Growth is both a blessing and a curse. The blessing is obvious, the curse less so.
What was very clear early on with just a handful of folks in the company becomes increasingly less so as the headcount grows. At the same time, growing a business successfully depends on making as many good decisions as possible, as quickly as possible.
As the company grows, if we don't give up control at the top, we sacrifice our ability to make decisions in two crucial ways:
- In quality, because decisions are made further and further away from where the actual work happens.
- In speed, because the work will get increasingly blocked by decisions happening elsewhere.
With this in mind, few leadership responsibilities (at all levels) are more important than creating clarity. Only by creating clarity are we able to give up control and expect consistently reasonable decisions up and down the line. Unfortunately, leaders tend to significantly overestimate how much clarity their teams have.
To make things even more difficult, as circumstances change over time, clarity becomes a moving target. As Justin Rosenstein, co-founder of Asana puts it,
It would be wonderful if clarity were the default state of teams. Unfortunately, telepathy doesn’t exist yet, so instead the default state of teams is chaos and confusion. Over time—as strategies shift, plans change, and teams grow—teams tend to become even more confused.
So where is clarity most needed? In short: everywhere. One way to look at it is by breaking it down into organization, teams and individuals.
"Who are we, and why are we here?"
Jeff Lawson, CEO and co-founder of Twilio, said the following about culture and values:
“Culture is a word that Silicon Valley and startups everywhere toss around all the time. What does it really mean and how does it relate to values? What I landed on is that culture is living your values.”
But if as an organization our values are not clear, how can we hope to live them consciously? How can a new joiner know what's important and what's not, other than by trial and error? And why does it matter?
Clarity means people at all levels of an organization clearly and completely understand what the organization is about. This is needed because people in the organization make decisions against a set of criteria that includes what the organization is trying to accomplish. If clarity of purpose is misunderstood, then the criteria by which a decision is made will be skewed, and suboptimal decisions will be made.
What the organization is about and what it is trying to accomplish are things that, if opaque, will only lead to bad things over time: disengagement at best, a toxic environment at worst. It is the leadership's responsibility to come up, not with fancy values disconnected from reality, but to explicitly codify what truthfully represents what the company is and where it is trying to go. And it is everyone's responsibility to demand this exercise happens.
"How do we win as a team?"
In 2016, Google had a burning question: What makes a team effective?
Project Aristotle was kicked off to answer that question. What they found is that only psychological safety and dependability of team members are more important than having structure and clarity – meaning "an environment where team members have clear roles, plans, and goals".
Knowing what our goals should be in the first place is often, in and of itself, a hard thing to do. Same for crafting a plan on how to get there, and who should do what. But too many companies and teams don't even try, literally hoping for the best. "We use Scrum", many teams say, implying that everything, therefore, will be alright. It won't.
Doing the hard work of figuring out as clearly as possible the goals, the plans and the roles is more than half of the way to actually achieving them. As Seneca once said, "If one does not know to which port one is sailing, no wind is favorable".
Here's a quick test: try asking each of your team members to describe their understanding of the goals of the team, and what the plan to accomplish them is. I'm comfortable betting some good money that, in most cases, you'll be scared out of your wits by the disparity in the answers. And hopefully, you'll be scared into your wits enough to do something about it.
Thankfully, there are frameworks to help us think and do something about this. One good example is Asana's who believe, much like Google discovered, that leadership in teams is responsible for bringing about clarity of purpose, plan, and responsibility. Without these, no team can perform anywhere near its full potential.
"What do I need to be at my best more often?"
In the excellent Lead Yourself First, authors Raymond M. Kethledge and Michael S. Erwin write:
A leader should strive for clarity not only about the challenges he faces but about himself, his strengths and weaknesses as a leader.
Self-awareness and self-reflection are essential human qualities. But we don't spend nearly enough time reflecting compared to how much time we spend executing. Personally, although I consider myself to be quite introspective, I struggle with figuring out what needs to be true for me to be productive – mentally, physically and in my environment. That kind of clarity is foundational, and a constant work in progress for me.
Tactically, few decisions are more important than how we spend our time. Wade Chambers, CTO & SVP of Engineering at Grand Rounds, describes how he uses the OATS framework to gain clarity, on a weekly basis, on what he should be doing:
- Objective: "What's the objective for the week?"
- Activities: "What are the activities that I need to do to achieve the activities? What does success look like for each of these activities?"
- Time: "How much time do I need to do these?"
- Schedule: "Schedule it in my calendar."
Try it. You will most likely come face to face with the gaps in your own understanding of what your objectives should be, or at least what the best activities are to pursue them. This is a good thing. Push through, because gaining this clarity for yourself makes everything else easier.
Here's one last perspective on clarity.
When you think of each member of your team, do you know what makes them tick? What is important to them, in their personal lives, and how the work enables or hinders that? This is the stuff that takes time, curiosity, care and empathy to build, through working together and many one-on-ones. But it's the crucible where trust and great relationships are forged.
At the end of the day, everyone has their individual concerns – which do not get temporarily suspended during work hours – and is part of a team with a goal, that is part of a company that has a mission. If there's ongoing clarity on what those individual concerns, team goals and company mission are, and they all line up, good things are bound to happen.
So, are we clear?
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