How To Create Clarity in the Midst of Uncertainty
Listen to Episode 143:
Episode 143 Transcript:
This episode is brought to you by Business Advancement Incorporated − enabling successful leaders and companies to accelerate to their next level of success. On the web at BusinessAdvance.com. and now here’s Pam and Scott.
Pam Harper: Thanks, Chris. I’m Pam Harper, Founding Partner and CEO of Business Advancement Incorporated. And sitting right across from me as always is my business partner and husband, Scott Harper. Hi, Scott.
Scott Harper: Hey there, Pam. It’s great to be joining you again for another episode of Growth Igniters Radio. As always, our purpose is to spark new insights, inspiration and immediately useful ideas for visionary leaders to accelerate themselves and their companies to their next level of game-changing innovation, growth, and success. Pam, one of the things that we know when we’re trying to get to that next level is that nothing is certain. We can’t be certain about anything in this changing business environment.
Pam Harper: That’s right. The fact is, no matter where you’re located and whether or not you believe the economy is going well, we all need to deal with uncertainty from changing global agreements, tariffs, trade wars, and more. While we can’t completely change what’s happening in the business environment, we can be clear about how we are leading ourselves, and our organizations for faster, better results.
Scott Harper: Absolutely.
Pam Harper: Someone who agrees with us on this is our colleague and friend, Ann Latham. Ann is the Founder and President of Uncommon Clarity Incorporated. Her clients represent more than 40 industries and range from for-profit organizations such as Boeing and Hitachi, to nonprofit organizations as diverse as Public Television and Smith College. Ann is considered an expert in strategic clarity and the productivity, performance, and commitment that follow. She’s an accomplished speaker and had spoken to thousands of executives, managers, employees and MBA students. She’s the author of The Clarity Papers: The Executive’s Guide to Clear Thinking and Better, Faster Results, and Uncommon Meetings: Seven Quick Tips For Better Results In Half The Time. Plus two booklets and over 500 articles.
Ann’s advice has appeared in almost 100 media sources including The New York Times, BusinessWeek, and MSNBC.com. She’s also an expert blogger for Forbes.com, where she writes about the power of clarity to transform leaders and organizations. You can see more of Ann’s bio by going to GrowthIgnitersRadio.com and selecting episode 143. Ann, welcome to Growth Igniters Radio.
Ann Latham: Hi, Pam and Scott. Thank you very much. It’s a pleasure to be here.
Scott Harper: It’s a pleasure to be speaking with you again.
Pam Harper: It is, and congratulations on your book. Why don’t you tell us a little bit more about yourself and what led you to write this book, The Clarity Papers?
Ann Latham: I think I was born logical and impatient, and that’s a really deadly combination. That led me, I think, to becoming a Math Major, and I just always hated wasting time and energy. I spent a lot of time as a software developer, software development manager, that kind of thing. I saw a lot of corporations wasting time, wasting people’s energy, and I was always driven by that desire to save all that hassle and to help everyone be more effective. That’s fueled all my career moves right up including becoming an independent consultant. I wanted to be able to help more people, more businesses, and more organizations. That’s exactly the same reason I wrote the book. I wanted to help more people. I wish I’d written it sooner.
Scott Harper: It’s very interesting, Ann, because in our work, virtually every leader we talk to is very clear, so to speak, about the necessity that everybody has to understand what’s going on, and everyone has to be clear. Yet, all too often, it’s not really the case all the time. Do you experience that? How do you define clarity?
Ann Latham: Yeah, I absolutely think that things aren’t as clear as they could be. Let me first define how I define clarity. It’s knowing exactly where you are, what you’re trying to accomplish, why, with whom, and how. It’s just being really clear about what you’re trying to do next. When you are really clear, this is when you’re most productive, most energetic, most confident and can get things done. Unfortunately, in most organizations, that rarely happens.
Pam Harper: Ann, that’s a great definition. How does this change, or does it change, when you’re talking about the uncertainty and the turbulence that we’re going through right now?
Ann Latham: When people are clear, and they are energetic, confident moving forward fast, they can accomplish amazing things. When they’re in sync with other people, they can accomplish amazing things. With all the uncertainty we have, there is a greater need than ever to be clear, so that you can be agile, so you can make smart decisions, so that you can synchronize the brain power that’s available to you and that’s why you have to really establish that clear purpose, clear process, clear roles, and have everyone moving at their best.
Pam Harper: I think that’s so important because the thing that we see people grappling with is, well, do we go in this direction or do we go in that direction? It’s hard for companies even when they know they should be clear, and they value clarity. You talk about in your book that you see organizations not necessarily doing things that work in their best interest. Tell us more about that.
Ann Latham: Yes. Organizations clearly value clarity, so to speak. The problem is there are several problems here. First of all, they don’t really know when they are clear and when they aren’t. People aren’t as clear as they think they are. What organizations are basically, there are two ways in that they try to create clarity. One is by trying to establish annual goals and policies, procedures, job descriptions, and they try to create this top-down clarity that helps people understand what they need to accomplish. The problem is is that that big picture clarity doesn’t help you get through the next meeting effectively, it doesn’t help you figure out what needs to be different at the end of this hour, or the end of this half day.
It doesn’t help all the times when you know what your job description is, and someone does, but the reality is that well, Joe is good at the big picture, and Sally is good at the details. They might have the same job description, but you can’t hand tasks over to people as if they are interchangeable. You can’t expect the same things of people just because you think they got the same job description. People are not interchangeable. We are always making decisions and always trying to figure out, you know, what’s the next thing we’re trying to accomplish? Who’s going to help us? How are we going to get it done? We really aren’t very good at that. That top-down approach is one thing organizations do.
The other thing where the greatest efficiencies have been made lately — for the last couple decades — is the efficiencies associated with their production processes, their value creation processes, you know, their assembly lines. But that’s just one segment of what an organization does. The farther you are from those well-defined, precise production-type processes, the less likely you are to even have a process, the less clear you are about your goals, the less clear you are about what you’re trying to accomplish at any given moment.
Pam Harper: So the people on the production line, they’re the clearest. They’re clear about what they’re trying to accomplish, they’re clear about their process, and they are clear about who’s supposed to do what, but that dissolves as you get into the knowledge workers, and the office workers, and the marketing people and everyone else. They don’t have that same level of clarity.
Scott Harper: Yeah. So it sounds like big picture, this is our mission, vision, and so on — yeah, that’s written down. But when you start going out and getting into the weeds and making daily decisions in your own world, you can really get out of sync with other people. What’s your view on what makes that so hard and what we can do about it?
Ann Latham: There’s a couple of reasons for that. One is like I say, everyone just assumes we’re lacking a little clarity. The reality is we’re lacking a lot of clarity. On this big continuum, put uncommon clarity on one side, and then let’s label the other side disclarity. Most of the times, we’re operating closer to the disclarity, to the total lack of clarity side of the continuum than we realize. Part of it is, is because clarity is not a natural state. We’re not wired for clarity. As a matter of fact, we are wired to create a lack of clarity. For instance, every time you open your mouth to talk to someone else, there are innumerable things that could come out. You can help people; you can ask questions, you can give advice, you can flatter, you can console, you can suggest, you can go in 100 different directions. That doesn’t create clarity, but that’s normal.
Pam Harper: We are going to take a quick break right now, and when we come back we’re going to dig deeper on this topic of clarity with Ann Latham, Founder and President of Uncommon Clarity Incorporated. Stay with us.
Scott Harper: This is Growth Igniters Radio with Pam Harper and Scott Harper brought to you by Business Advancement Incorporated. We’re on the web at BusinessAdvance.com. We enable successful companies to accelerate to their next level of game-changing innovation, and growth.
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Pam Harper: Welcome back to Growth Igniters Radio with Pam Harper, that’s me, and Scott Harper. Scott and I are talking today with Ann Latham, Founder and President of Uncommon Clarity Incorporated, about creating clarity in the midst of uncertainty. Ann, how can people find out more about you, your book, and your company?
Ann Latham: The best place is to go to my website, uncommonclarity.com, and there you’ll find links to order my books and lots of articles, lots of information that would be very helpful to pretty much anybody, because everybody needs clarity.
Pam Harper: That’s absolutely true. You can also find out more in the resources section for this episode by going to GrowthIgnitersRadio.com and selecting episode 143. Ann, we were starting to talk before the break about this natural tendency to disconnect, but yet there are ways we can, of course, create greater clarity. You talk in your book about the importance of the language of outcomes. How have you seen this create shared clarity of purpose?
Ann Latham: Okay. Great question. Let me tell you a story. A coaching client of mine, was talking to me on the phone, and he was giving me an update. He said, “I gave my boss my marketing plan I think it’s like three weeks back and he hasn’t gotten back to me. I guess I got to check in it with him, but meantime, we’re stalled.” I asked them, I said, “What did you ask for?” He says, “I asked him to please review my document.” I said, “What did you need?” He says, “I need approval to start.” Guess what? The next day he went and asked, “Is this good enough? Can I start?” And his boss said, “Yes.” And he lost three weeks.
Pam Harper: Oh, my gosh.
Ann Latham: This kind of thing happens all the time. I’ll give you another example. Another client was asked by his boss to, “Please look into this. We’re thinking of this new project, I won’t go into the details to save time, but please look into this.” This client was a new employee, and he really wanted to impress his boss. He and his team go off and they do a very detailed analysis of, you know, could it be done? What would it cost? What are the long-term benefits? What’s the potential for success? They did a fabulous job and came back with the recommendation after a couple of weeks. The boss was furious, because all the boss wanted was a gut reaction, because someone else, another vice president, had said, “You know, we should look into this.”
He wasted not just his time, but his team’s time for a couple weeks doing this incredibly detailed analysis so he could impress his boss. Both of those, “Look into this and please review.” Those are super common requests, but they are totally vague. “Review”, for instance, is what I call a “treadmill verb”; there’s no way to know when you’re done.
Pam Harper: This is an interesting thing to dig deeper on. You have the language of outcomes — the opposite of treadmill verbs. Let’s be clear about what these two classifications are.
Ann Latham: Right. Okay. You’ve all been on a treadmill; you know that on a treadmill you never get anywhere. Treadmill verbs are words like review, report, communicate, update, inform, and there’s a lot of them. There’s no way to know when you’re done. If you ask someone to review something, you might want them to look at accuracy, you might want them to look at big picture concepts, or details, or feasibility, I mean who knows what you’re asking for? Someone can review forever. They can also report forever, there’s no way to know when you’re done. Asking someone to report is just an invitation to talk.
Scott Harper: The outcome verbs are more specific, tangible, concrete. They have something at the end that you can measure.
Ann Latham: For instance, decide. Once you’ve decided you’re done, it’s obvious. Plan, resolve.
Scott Harper: Now you can plan forever too.
Ann Latham: Planning is dangerous because some people will plan forever; that’s true. But the fourth destination verb, the fourth outcome is “list.” If you break your planning into the creation of lists, those lists contribute to the plan. The first list is what are we trying to accomplish when you’re planning? How will we know when we succeed? Then you can create lists of resources, and lists of action items, and you have to do that smartly because you’re right — you can plan forever. But basically, if you break it down into distinct pieces, you’re through when you finished your list.
Scott Harper: Okay. It sounds like this points to one my favorite things in the world, which is a process. A shared process where people understand what really is expected, and how to get there. How do you do that, especially when things are changing all the time, and it’s so easy to go off track?
Ann Latham: Yeah, shared processes are absolutely critical because they help you focus your brain power. They free people to act. Let me give an example. Suppose you’re playing a game of cards and someone skips your turn. What do you do? You say, “Wait, wait, wait, it’s my turn. Right? You skipped my turn.” It doesn’t matter if the Pope and the President are playing cards with you, you would still say, “Wait a minute, you skipped my turn.” Or someone would. There’s that game where having rules is a process, and it frees up everybody to know what their role is at a specific time so that they can contribute their best. To me, that’s the value of a process.
Scott Harper: Okay. There has to be enough flexibility in a process though so that can take into account that the world is not constantly the same. Right?
Ann Latham: Right.
Scott Harper: How do you do that?
Ann Latham: That’s why people have to know how to create clarity of process. Because these aren’t all pre-defined for you. You aren’t always being told exactly what to do at one specific moment. But let’s look for a minute at what a process really is. A process is a series of intermediate outcomes that lead to a bigger outcome. If you think of it in terms of that throughout the process, you are achieving outcomes like decisions, plans, lists, or building something or something like that, that’s what a process is. People need to stop and figure out what a process is before they just dive in and talk.
Scott Harper: You know what it looks like when you’re done and when you’re successful.
Ann Latham: Yeah. You create process before you dive into the content.
Pam Harper: That brings us to again the theme of this particular episode, which is uncertainty. We do a lot of work with people who are going into that uncharted territory. They’re changing the game. What are the big things that people who are in that particular situation, as you know, will say, “I don’t want process.” Because we don’t even know what it is that we don’t know. Tell us a little more about what you would see in all of this. How do you plan unfamiliar activities in a different way? You don’t have that repeatable process.
Ann Latham: Right. Excellent question. When you don’t have a process, the key there is to start by creating that process. I don’t mean by defining it from beginning to end, I mean by being clear about what’s the next step? What are we going to achieve at the end of the next hour or the next day or the next week? And focusing on that process, and that specific outcome, that’s what gets everyone in sync. That’s what gets all the brain power on the same thing at the same time. You create it one step at a time. What’s our next step? Are we clear about what are we trying to achieve and what’s our next step?
I can give you an example. I was sitting on an executive team meeting waiting for my part. I was supposed to just be silent for a little while, which wasn’t easy. They had a complex problem that they needed to solve. These guys were smart, focused, disciplined, really excellent people and after about five minutes I couldn’t stand it any longer, and I interrupted them, ignored their dagger eyes, and said, “Look, you guys are talking about five different decisions, and two plans simultaneously.” And they didn’t think of it that way, obviously. But they were going around and around on so many different matters. But when I enumerated the five decisions and two plans, it’s like the light bulbs lit up and suddenly it was obvious what order they needed to make those five decisions in, in those two plans. The complex problem was solved about 20 minutes later.
If I hadn’t interrupted, they still would’ve been going around at the end of the hour, and probably would’ve had to schedule another meeting. Because they just weren’t looking at a process at all. They weren’t figuring out what’s the next logical step here, what’s the first logical step even. Instead, they were all just doing what we do best, throwing out ideas, making suggestions, that disclarity that we’re wired to create and they were doing it with great intention and focus, but they weren’t getting anywhere.
Pam Harper: Of course, the other aspect of uncertainty is that you never know when something may go off course. How can we balance taking prudent, contingent actions with prematurely, preempting plans? It’s a balancing act. What do you suggest?
Ann Latham: Yeah, it absolutely is; it’s a constant balancing act. What are we trying to accomplish? Have the conditions changed? Should we be taking another approach? You have to be doing that on an ongoing basis. You hit it, you have to balance that. There’s no magic there. But if you have the ability to get everyone focused on the same thing at the same time by creating that clarity of process and purpose in the moment basis, then at least you can have a focused conversation and resolve things as they come up, and make smart decisions.
Scott Harper: Yeah. One of our favorite things to do when we’re working with people is to ask, “Okay, here’s a big idea; what will it look like when it’s done? What will it look like when it’s successful? What things can you measure, can you look at that say yeah, we’re done; we’re successful.” Or what we’re going off, we have to come back or we have to do something different. Does that fit with your definition of clarity?
Ann Latham: Absolutely. What would success look like? I like to phrase it, what will be different when we’re done? You should never, ever go into a meeting without knowing what’s going to be different when we’re done. You know what happens when you don’t? You have this great, focused conversation, people can be really good, and then the worst thing is, is at the end in order to justify all the time spent in the meeting, people want action items, right?
Scott Harper: Yeah.
Ann Latham: “Hey, what are the action items?” Suddenly, everyone dreams up these things that would be great do. It doesn’t make any difference if they’re strategically important or anything else. But…
Pam Harper: But we’re doing something.
Ann Latham: Let’s justify the meeting. Yeah.
Pam Harper: Yes. Well, we are going to talk about some immediately actionable ideas, but we’re going to do that after the break. When we do come back, we’re going to talk more with Ann Latham, Founder and President of Uncommon Clarity. Stay with us.
Scott Harper: You’re listening to Growth Igniters Radio with Pam Harper and Scott Harper — brought to you by Business Advancement Incorporated. On the web at BusinessAdvance.com. Now, Pam, we’ve been talking about creating clarity for faster, better results in the midst of uncertainty. Sometimes, this can bring us face-to-face with confronting challenging issues that everybody knows are there, but nobody wants to talk about. The elephants in the room. But if you don’t talk about it, if you don’t resolve these issues, leaving them unaddressed can create a huge cost of time, energy, resources, and that’s why we’ve written a Harper Report called Taking Control of The Elephants in the Room.
Pam Harper: This is one of our more popular reports because it’s practical and addresses an issue that every leader and team faces at one point or another, especially when we’re moving fast. In fact, one executive team was able to shave six months off the time of their product launch and save millions of dollars by taking control of the elephants that were in their room.
Scott Harper: Getting clear on what they had to do and when they had to do it. Go to GrowthIgnitersRadio.com, episode 143, and request your complimentary copy of How to Take Control of the Elephants in the Room.
Pam Harper: Welcome back to Growth Igniters Radio with Pam Harper and Scott Harper. Over the last two segments, Scott and I have been talking with Ann Latham, Founder and President of Uncommon Clarity, about how to lead yourself and others in your organization for clear thinking and better, faster results in the midst of uncertainty. Ann, remind us again, how people can find out more about you and your company and your books.
Ann Latham: Go to UncommonClarity.com, The Clarity Papers is available on Amazon and the links are there on my website. The other book as well, Uncommon Meetings, which really will teach you how to cut your meetings in half and do twice as much.
Pam Harper: That’s great. Again, you can find links to what we’re talking about in this episode by going to GrowthIgnitersRadio.com, episode 143 and scroll down under resources. This the part of our podcast where we like to talk about the things that we can all do differently starting today for immediately useful ideas and action. We mean clear action here. Let’s talk about three different things that can harness the power of clarity. What’s the first one?
Ann Latham: Absolutely. The number one, first, most important — I can’t emphasize this enough, is to always start with “what are we trying to accomplish?” Or as you put it earlier,” what will be different when we’re done? What does success look like?” However you ask that question, you need to know the answer; otherwise, you’re wandering around.
Pam Harper: When should we ask it?
Ann Latham: All the time. [laughter]
Pam Harper: Okay…
Ann Latham: I mean, even when you’re sitting at your desk. “Okay, wait, what am I trying to accomplish in the next 15 minutes? What am I trying to accomplish in the next hour?” Before you even plan a meeting, “What are we trying to accomplish? What’s going to be different when we’re done?”
Pam Harper: So that way you could say, it doesn’t matter how uncertain things are around me, at least I can focus what I can do, what we can do, and need to do.
Ann Latham: Right now. In the moment.
Pam Harper: Exactly. Yes.
Scott Harper: Okay. Then, what’s a second practical idea that people can use to increase their clarity?
Ann Latham: All right, eliminate treadmill verbs from your vocabulary. This means no more vague requests, don’t ask people to review, report, update, inform. Figure out what you really need from them, what specifically do you need?
Scott Harper: That’s a great aspiration. How do we create the mindfulness to do that?
Ann Latham: One good way to do it is to be sure the people you’re asking of push back. We have to get everyone on board because if I make a vague request of you, you should call me on it; that’s the best way.
Pam Harper: That’s a very interesting point. I remember — this was before I ever started consulting, and I worked in a company — we were going through a transformation. The CEO said, “All right, everybody just get rid of whatever is unnecessary for you to do.” You can tell people; be very specific — what reports are you going to get rid of, very specific. I said, “This is wonderful.” I was so excited; I was jumping up and down. I said, “I’m getting rid of this report. I’m getting rid of this.” I had very specific things. I said, “I’m done. You don’t have to sign this off either, I’m just going to send this over to the other department for action.” Then people said, “Wait a moment. That complicates my job.” Specific communication is so important.
Scott Harper: And coordination, yeah.
Ann Latham: That’s why I said, you need to figure out specifically what do I need from you and what do you need from me? Let’s not just stand there and talk and report.
Pam Harper: Exactly.
Ann Latham: Let’s not just inform. Inform meetings … I did a project with a Fortune 100 company where I sat in on their meeting and I was a fly on the wall, they didn’t know I was there, only one person did. After an hour, I met with them later and gave them some feedback with them. I explained, “What if you’d followed a basic process, created your process and followed it? Then how would this meeting have looked?” I had them break down into little groups and talk about how they would’ve approached this problem had they thought of this framework to start with. Each group came back and said, “We would’ve done this offline, then we would’ve done this, we would’ve done this offline, and we would’ve had a five-minute meeting to confirm it.” It would save an hour. They wouldn’t have sat there reported at each other.
Pam Harper: Ann, what’s the third thing we can do to harness the power of clarity?
Ann Latham: Yes, the third is to think about the process before we dive into the content. That’s totally related to what are we trying to accomplish, because it’s what is that next step? Think about exactly what the sequence of events should look like so you can get everyone on the same page. This is true, again, in clarity in the moment, right now. Have you ever sat in a meeting where you have an idea and every time you’re about to open your mouth and make your suggestion, the conversation shifts a little and then it’s no longer appropriate to talk?
Pam Harper: Sure.
Scott Harper: Yeah.
Ann Latham: Yeah, happens all the time, because there’s no process. There are four steps to making a decision. If everyone knows that, and they all start on step one, and you keep them on step one, then everyone can contribute their best. They can give it their full, and then move on to step two all in sync instead of doing it all simultaneously.
Pam Harper: The more in sync we are, and the more we understand what needs to be decided for the outcome we need, at each step, the clearer we can be.
Ann Latham: Yeah, and it doesn’t mean that the group has to sit down and define a process. For instance, if there is a meeting, the person running the meeting should know exactly how this meeting should progress, and what you’re working on each step of the way.
Pam Harper: Okay. That pretty much takes us to the end here. Before we go, do you have some final thoughts you’d like to share with us about creating clarity in the midst of uncertainty?
Ann Latham: As I mentioned earlier, there’s always been uncertainty. It’s always been an issue. But the more uncertainty it is, the more important it is to use the talents around you to get people focused on the same thing, to synchronize what you’re trying to accomplish, and to be clear. Because you need to be agile; you need to make smart decisions, you need to move things forward quickly in this world;
Pam Harper: Absolutely. Ann, thanks so much for being our guest today.
Ann Latham: Thank you. It was fun.
Scott Harper: Thanks, Ann. Thanks to all of you out there for listening to Growth Igniters Radio with Pam Harper and Scott Harper. To check out resources related to today’s conversation, share on social media, read Ann’s bio, or open a conversation with us, go to GrowthIgnitersRadio.com and select episode 143.
Pam Harper: Until next time. This is Pam Harper…
Scott Harper: And Scott Harper…
Pam Harper: Wishing you continued success, and leaving you with this question to clarify with your team.
Scott Harper: What is the first thing we need to accomplish — starting today — that will help us harness the power of clarity for our company?