We all know it, but how do we measure and foster alignment in our teams and projects in real-time.
Why we care about measuring clarity at Perflo — and why you should too
Great teams are defined by their strong sense of clarity. At Perflo, we’re finding ways to cultivate and measure clarity in the workplace easier, and simpler than ever before.
Clarity: The big picture
We all seek clarity. It gives us direction, allows us to set goals, and helps us make important decisions. Having a sense of clarity about what’s important to you and what you want to achieve is what makes self-actualization possible, and this principle applies to the way we work too: Clarity is what makes teams and managers able to collaborate, foster a healthy working environment, and produce their best work.
There are tangible consequences to a lack of clarity within organizations, teams, and individual employees. This lacking, which results in high levels of stress, is estimated to cost American companies more than $300 billion a year. Research done by Hay Group across teams that reported to 26,000 managers from 437 different organizations revealed that only 33% of team members felt they had the clarity they needed, and (unsurprisingly) those who felt that they did have clarity performed better, were more willing to take on new challenges, and were less likely to resign. Recent research by Google had similar results — ‘Clarity’ was one of the five most important determinants of a team’s success. The consensus is clear: Clarity should be a priority for all organizations that don’t only value efficiency, but also employee engagement, wellbeing, and retention.
At Perflo, we believe that the way we work and the products we develop should always be informed by rigorous research. We’ve drawn on the latest workplace research by highly successful organizations, academia, and the humanities, to determine how we can create high-performing, healthy, and effective teams. In our research, we’ve found that truly great teams are characterized by their sense of clarity - and that’s why clarity is at the heart of Perflo.
Everything starts with clarity
For good reason, Simon Sinek evangelizes the importance of defining and accentuating your organization’s ‘why’: People who know why and how their work is meaningful are more motivated, engaged, and productive. They want to know where they fit into the big picture, and research has shown that a shared sense of clarity and purpose in an organization has a significant impact on the bottom line. That’s why there needs to be clarity about everything in the workplace — from the founding principles of an organization to the reason an intern has been assigned a given task.
“Clarity about what matters provides clarity about what does not matter.”
The clarity ladder
The reality is that clarity dilutes with every step you take down the corporate ladder. This is why it’s crucial to make an organization’s vision and strategic goals clear to each and every employee — not just to managers and HODs.
There’s a reason startups are able to outpace larger, more well-resourced organizations. Startups have less bureaucracy, but they also have a strong sense of purpose and a radical focus instilled in every team member. A greater sense of clarity not only ensures that everyone moves fast, but also that they’re moving in the same direction. Granted, it’s a lot easier to apply this in a company of ten than in a company of ten thousand, but the principle stands: Executives need to prioritize clarity if they want to be purposeful about organizational effectiveness.
Clarity increases innovation
Researchers have found that the relationship between innovation processes and performance is moderated by goal clarity and commitment: When goal clarity and commitment are high, innovation and performance accelerate one another. Some may argue that rigid goals stifle innovation and limit the scope of possibility — and they’re right: New and interesting ideas can emerge from a certain degree of ambiguity. But we should make a distinction between ‘a rigid goal’ and ‘a rigid vision’. A rigid vision means being hyper-focused on your organization’s purpose; the North star that guides how you set goals and pursue new initiatives.
The recipe for innovation excellence is therefore a balance between rigidity and flexibility. Apple and Tesla are good examples — Apple didn’t limit itself to selling computers, and Tesla didn’t limit itself to making cars. In fact, Tesla’s mission statement — “To accelerate the world’s transition to sustainable energy” — doesn’t mention cars at all; Tesla keeps the playing field open but its innovation agenda hyper-focused. It’s clearly working.
"Initially, the results of correlation and multiple regression analyses indicated that the perceived role clarity has positive relation with intrinsic motivation, job involvement and IWB (innovative work behavior). Further, the analysis revealed that intrinsic motivation and job involvement individually and serially mediate the effect of perceived role clarity on innovative work behavior."
Clarity in a virtual world
It’s hard enough to sustain clarity in the office, where employees can still see the company vision on large posters in the conference room and wall art in the hallways. It’s even more challenging in the virtual workspace. In Andrew Mawson’s meta-analysis of the available research regarding distributed teams, a lack of vision and goal clarity was one of their most significant vulnerabilities.
Having your vision and goals written in a digital tool isn’t enough to maintain clarity within the virtual workplace, because people will start looking past it after they’ve seen it the first time. Managers need to purposefully reiterate the vision, even to the point of over-communicating. One hack for reminding everyone of their North star is creating a Zoom background outlining your values, goals, or vision.
More information does not mean more clarity
Defining and illustrating clarity is both an art and a skill that can be developed with practice. Top-down communication has to be succinct, digestible and specific, which is why written communication is valued so highly in virtual workplaces. It’s great to say that your goal is to ‘have a positive impact on the world’, but it’s not practical enough — refine your message and get input from a few people before you broadcast it company-wide.
"If you want me to give you a two-hour presentation, I am ready today. If you want only a five-minute speech, it will take me two weeks to prepare.” -
The three types of clarity
I like to use the metaphor of driving in the fog with twenty feet of visibility: You can make progress, but only twenty feet at a time. Because you can’t see the road ahead, your decision making is limited and uninformed, and you’re more likely to crash your car. A lack of vision clarity works the exact same way. In one study of 555 product development projects, Patanakul et al. (2012) found that vision clarity was the most important predictor of team performance.
We’re not talking about the job description you include when you’re advertising a position. Our fast-paced world of work and the necessity for agility mean that employees’ roles are constantly redefined according to their evolving skills and the shifting objectives of the organization. But when this flexibility results in role ambiguity, stress in teams increases significantly — and the primary reason people don’t do what they’re supposed to do is that they don’t know what they’re supposed to do. The result is high attrition, low performance, and a nasty feedback loop that causes projects to fail.
According to Jeff Bezos, one of the reasons for Amazon’s success is their obsession with ‘scope clarity’. Before every project, teams write a detailed memo outlining exactly what success looks like and how they'll get there. These can be up to six pages long. Meeting attendees sit in the same room, quietly reading, before talking through the memo to ensure a shared understanding. and quietly read them in the same room before talking through it to ensure everyone has read it properly. As a manager and an employee, I’ve seen situations where confusion, conflict and ultimately dismissals occur - all due to lack of clarity. We measure clarity internally on a weekly basis. If I see a drop one week, I intervene and ensure everyone gets the clarity they need before we move forward. While sometimes cringey, the ‘say it back to me’ technique is very effective, particularly when product communicates with engineering.
Studies that have been conducted so far in this area propound that role clarity is highly important in organizations. More clarity in roles is related to
(a) high job satisfaction and satisfaction with the organization,
(b) reduced level of tension or stress,
(c) low chances of leaving the organization, and
(d) low level of voluntary turnovers from the organization.
BONUS: Clarity among team members
There are many other kinds of clarity we can delve into, like ‘process clarity’ (or ‘how we do things over here’). Process clarity isn’t discussed as often, but the importance of your team knowing and understanding “how we work” cannot be stressed enough. It provides team members a framework for team collaboration that can be followed, and this removes ambiguity and minimizes the risk of miscommunication drastically.
Clarity is continuous
Anyone who’s ever worked on a project will be familiar with how fast things can change. That’s why managers need to be purposeful about providing clarity at all stages of the project, and continuously monitor the level of clarity within their teams.
Clarity is not solely the responsibility of the team leader
If team members don’t challenge their leaders to crystalize the vision, the plan, and their roles, they share the blame for the clarity problem. Team members need to take initiative and ensure they have the clarity they need. Ideally, the team should participate in setting the vision, goals and roles — research shows that when teams set and agree on their goals together, they’re far more likely to achieve them. Healthy pushback and collaborative goal setting define the maturity and health of a project team — they should constantly question and clarify rather than passively accepting demands.
Managers need clarity, too
If managers don’t have clarity for themselves, they can’t provide it for their teams. . If senior leadership aren’t communicating with managers, teams will pick up on the confusion — especially in times of uncertainty and change.
Clarity and ambiguity can coexist
It can be tough to have clarity in an agile environment, since it’s expected at the outset that the initial objectives may change. That’s why ‘big-picture’ and ‘vision clarity’ is especially crucial in ensuring continuous alignment and great outcomes in agile environments. Startups especially rely on big-picture clarity regarding their ultimate purpose. Regardless of how the product changes, everyone stays aligned with the problem they’re solving and the impact they intend to have on the market.
So, if you want to start measuring clarity in your team and organization, click here to see how we can help you get started in under 5 minutes.