Organizational clarity

How to fix people not doing what you expect them to

As a leader, do you find yourself frustrated with coworkers not doing work the way you expect them to? Are you constantly taking on more responsibilities because you feel alone in being able to do the work properly? In this essay I cover how organizational clarity can help you solve this problem.

The primary challenges of a leader

As leaders, we all need to solve the same, three primary challenges:

  • The enablement challenge: How to get the best out of all our people?
  • The alignment challenge: How to ensure that everyone is pulling in the same direction?
  • The improvement challenge How to ensure that the quality and predictability of our work systematically improves over time?

During my 20+ years as a leader, I have come to find how these challenges are solved by organizational clarity.

What is organizational clarity?

Organizational clarity is the degree to which the employees of the organization understand why the organization exists, where it's going, and their role in achieving objectives and impacting the mission.

In short, everyone knows exactly what is expected of them, and why.

Think of organizational clarity as every employee having been handed a pair of properly calibrated glasses enabling them to clearly see the organization's place in the world and their own place in the organization.

The opposite of clarity is ambiguity. The word ambiguity means inexact, or open to more than one interpretation.

What happens when we have high organizational ambiguity?

In organizations with a high degree of ambiguity we find that:

  • Frustration, blame and distrust is commonplace due to unevenly and unclearly distributed responsibilities
  • Lots of time is wasted on communication, trying to make collective decisions, or figuring out who should do what and how
  • Lots of effort is wasted on activity not producing an impact on the mission and main objectives

In organizations with high ambiguity, people spend a lot of time doing the wrong things, doing the right things the wrong way, or communicating a lot to get decisions made and stuff done right.

People with high organizational ambiguity are often frustrated with the organization, care less about doing a great job, and are more likely to leave.

Organizational ambiguity is the strongest predictor of a dysfunctional organization.

What happens when we have high organizational clarity?

On the other hand, when there exists a high degree of clarity within an organization:

  • We can more easily hold each other accountable to expectations
  • We move much more effectively and efficiently in the right direction
  • We are more motivated, engaged, and driven to do our best

In organizations with high clarity, people do the right things the right way, every day.

People with high organizational clarity feel confident, motivated and a sense of purpose, which has the side effect of turning them into effective evangelists for the organization.

Organizational clarity is the strongest predictor of a healthy organization.

The main areas of organizational clarity

Organizational clarity can be broken down into four, main areas:

  • Offering clarity - In what way are we creating value?
  • Role clarity - How are we doing it?
  • Goal clarity - What are we focusing on?
  • Existence clarity - Why are we doing it?

I find it useful to think of these areas as a Venn diagram, signifying how the areas somewhat overlap, and the purpose of aiming for high clarity positioned in the middle.

Existence, role and goal clarity depicted as a Venn diagram

Let's take a quick look at each of these areas separately.

Existence clarity

Existence clarity is the extent to which employees have a clear understanding of the direction and identity of the organization.

Existence clarity answers the why of the organization:

Why does this organization need to exist? What do we care about? Where are we headed?

Concepts typically used to produce existence clarity are the purpose, mission, vision, values and strategy of the entire organization, as well as the purpose and strategies of individual teams.

Offering clarity

Offering clarity is the extent to which employees have a clear understanding of how the organization and their team creates value.

Offering clarity answers the what of the organization:

What problem are we solving, and who cares?

Concepts typically used to produce offering clarity are key challenges, key solutions, segments, profiles and their most significant jobs to be done.

Role clarity

Role clarity is the extent to which employees have a clear understanding of their own roles and the roles of others.

Role clarity answers the who and how of the organization:

Who should do what and how should they do it?

Concepts typically used to produce role clarity are roles, responsibilities, processes, skillsets, and many more.

Goal clarity

Goal clarity is the extent to which employees have a clear understanding of the high-level goals of the organization, the objectives of individual teams, and the individual development goals of team members.

Goal clarity answers the what and when of the organization:

What should we be focused on and when should we be focusing on it?

Concepts typically used to produce goal clarity include goals/objectives (OKRs), prioritized initiatives/projects, performance indicators (KPIs), and individual development goals.

What's keeping leaders from improving organizational clarity?

If organizational clarity is so impactful in producing a great organization, why are so many leaders not prioritizing its development?

When I talk to leaders about improving organizational clarity, these are the justifications I hear most frequently:

  • We already have sufficient clarity within our organization
  • It's not a priority (not sufficiently urgent)
  • I don't know where or how to start

Here's my perspective on these objections:

We already have sufficient clarity within our organization

It's common for leaders to believe that there exists clarity (or at least enough of it) within their teams and organization, even when that's not the case.

This assumption of clarity can probably (at least in part) be attributed to the curse of knowledge, which causes people to forget that others do not hold the same knowledge as themselves.

In addition, it's very difficult for a leader (or anyone, for that matter) to predict how an organization would improve, and by how much, if organizational clarity was put on the agenda.

My advice to these leaders is to do some simple surveys to test their assumptions. It has been my experience that when leaders start to ask around, they often uncover a lot more ambiguity than their intuition leads them to believe.

A word of caution, though: When polling organizational clarity, don't just ask high-level yes/no questions.

Admitting that we don’t understand something is embarrassing. Especially after a certain period of time has gone by. Therefore, you should ask specific questions and present specific expectations upon which the respondents can reflect on their familiarity. Otherwise, you run the risk of getting answers which give an inaccurate reflection of reality.

Feel free to reuse or draw inspiration from the role clarity and goal clarity surveys we use in our own work.

It's not a priority (not sufficiently urgent)

Let's face it: Organizational clarity will never appear urgent. Nevertheless, it is extremely important to the long-term success and performance of the organization, meaning that it needs to be an ongoing priority at some point.

If you don't consider improving clarity a priority right now, ask yourself what other types of initiatives exist within the current or next quarter to improve how work is done within the organization.

If the answer is "none", you could be falling into the urgency trap, meaning to constantly prioritize what's urgent over what's important. If that's the case, your top priority should probably be to climb out of this trap as soon as possible (The Phoenix Project is a great read in this case).

Coincidently, it has been my experience that leaders who start prioritizing organizational clarity quickly experience its positive effects on reducing urgency and putting out fires.

I don't know where or how to start

Producing organizational clarity can seem complex, but it's not. However, it does require a commitment which in turn makes the need for tools, culture, and processes to help produce and maintain clarity more evident.

If you would like some help identifying where and how to get started, feel free to reach out. I'd be happy to share my thoughts on where leaders can have the most impact on clarity with the least amount of effort.