The power of clarity to unleash workplace productivity

Do you know the most important question to ask in any meeting or business interaction?  It’s “What needs to be different when we are done?” In other words, what tangible, concrete outcome do you want to walk away with, that you didn’t have to come in? On my World Class Leaders Show podcast, I recently hosted Ann Latham, author of a new book, “The Power of Clarity”. Ann has written several other titles, such as “The Clarity Papers” and “Uncommon Meetings.” Her work has been endorsed by several luminaries, such as Marshall Goldsmith, Seth Godin, and Daniel Pink among others. Ann founded the consulting organization Uncommon Clarity and her clients range across over 40 industries, from non-profits to Fortune 100 companies.  Clarity is the number one idea and focus that everyone should have today, as we go through the incredible level of uncertainty we are all facing now. The reality of our current environment is that most leaders aren’t as clear as they think they are — there are huge opportunities for improvement. The lack of clarity builds frustration, destroys relationships, and erodes confidence; it impacts productivity and wastes time and money.

Why is Clarity missing right now?

Ultimately, we’ve never learned how to create clarity. Some people are naturally a little more clear than others, but they generally don’t really know what they do or how to teach it. Even though we make decisions all day, every day, we don’t have a simple, standard process that we all agree on for doing so. In general, we’re not good at establishing and focusing on our priority. We allow too many other mechanisms to keep adding items to our to-do list, such as email, or meeting action items.

Setting a Priority

Priority is an interesting word, stemming from a Latin phrase. Up until quite recently (around the 1950s) there was no plural form of the word because there really should be only ONE priority. The impact of the lack of clarity in priority setting can be seen across an organization in widespread confusion, decision paralysis, and failure to deliver high performance.

Effective Ways for Handling Overwhelming Work 

When people find themselves with too much to do, there are several effective ways to deal with the situation. There’s also one ineffective way, which tends to be the one that is almost always chosen.
  1. Abandon holdovers from the past that aren’t relevant to the work at hand.
  2. Determine and postpone activities that can be done later.
  3. Identify areas where perfection is not necessary, and 80% can be good enough.
  4. Outsource or delegate tasks where possible.
  5. Create a new and improved methodology; work smarter, not harder
Number six, however, is the one that is the most common. And that is, not choosing any of the one through five methods. Essentially, choosing wishful thinking that somehow, it’s all going to get done — which is just not realistic.  Creating clarity is all about being very specific about exactly what needs to be accomplished. Understanding how, with whom, when, why, and then being able to focus to get that done. Without that, we may start wandering and becoming side-tracked; we don’t march through things and get them done.

Misaligned Expectations

When leaders delegate without clear communication on outcomes, or they pose vague requests to their employees without specificity, it results in a lack of shared vision and misaligned expectations. Often, both parties are unable to understand that the root cause of a major failure or business disaster resulted from a lack of clarity at the outset. Some people try to do exactly what they’ve been told if they were given a process without understanding the outcome. Some people will ask clarifying questions, but many may be too intimidated. The most important question to ask, is to gain a full understanding of the expected outcome: “What should be different when we’re done?” Leaders should encourage their employees to ask clarifying questions to assist in improving their communications every time.

Five Steps Leaders can take to Improve Clarity

In Ann’s words: “I believe in a few years, any leader who doesn’t understand what clarity is all about, who doesn’t understand the power of clarity, doesn’t recognize clarity blindness when they see it, is going to be laughed out of a leadership job. Because it’s a huge opportunity to make improvements, and you can’t be unaware of it.”
  1. Awareness: The first thing to do is to recognize the problem exists i.e. the lack of clarity surrounding the issues.
  2. Develop Skills: Start recognizing how you can make those improvements by being more specific.
  3. Institutionalize it: Create process clarity by using standardized processes for making decisions, and solving problems.
  4. Build New habits: Learn how to focus and eliminate distractions and disruptions. This requires setting priorities and narrowing your to-do list.
  5. Create Opportunity: The final task is to provide space for people to find the time to think more about their activities, their processes, and their expected outcomes.
As usual, I closed my interview with Ann Latham by asking her my standard guest questions: Q.  What is the number one lesson that you’ve learned across your career? A.   Probably the most important lesson I learned was how to truly value the opinions and ideas of other people. I learned to ferret out what people’s concerns were, and how to use the group. I talk about this in my book, about how to use the group by focusing on the process to take the pressure off people. And it’s the most important thing I learned. Q.  What is one thing that you might have maybe done differently in your career? A.   When I started my business, I moved from Minneapolis to Western Massachusetts with my husband’s new job. It was a great time because we were moving to start a new business. However, starting a new business by leaving your network behind, and trying to be a consultant in a rural area was very challenging. If I could do one thing over again, I would have either not moved, or I would have moved closer to Boston where there were more significant businesses. I think I spent a lot of time developing relationships with people who were not going to ever become clients. Q.  When you had your best performance ever as a professional, what was in place at the time that allowed you to achieve the level of performance? A.  When we are working at our ultimate, when we are most productive, when we are most confident, and we get the most done, and we’re proud of what we do, it’s because of the fact that we know exactly what we’re trying to accomplish. We know how we’re going to get there, even if we’re figuring it out along the way. So, we know very specifically that we’re making progress, we know with whom we must work, and we have the ability to focus.  That’s how I define clarity. And that’s what really allows you to accomplish the most you could possibly accomplish and be excited and feel good about it. Q.  What is one book that really made a huge impact on your life, to your career, to your profession, to your business? A.  Before I quit my corporate job, I got a book called “Getting Started in Consulting,” by Alan Weiss.  It’s a very well-organized, step-by-step process for all the things you need to do to be a consultant. It was so nicely laid out, and it gave me the courage to quit my job and to start my business. To learn more about Ann Latham’s work, you can go to: Or visit her website at: Listen to the podcast linked to this article:    
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