Trying To Achieve Goals In A Fog

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Clarity is a simple concept. It means something is clear and comprehensible, which would also lead you to believe that it should then be easy to communicate. Clarity in our work and personal lives sounds like a thing of beauty because you and the people around you know where you are going and why. Everybody who is clear on the goal would be heading in the same direction and helping each other get there.

And yet.

Scores of people, books, blogs, articles, and leaders will tell you that setting goals is important. Businesses, governments, and nonprofits set goals all the time with the hopes that they head in a direction that creates change. Every January people set goals in the hopes that positive, lasting change will make their lives better. Setting goals is such a simple, productive, and obvious tool that you would think it would be one of the first things we would learn in schools, colleges, work forces, and from our peers.

And yet.

Karen Martin, is a consultant helping organizations gain clarity in their goals and processes. Just about every organization has a mission and goals, so you would think that they would also realize the importance of being crystal clear, thus leaving Ms. Martin with very little work. Here is what she has to say about that from her book Clarity First (location 171):

“Nearly every organization we have worked with was initially blind to the lack of clarity with which it was operating, and unaware of the pivotal role that ambiguity played in its inability to achieve the goals it set for itself to meet marketplace demands and provide breakthrough products.”

People are setting fuzzy goals and then struggling to meet them? Well, if it is happening so often then maybe going to all the trouble of making them strategic and clear isn’t all that important. After all, organizations in this day and time are supposed to fail fast, be extremely flexible, and just git ‘er done, right?

I’m afraid Ms. Martin has some more bad news for you:

“Lack of clarity collectively costs companies, educational institutions, government agencies, and nongovernmental organizations billions of dollars per year, inserts unnecessary risk into every decision or action, drains organizations of the energy needed for productive effort, and causes customers to question whether the organization is capable of delivering value… low clarity drags organizations into an abyss of poor performance with frustrated leaders, disengaged employees, dissatisfied customers, and disappointed shareholders.”

Lack of clarity can cause issues from the top to the bottom of an organization, and then reach out and smack shareholders and customers. And yet, ambiguity is the norm in most organizations. If you don’t believe me, ask a random employee how their job contributes to the organization’s goals. Or for that matter, ask parents what the outcomes they are working towards with their children or a couple how they are working to enhance their relationship or anyone what they want to accomplish this year. It’s as if we are driving a car nearsighted and have no clue which exit to take; we’re just trying not to crash into anything.

I hope we’ve established that understanding where you are going and how you are getting there - in concrete terms, not just abstract strategery phrases - is important. So why is clarity so rare?

1) You don’t realize you don’t have it

Unfortunately, ambiguity is the default state most people and organizations find themselves in. You can see it everywhere, once you start looking. When there was no agenda for that meeting you just left. When goals are set and you don’t know what success looks like or what to do next. When you are struggling with how to prioritize or make decisions.

You don’t start with clarity, even if you have a general idea - “general” means that you know in an indistinct way. Having abstract or fuzzy intel may be worse than just being in a fog if the fuzziness is confused with knowledge.

Ms. Martin describes the problem for staff (p. 8):

“People can often do their jobs without clarity; but rarely can they do their jobs well, and never can they perform at a level that is outstanding.”

The insidious part of trying to do a great job without clarity is that it doesn’t matter how hard you work or the number of hours - without understanding what success looks like, it doesn’t matter how hard you try, unless you just stumble onto it. And most people get tired of trying hard just to stumble.

2) Gaining clarity is not easy

Ambiguity is easy. Really understanding how to achieve quantifiable goals can be difficult; actually, if you can even create your quantifiable goals in five minutes, you’re probably doing it wrong.

It can take hours or days for individuals to gain clarity, it is much more difficult in a complex organization. It doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be done.

Too many people think of gaining clarity as overhead work. Just because they think they know what they want to do doesn’t mean it can be communicated in a way that describes why other people should work hard to achieve it. An objective described with quantifiable outcomes should have intrinsically obvious value that will help people understand the urgency and make sure everyone is on the same page. If you can’t describe why it’s important, maybe it isn’t.

This doesn’t mean everyone has to agree with you, but you need enough people who are willing to knock down walls to get it done. Building that kind of team is worth the effort of gaining clarity.

3) It’s easy to rationalize why you don’t have it

Ms. Martin makes the case that many people are not making the correct distinction between certainty and clarity (p. 14):

“Uncertainty and complexity are facts of life and business… They confuse clarity with certainty or simplicity, and since they can’t have the latter two they eschew the former as well.”

When it comes to goals, clarity is trying to understand a change that is trying to be created in the future. Absolutely, things will happen that we cannot predict with circumstances, people, or obstacles that get in our way - that is the uncertainty of life. But it doesn’t mean that we can’t know what we are trying to achieve and how we plan on getting there - that is clarity.

  • Clarity is seeking - Certainty is predictive

  • Clarity is linked to curiosity, open - Certainty is justification, closed

In the quote above, Ms. Martin makes the point that when we confuse certainty with clarity, we justify not doing the work of clarity because we struggle with the idea of having to know everything that could happen, which isn’t possible. Certainty is rarely possible, but clarity is.

Something can always go wrong that is unpredictable, but it doesn’t mean you can’t understand the underlying problem. It doesn’t mean our plans or goals can’t change based on circumstances, but at least the change you want is a change you can visualize.

Don’t build up a “tolerance for ambiguity,” which is a pervasive cliche for saying we don’t want to do the hard work of thinking about our work. We’ll let Ms Martin have the last word on why all this really matters (p. 3):

“When organizations make clarity a cultural requirement, it’s easier to discern relevance from irrelevance. It’s clear which market factors, customer behaviors, technological advances, and current events truly affect the organization, and it is far easier to make good decisions about what to do about them.”