Lean management expert Karen Martin tackles the problem so many organizations and leaders face: a lack of clarity. In her new book, Clarity First: How Smart Leaders and Organizations Achieve Outstanding Performance, she gives specific recommendations on how to improve clarity and thus your overall performance.
The book helps leaders identify the organization’s purpose, set priorities, and build problem solving capabilities while developing personal clarity to be a more effective leader.
I recently spoke with Karen about the importance of clarity and the role it plays in leadership and organizational success.
The Importance of Clarity
What are some of the effects of a lack of clarity?
Lack of clarity touches organizations in small, daily ways and in large ways that introduce risks to customer satisfaction, the employee experience, the balance sheet, and compliance. An example of a “small” issue might be a customer problem that remains unsolved because no one knows who owns it. Larger problems brew when various parts of an organization work at cross purposes from each other. In the end, a lack of clarity often results in runaway expenses, market share loss, high turnover, and sluggish innovation, to name a few.
Those outcomes are often caused or at least exacerbated by the incremental accumulation of ambiguity about work that happens closer to the customer. For instance, a lack of clarity about customer requirements result in products that don’t meet true customer needs. It results in poorly designed and poorly managed processes that require heroics to execute. It results in excessive rework or productivity-sapping time spent clarifying what should have been clear to begin with. In a low-clarity environment, margin and morale erode because people do work that doesn’t fit together and doesn’t move the organization toward a common performance goal.
Clarity, in contrast, feeds an organization in the same way that fertilizer feeds soil. It nourishes everything visible, as well all the quiet and invisible activities that take place out of sight to make an organization outstanding, such as decision making. When you have it, there is greater alignment, greater collaboration, higher levels of innovation, and so on. When you don’t have it, everything becomes stressed to the point that even basic decisions require more effort that they should need.
Imagine you are leading an organization filled with well-meaning and talented people in a growing industry, but you haven’t developed a culture where everyone values holding clarity front-and-center in everything they do—foundational clarity like: why you are in business, what the organization’s top priorities are, how the organization is performing both operationally and financially, and the level of performance it wants to achieve, and other important questions that drive organizational alignment and outstanding performance. Without clarity on these issues, in the near-immediate term, the relationship between the organization and its people begins to break down. Team members begin to feel unsure that their work produces customer value or contributes to organizational success. Such uncertainty leads to frustration, low morale, and eventual disengagement, creating low productivity, talent turnover, poor customer service, loss of market share, eroded margins, and so on.
To be clear, I emphasize words such as everyone and everything because clarity requires it. Leaders are in a privileged role. You may feel that you DO have clarity. But if your direct reports don’t, or if their beliefs about the priorities of the organization are different from those of the peers they work with on a daily basis, then the organization as a whole lacks clarity even if there are pockets of clarity here and there.
Six P’s of Organizational Clarity