Ambiguity. It’s an increasingly common space within which most organizations operate. Rapid change, increased complexity, and competing interests all make predictability and certainty tougher to achieve. But there’s a big difference between ambiguity that’s externally produced--such as not knowing which political party will be in office in January and how the election will shape regulations, or how quickly a key supplier will recover from a natural disaster--and the type of ambiguity that organizations inflict on themselves.
If you’re like most leaders, you probably find yourself operating in a virtual house-of-mirrors much of the time, with insufficient clarity around what your customers really think about the work you and your team deliver, how you’re really performing (especially operationally), and what’s really at the root of a problem. I guarantee that your employees are unclear not only about those issues, but also information that’s fundamental to outstanding performance, such as organizational priorities, what exactly they should be doing to further the organization’s goals, and who to go to for what. Creating ambiguity when it doesn’t need to exist is inefficient, costly, and disrespectful. Creating organization-wide clarity can be game changing. And you can lead the charge from wherever you sit in the organization.
While there are many areas where ambiguity commonly lurks, here are three areas you should begin with:
Annual goals & priorities
Ask your staff or 10 people around you what your organization’s annual goals and priorities are for the year and you will likely meet ambiguity head on. One person may think that her department’s key priority is to roll out a new product, whereas another may believe staff should focus on enhancements to existing products. People need to be clear about the organization’s direction in order to spend their time wisely and feel connected.
Work with your leadership team to gain and communicate clear goals by assuring these clarity-boosting elements are in place:
- Consensus across the leadership team about what matters (ambiguity abounds when the VP of Sales believes that developing a new customer portal is the organization’s highest priority whereas the Human Resources VP believes developing and socializing organizational values is the most important project).
- Specificity creates clarity. You need measurable objectives, not a nebulous goal: “capturing market share” is like "losing weight"--neither is likely to happen. The target should be quantifiable, be it dollars or pounds.
- Effective communication means that you discuss goals and priorities directly, not in an email. If you’re not in a position to champion organization-wide clarity, then do it within your sphere of influence--your work team, department or division. Watch your performance soar when everyone is clear about what matters and why.
How Problems Get Solved
The single most important organizational capability is problem solving proficiency. But ambiguity often seeps into the process resulting in temporary solutions, remedies that create new problems, and expensive “fixes” to problems that could have been solved without investing capital. As I describe in my book, The Outstanding Organization , adopting a structured problem-solving methodology such as PDSA (plan-do-study-adjust)  helps break the habit of rushing to solutions before the true nature of the problem is known with clarity-producing root cause analysis. So instead of thinking that your problem with poor or incomplete information on customer orders is your customer and building in an expensive and time-sapping review step to hand-hold, you will likely learn that your ordering process is unclear and convoluted, and that simplifying or reformatting your order form does the trick.
How Work Gets Done
In most organizations, no one person has a clear understanding about all of the steps in transforming a customer request into a good or service, which leads to ineffective decisions, interdepartmental blame, and sluggish performance. Sally may think Joe is lazy because he doesn’t give her complete information, but Joe may not understand Sally’s true needs. Begin today by selecting a key process, and map it step-by-step: who does what, when and how in the process. Look for opportunities to reduce rework, such as the rampant and unnecessary clarification that resides in most processes. Use a simple metric, like Percent Complete & Accurate (%C&A) , to assess what percentage of time each person in the process has to clarify, add or correct the information they receive before they do their work. You’ll find that, in many cases, the people performing work have to stop and clarify the information receive (that could have been clear to begin with) over 50% of the time. By removing the need for this wasteful and frustrating step, you will boost productivity and morale (dealing with repetitive problems is a drain), and create the means for greater margins.
Adopting these ambiguity-busting actions enables you to infuse greater clarity into your organization. While some work groups, departments, or even entire organizations benefit from the declaring a “Campaign for Clarity,” other environments will benefit by adopting a more organic approach and reducing ambiguity one conversation, one report, one problem, and one process at a time. In either case, you have the power to begin reaping the financial and psychological benefits that accompany clarity. Today.
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[Image: Flickr user Mark Lomas ]