Leading with clarity

How to lead with clarity of purpose, plan, and responsibility

When a team—a group of people working together toward a common goal—has clarity, everyone has a clear understanding of everything they need to know about the work required to effectively achieve their goal. What’s our goal? What’s our strategy for achieving that goal? What’s our step-by-step plan? As a member of this team, what’s my exact role to play? Which steps of the plan am I responsible for? Which decisions do I have the authority to make? And, perhaps most importantly and most overlooked, why are we trying to achieve this goal in the first place?

It would be wonderful if clarity were the default state of teams. Unfortunately, telepathy doesn’t exist yet, so instead the default state of teams is chaos and confusion. Over time—as strategies shift, plans change, and teams grow—teams tend to become even more confused.

This is sad to me as a leader because—understandably—confused teams have a hard time achieving their goals. They get distracted by low priority work. They duplicate effort. They notice too late that things fell through the cracks (since nobody knew they were responsible for that crack), so deadlines slip or quality suffers. They squabble about how to proceed (since it’s unclear who has the authority to make the decision).

In an effort to cut through the chaos and confusion, teams resort to endless emails, chat threads, and status meetings. But these are symptoms of a larger issue: the lack of systematic clarity that would enable people to focus on their actual work instead of getting bogged down in the work about work of continually re-assessing what needs to get done every day.

Moving teams from chaos to clarity is one of the most vital functions of leadership. Unfortunately, leaders tend to overestimate how much clarity their team has. After all, the plan is already clear in their heads, and individual contributors tend not to surface the need for more clarity as it’s embarrassing to admit you’re not sure what you’re supposed to be doing—or why.

In my experience, I’ve found that there are three kinds of clarity high-performing teams have: clarity of purpose, clarity of plan, and clarity of responsibility. Here’s why each is important and some concrete steps to achieve them.

1. Clarity of purpose: start with why

It’s important that everyone on a team share a common purpose, a clear understanding of why they’re doing whatever it is they’re working on in the first place.

For one, this is just practical. Unless you run an assembly line, teammates will always have to make judgment calls, and the team’s purpose provides the context in which to do so effectively. A marketer with clarity on their customer’s goals will more effectively empathize with their audience. An engineer with clarity on how people will use what they’re building can make performance tradeoffs that optimize the customer experience. A VP with clarity on the company’s unique mission and vision will stay focused on the most important initiatives to accomplish that mission—instead of getting distracted by the endless list of potential opportunities or what competitors are doing.

Clarity of purpose is even more important for motivation, both individual motivation and the kind of spiritual coherence that motivates an entire team. A team that truly understands and believes in a common goal for towards which they’re working is a team that can persevere through the difficult challenges involved in any important undertaking.

“Let’s make our shareholders a ton of money” is, indeed, a purpose. But for most of us, it’s not a particularly inspiring one. Great teams have a purpose that improves the world. The most successful, important, and admired teams—like Google, Meals on Wheels, and many others—all have the kind of clarity of purpose that serves the greater good.

The most successful, important, and admired teams all have the kind of clarity of purpose that serves  the greater good.

If you’re leading a team that is part of a larger organization, one of the most important things you can do is to help everyone on your team understand how the larger organization is impacting the world, how your team is critical to the success of the organization, and how their individual work is important to the success of the team.

You can start by defining your team’s mission statement. But once you’ve done so, the work to maintain that clarity continues indefinitely. Every team meeting, every important document, every project kickoff, every onboarding session is an opportunity to repeat the mission and explain how the work at hand is in service of your team’s mission.

You’ll know you’ve succeeded in achieving clarity of purpose when everyone on your team can answer these two questions: “If we’re wildly successful, how will the world be different?” and “How is the work you’re doing now directly contributing to that success?” After all, there’s no point in moving quickly if you’re not going all in the same direction or if your destination isn’t worth arriving at.

2. Clarity of plan

With clarity of purpose, the team knows the destination. With clarity of plan, the team knows how to get there. The plan you co-create with your team defines the current best understanding of how best to achieve the mission of the team.

It typically has multiple layers, each getting progressively more detailed until you’ve connected your overall mission down to actionable steps. You can think of this as a pyramid of clarity. The exact layers appropriate to you will depend on the size and scope of your team. If you’re leading a whole company or division, your pyramid might look like:

  • Mission: This is your team’s ambitious goal, your raison d’etre for the foreseeable future. Everyone on the team should know this by heart. For example, “Tesla’s mission is to accelerate the world’s transition to sustainable energy.”
  • Strategy: The strategy is a succinct explanation of the high-level approach you’re taking to achieve the mission. You can often boil this down to 3 bullet points. Ideally, everyone on the team is very familiar with the high-level strategy.
  • Objectives: These are medium-term (e.g. one year) goals. They’re ideally measurable. At Asana, for example, we create around 15 top-level objectives for the company each year. There’s a poster hanging on the wall in the office, that includes our mission, our strategy, and a list of the 15 objectives.
  • Key results: These are shorter-term (e.g. one-quarter) goals. Objectives are ideally measurable, but key results should for sure be measurable. It is possible to have multiple key results “leveling up” to contribute towards one objective.
  • Projects: These are small missions (e.g. two weeks to one year) that an individual team (e.g. 3 to 50 people) undertake in service of achieving the key result. For example this might be “Execute a nationwide marketing campaign to launch the new calendar feature.”
  • Tasks are the individual steps that need to be taken in order to execute the project. It may not be necessary to enumerate Every. Single. Task. right at the beginning of a project. But it’s worth writing down what is known, and what is assumed, as it forces you to get on one page and think through what is required.

If you’re leading a smaller team, you may only need to define a mission, a strategy, some key results, and then the projects and tasks. For example, your mission might be “Successfully onboard all new hires and your strategy would be to “1. Determine all information new hires need to succeed. 2. Document that information. 3. Provide in-person mentorship to answer follow-up questions.” (Not saying that’s the best strategy for onboarding new hires, but it is a strategy!)

Then one of your key results might be “Achieve a 4.0 or higher when surveying managers at the end of the quarter about how well their new hires were onboarded on a scale from 1 to 5,” followed by your projects and tasks.

If anyone’s out of the loop and continues marching in a direction that has since changed, it leads to frustration and wasted work.

This is generally best done as a highly collaborative (and, in large teams, hierarchically distributed) process. But most importantly, this isn’t a set-it-and-forget-it process. Over time, the plan inevitably changes. Hopefully, changes to strategy are infrequent, but changes on the exact set of tasks required to execute a project can change every day as you learn new things about what work is required. That’s why it’s crucial to have a dynamic way to keep everyone on the same page about what your team’s plan is. If anyone’s out of the loop and continues marching in a direction that has since changed, it leads to frustration and wasted work.

Unsurprisingly, I think Asana is the best way to dynamically track a plan with a team (that’s why we built Asana). But if your team can get by with a big whiteboard in the middle of the office, that works too. The important thing is that everyone has easy access to an accurate source of truth of the team’s current plan.

3. Clarity of responsibility

A team has clarity of responsibility when each person knows exactly what role they have in the execution of the plan.

At the most basic level, this requires each part of the plan (from individual tasks to high-level objectives) to have an owner or a directly responsible individual. Generally, each item should have exactly one owner: When no one is responsible for something, it doesn’t get done. When two or more people share responsibility for the same task or objective, it may still not get done, or it may lead to people stepping on each others’ toes. (A huge amount of  internal company politics is often a symptom of two people each thinking they’re responsible for the same thing.)

Clarity of responsibility also entails clear definitions of roles. At Asana, we have a list (in Asana) of all the different areas of responsibility (AoRs) in the company, who owns them, and exactly what that AoR entails. We have areas of responsibility for everything from “University Recruiting”, to “Content Marketing,” to “iOS Performance,” to “Team Diversity.”

There may be whole teams involved in each of these, but for each, there’s one clear directly responsible individual. For each AoR, we try to have a clear description of the exact responsibilities and decision-making rights associated with the role, so that there’s no ambiguity around who’s responsible for what.

Stay vigilant, and iterate

As a leader, it’s your responsibility not only to create clarity now, but to be vigilant as time goes on in unearthing the ways that your team lacks clarity, and then working to fix it, one problem at a time.

I find it downright startling how infrequently teams have clarity. Talking with friends who work at other companies, they more often than not complain about not understanding their team’s strategy and how their work fits into it. Even at Asana, where we’re obsessed with achieving this kind of clarity, I regularly find teams that are confused about how their work fits in with, or how to prioritize work in the context of, the company’s strategy.

In my experience, the only way to counteract this is to proactively ask your teammates questions, and solicit their questions. Whether in 1:1s, team meetings, or through anonymous surveys, you can literally ask the kinds of questions posed at the beginning of this article, and you may be surprised at the level of inconsistency of the answers you get. Rather than be disheartened, you can see these as opportunities to make your team even better.

You can also proactively solicit their questions, by asking what parts of the mission or the strategy or the plan or their role they are unclear about. And again, you may be startled by the kinds of questions you get.

Clarity improves a team’s ability to execute, its ability to change directions confidently, and its overall satisfaction.

Once, a product manager on my team asked me, after working with me for years, what the role of a product manager is at Asana. While we had documentation on this, it turned out that we had been failing to show this documentation to new hires, and PMs were picking it up primarily by word of mouth and guessing. This was working well enough in practice that I hadn’t noticed, but it was leading to a variety of small problems and confusions that were slowing teams down. This was all because PMs did not have complete clarity about what was expected of them.

Scaling clarity

The faster your organization grows in size, and the faster the work grows in complexity, the more it may feel like you don’t have time to sit down and give your team clarity. And yet, that’s when it becomes even more critical to have clarity. Clarity improves a team’s ability to execute, its ability to change directions confidently, and its overall satisfaction because people have more confidence that they’re doing the most important work they can be doing and understand why it matters in the grand scheme of things.

At the same time, don’t get addicted to clarity. Intrinsic to doing great things that haven’t been done before is a large amount of ambiguity. A team that freezes in the face of ambiguity is a team that can’t get very far in navigating uncharted territories. And the more entrepreneurial your team and novel your goals, the more you must value comfort with ambiguity and recruit teammates who possess that comfort naturally.

Clarity will never be perfect, but the more you can create it on your team, the more context people will share in making the hard calls, and the more everyone will keep moving toward a common north star—even if the path is a zigzag.

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