Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Clarity: The Most Important Management Deliverable?

During my week-long management training class, I observed something worth sharing.  One of the most important things a manager needs to provide to his (or her) team is clarity.  It is important that you give precise instructions.  If asked for details, it is important to give them.  If you don't know enough details for the work to start, consider waiting to give the instructions. 

Let me set the stage a little.  During the training we divided up into groups with people acting as managers, leads, and workers.  When I was a lead, my manager came to us with a project to work on.  He had some idea what he wanted but didn't know all the details.  When we probed him for those details he said he didn't have them.  We started working on our vague mission which later changed as he got a better idea of what he wanted.  The pain of changing deliverables was high.  If you are pretty sure the work will change dramatically, don't assign it.

When put in a similar situation where I had vague instructions from above and had to convey them to my team, I took a different approach.  Rather than say, "I don't know," I made an executive decision.  I knew what parts were most likely not critical in my manager's mind and just made a decision.  This allowed my team to start work and to be comfortable with what I was asking of them.

Another example, also from the same training.  At one point we were having a brainstorming session.  Those of us who were workers asked whether we were trying to come up with solutions to problem A or problem B.  The management said to just do both.  We could sort them out later.  This didn't work well.  There was no agreement about what it was we were deciding and so there was no criteria to decide if something was appropriate or not.  The whole thing was quite frustrating.

These two instances--assigning work and running a meeting--are places where providing clarity is extremely important.  Without clarity, your team will feel frustrated and you will be perceived as lacking confidence or worse, being a flip-flopper.  If your team is convinced that their mission will change soon, they won't give it their all.  They'll wait for the change.  Likewise, if you don't have clear goals in a meeting, it will just drag on and on and there is a good chance you'll leave without having made a decision.

Here is some advice for both situations.

When assigning work, be precise and be decisive.  You have to know your audience.  If you are talking to junior team members, you'll need to give a lot of guidance.  You'll likely need to circle back several times and bring them back on course.  If they are doing the right thing, be sure to let them know this explicitly.  Tacit approval is very disconcerting--especially to younger team members.  If you are talking to senior team members, they won't need much direction.  They are capable of filling in the blanks themselves.  Be sure to let them know you are leaving the rest of the decisions up to them though.  If not, they may worry that you'll circle back later and undercut their decisions.

When running a meeting where you want to make a decision, you need to be clear what the goal is and how you'll decide if you got there.  To do this, you need to know the answers to these two questions before you start the discussion.  First, "What precisely is it we're trying to decide?"  It should be one thing.  If it is two, divide that up into two clearly delineated discussions.  Second, "What is the criteria for deciding the answer?"  It isn't enough to know what you want to decide.  It is equally important to know how you'll recognize the decision.  Share both of these pieces of information with the team.  Finally, during the meeting, you need to be in control.  That means you need to recognize when the team is going off on a rabbit-trail and ring them back.  You need to observe when consensus is forming and help it along.

In my mind, more than any technical expertise, more than growing your team, more than putting the right process in place, the most important part of being a good leader is providing your team with a clear vision of where they are going and why.  If they have this vision, they'll make the right choices.  If they don't, you'll have low morale and incoherent decisions being made.  This vision doesn't have to be imposed by you.  It can be influenced by the team.  You are responsible for being a clear advocate for direction, not necessarily for deciding it.


  1. Great post!  Although a true leader of course delivers on this and many more things.  Here's 19 more things for managers-aspiring-to-be-leaders to consider...
    Kelly Waters

  2. or What to do when you aren't in control but neither is the leader. A while back I wrote about providing

  3. or What to do when you aren't in control but neither is the leader. A while back I wrote about providing

  4. A few weeks ago I attended a training and had an opportunity to try out the ideas generated from my earlier

  5. A few weeks ago I attended a training and had an opportunity to try out the ideas generated from my earlier