The Guardrails of Clarity

May 3, 2023 | Article, Creating Clarity, Creating Clarity Public

At the end of the day, organizations will provide some level of direction to their people. The trick is to provide enough Clarity to guide decision-making, but not so much that it constrains empowerment, innovation, and critical thinking. Some organizations operate on the extremes, but like many things in life, the best are able to find the right balance…to provide the basic guardrails. As we have served tens of thousands of organizations, here are the varying extremes we see, as well as the healthy balance.

Organizations that lean towards Chaos

The first extreme are organizations who operate in constant Chaos. Often this reality is found in newer organizations or at points of transition. These organizations are filled with frenetic energy and movement. Sometimes great ideas spawn from such a vivacious work environment. The drawbacks are far too costly though. 

I worked with one organization whose leader simply didn’t call or attend meetings. He felt the ‘team’ should be able to get it done on their own. But as soon as anyone made a huge mistake, he was there to ask hard questions, bewildered that they ‘didn’t get it.” A little clarity only came when the team drove outside the boundaries. The problem was, no one could see them. 

Leaders in these organizations provide no guardrails as their people wander around like 4x4s off on dirt roads. They bellyache at meetings claiming that they need to get their ‘own work done’ instead of seeing Clarity as ‘the work’ they need to constantly provide. As employees move around in this chaos, they compete with each other for resources and squander hours upon hours without a sense of prioritization. Driving off-road can be fun on the weekends, but not 8-5 Monday to Friday.

Organizations that lean towards Control

The opposite extreme are organizations who operate with a Control mentality. These organizations are also easy to spot with a constant influx of policies and procedures. Often this reality is found in older organizations or ones whose life cycle is beginning to decay. 

These organizations are very clear about what’s expected. Efficiency is #1 and there are very few instances of broken rules or wasted time. But its hunger for efficiency can be the greatest barrier to true productivity. 

I worked with one client who was fixated on rules and metrics. They didn’t have a simple scoreboard to track progress. Instead, they had a full spreadsheet with a litany of items. What’s worse, they posted these publicly. Where did they post them? They placed them on the inside of every bathroom door! Needless to say, the eye charts didn’t inspire employees (or customers!) as they went to freshen up.

In these organizations, leaders provide too much information to control their teams. Opposite of the first example (dirt roads), they mark employee’s directions like construction workers in orange vests directing traffic through a series of paths and cones. Yes, everyone is going in the right direction, but who cares if we never get there?!?! Employees are so confined to the policies and procedures they cannot make decisions on their own in day-to-day situations.

Organizations that rely on Clarity

Like many things in life, the trick is finding the balance between the extremes. The best organizations create clarity. And these organizations have created just enough structure to accomplish their purpose without bogging people down. These examples are often found in mature organizations at the prime of their life cycle. 

These organizations are filled with energy that is focused on only a few things. People are free to innovate and make decisions. But, they are kept within the guardrails of their clarity. 

I worked with a team who chose “freedom to fail” as one of their core values. This sounds risky. But, instead of employees taking this and living with a license to lose money, they took it as a vote of confidence and a challenge. Every time things didn’t go according to plan, employees used those ‘failures’ as lessons and improved their processes. Employees took ownership in the bottom line.

Organizations with great clarity are like fast-moving, multi-lane expressways. Leaders have provided guardrails to keep everyone going the same basic direction, but people have the freedom to change lanes or get creative, as long as it stays within the clarity.