June 7, 2013
News & Opinion: The Clarity Principle
If I were to put together a KnowledgeBOX to help people improve their company's organizational health, I'd pair this book with The Advantage: Why Organizational Health Trumps Everything Else in Business by author Patrick Lencioni. Three of the four Disciplines Lencioni lays out in The Advantage are: Create Clarity; Overcommunicate Clarity, Reinforce Clarity. However, Lencioni's book is more prescriptive, instructive, like a quick-course lesson, addressing such practical issues as "Conflict Avoidance," "Embracing Accountability," and "Hiring for Fit," while The Clarity Principle, which also encourages leaders whose companies are overrun with drama or pernicious low morale to restore clarity, is more theoretical and story-based.
Because we've heavily covered the 2013 Business Book of the Year Award winning The Advantage, which you can read about here, let's take a deeper dive into The Clarity Principle. Here's is what is at risk: "Your business, just like a person, must lay claim to an identity in the world. Your company has to take a stand on what--or who--it is. When it can't--when the business's identity and purpose become vague to its market, customers, and employees--a crisis ensues." And here is The Clarity Principle's promised result: "When it's running properly, every business deserves to be called a community. People come together and feel responsible to one another and the guiding purpose of the business. They join in making sure things continue to work as they should." Which, I believe to be this book's unique and valuable perspective because a company can certainly decide on a purpose that speaks to C-Suite or shareholder goals, but truly a company's purpose must be clear to its employees, the folks that show up every day and keep the wheels turning.
Every company, including yours, exists for a reason. Every business has a purpose. Even if your organization's objective is to make money, the way it endures is by solving a particular kind of problem in the world. Whether you are a pharmaceutical carving out a unique way to treat patients, a nonprofit serving a worthy constituency, or a global retailer satisfying a particular consumer desire, your market, your customers, and the people in your organization all need to know clearly what the business is about. Just like individuals, companies need to know "who" they are, what they're up to, and why it matters.
[B]usinesses that clearly understand and express their purpose outperform those that don't. Clarity of purpose, I'll argue, is a competitive imperative. It's also an existential one. Purpose, and the identity it conveys, is the lifeblood of the organization. It's what gives a business its driving motive and cohering storyline.
First, the book takes a look at "Proxy Wars" and Sullivan uses a story embedded in the early days of Apple to investigate "the complicated experiences we have with colleagues in our business, and the confusing political and personal machinations we encounter at every level" which tend to reflect "the larger, more central, problems in the business." Then readers will move to chapters "The Murky Middle," which delves into dilemmas and the dangers of "decision-making paralysis," and to "Neither Fish Nor Fowl," which warns that a "business can be one thing or another but will invariably suffer when it tries to be too many things at once."
The irrationality of people is a popular topic in business writing these days, and is often geared toward illuminating the ways in which expectations or assumptions fail us. Sullivan's chapter titled "The Shadow Side of Strategy" also notes that rationality is a rare thing in business (and provides research to defend the position), but also argues interestingly that it is the impermanence of strategy that leads to more reliance on the "soft stuff" of business. You can't always know what's going to happen in the long term, but you can focus day-to-day on maintaining internal company health. It's a bit zen, this. "Taking a Stand" is Sullivan's chapter on the importance of developing a fundamental purpose for your organization from a more practical (financial, developmental, strategic) angle, and "The Hunger for Purpose" is an exploration of the role of purpose in the human work experience. "The meaning we gain from purpose provides orientation and intelligibility; it also motivates. Meaning is the inner experience of being inspired by purpose." Sullivan concludes with an epilogue that encourages us all to be vigilant and resolve small issues before they escalate into unsolvable problems.
All around, The Clarity Principle is a quick and stimulating read that will have you analyzing both your own behavior and that of your employees and leaders with the end goal of improving organizational health.
About Sally Haldorson
Sally Haldorson's job as 800-CEO-READ’s General Manager is to make 800-CEO-READ a great place to work for our employees, and a consistently high-performing customer service organization for our clients, authors, and our partners in the publishing industry. In addition to her General Manager duties ensuring collaboration, integration, and quality, she reads, writes, reviews, curates, and edits for the company. Helping craft The 100 Best Business Books of All Time used parts of both skill sets. Outside of work, she is most likely to be found hitting a tennis ball around or hanging out with her boys (husband, child, dog) at home.