In my experience, good leaders, who earn the respect of their colleagues, drive clarity when they are evangelizing their vision. They speak in clear language, state their assumptions, aggressively work the risks, and always think through the important questions, on their own, so that they know their options and can make the best decisions. The difference is not subtle.
Great leaders create more clarity than they consume.
The more complex a problem is, the more important clarity becomes. Without it, projects flounder and are poorly executed. Teams that lack clarity of vision appear “busy” and suffer a lack of progress due to confusion. Clarity and the ability to drive it creates immense value for organizations in terms of both real cost reductions and faster timelines. Because no project ever starts with perfect information, someone needs to drive the creation of clarity in order for a team to execute effectively. The good news is that the creation of clarity is a tangible skill. It can be taught and it can be learned. It is, a worthwhile leadership trait to develop.
Teach your team to ask fewer questions.
People often use questions as a way to unintentionally put things off or create excuses for inaction. Alternatively, they may avoid making assumptions because they are afraid of being wrong. Asking a well-formulated question without attempting to answer it yourself may make you feel smarter at the moment and allow you to delay making a mistake. While it may protect your ego, it makes you a consumer of clarity. It gets the hard work off of your plate and transfers it to the target of your question. Consider, the most successful people that you know; Do they work to answer more questions than they ask, or is it the other way around?
You might argue that you have to ask the right questions to get an understanding of a problem. However, the real value of a great question lies not in the questions themselves, but in the critical thought that comes out of understanding the questions. Ultimately, no value is provided until the question is answered. The key to creating clarity lies in the ability to balance imperfect information while managing risks for the sake of progress and tangible execution. Here are some guidelines to consider to help you be a creator of clarity:
1. In the face of uncertainty: a clarity creator will assemble a set of assumptions to communicate and test and will work through them to purposefully minimize the uncertainty at hand. At a minimum, they will clearly communicate where the uncertainties lie so that there are no surprises later on. They will provide educated and strategic decisions and recommendations to help the organization succeed before they ask any questions. They will offer up their research and work, on-demand when asked why they are making an assumption or recommendation.
2. In the face of imperfect knowledge: before a clarity creator will ask you a question, to fill knowledge gaps, they will carefully consider all of the alternative sources of knowledge. If it is reasonable for them to go and find the answer themselves, they will do the work. They will think through every aspect of the problem, do the research, and work to understand the context. They will recommend solutions and explain how they intend to fill any remaining gaps in knowledge. They may not have all of the information, but they take the time to think through what information they do have and will hunt for the information they need to make intelligent assumptions based upon the best knowledge they do have, even if it is imperfect. They will then test those assumptions until they become facts.
3. In the face of known risks: a clarity creator will identify and prioritize the risks and work to eliminate the riskiest items first. They will test the assumptions and recommend proofs of concept or other risk mitigation strategies where new solutions need to be tested. Where risks are unavoidable, they will still work to minimize them.
Creating clarity by ruthlessly finding ways to provide answers has an immense effect on project execution in the following ways:
- By providing more insights, thought and research, the quality of decisions made during execution is improved.
- By reducing the effort that needs to be expended by other members of the team, it frees them up to focus on higher-value tasks.
- By reducing the number of question and answer cycles, clarity minimizes wait states and improves the speed at which a team can execute.
- It improves the overall organizational knowledge and ability to respond to future risks and uncertainties.
The business world values simplifiers over complexifiers. Simplifiers are typically those leaders who have expended the energy to gain the knowledge and achieve the competence required to break complex problems down into smaller, more digestible parts in their domain. It is hard work to take a question and turn it into an educated and valuable assumption. It also requires some risk that you will make mistakes. You will be wrong sometimes, but your colleagues will still value the attempt and the work you did along the way to build your competence.
If you want to build strong relationships with your colleagues, be the person who works their tail off to answer your own questions to the greatest degree possible. Do the hard work that helps you become a simplifier for your team, over time. Challenge yourself before you ask another question. Can I get that answer on my own? The same logic applies within the context of a team. If you can answer questions within the team, do your best to reduce the amount of work that you put on others, outside of your team by working hard to make intelligent assumptions. Set your team up with purposeful guardrails around questions and hold yourselves accountable for building your competence.