that Martin is thorough and methodical in her approach to them. What she is not is impersonal or detached. She has spent her career as a consultant building her own team and witnessing organizations first hand, and she clearly understands the humanity at the heart of them. Clarity empowers your people by removing the hurdle of ambiguity around their daily work. A lack of clarity diminishes their ability to contribute their full abilities, which drags the entire organization down:
Clarity raises the organization up; ambiguity drags it down. Why?
Because people are responsible for delivering outstanding performance, and people need clarity if they are to make better decisions, deliver better service, innovate at higher levels, solve problems more effectively, develop more competent teams, and manage the work with greater skill—all in the service of providing greater value to customers, the true source of differentiation in the marketplace. People can often do their jobs without clarity; but rarely can they do their jobs well, and never can they perform at a level that is outstanding. I take it further: people have a fundamental right to expect clarity from the organizations they work for.
In the end, it is all about results:
Beyond what clarity is lies the positive results clarity can bring. Clarity enables every department to understand the organizational priorities and focus its resources on fulfilling them. Clarity ensures that people at least have the information, the processes, and the authority they need to do their jobs to the best of their ability.
Karen Martin practices what she preaches. Clarity First provides a perfectly clear and compelling argument, along with an actionable way to implement it in your own organization starting today.
We have 20 copies available.