Great leaders lead by distilling the why and the what for their teams, peers, and organization, and by overcommunicating to help drive alignment, not through control – Satya Nadella
Have you ever been on a team that’s stuck? A team where everyone is moving in different directions? You spoke to three people, and there is a lack of consensus on what the team is trying to achieve. There are different perceptions of the team’s priorities and direction. Priorities shift from time to time, and you could feel a sense of instability or unpredictability in the team’s work. If you stick a little longer, you start to witness signs of disengagement, low morale, or a lack of enthusiasm.
If you notice several of the above, it’s an indication that the team lacks clarity of direction. Where there is no clarity, a different narrative ensues. If you’re a manager, one of the most important things you can do is drive clarity of purpose, direction, plan, and responsibilities.
I have come to believe that clarity in the context of software development is about giving people a practical North Star to guide their thinking and actions in the right direction, even when the conditions get cloudy. I have to admit, it took me a while to learn how important this is when you lead engineering teams.
A team is a function of its environment. If the environment a team is operating in lacks clarity on its purpose, structure, expectations, and boundaries, it becomes really difficult to achieve sustained high performance.
Clarity provides the vision, the direction, the rallying cry, the strategy, and the goals of your business and team. Clarity grounds organisations and teams into something bigger.
Why does driving clarity matter?
A collective sense of clarity of purpose within an organization has a direct impact on its performance.
Clarity drives focus. There’s a reason why startups can move swiftly and outpace larger organizations with significantly more resources. Besides the absence of bureaucracy, successful startups embody a strong sense of purpose and instill a radical focus in every team member.
A lack of clarity impacts commitment. If it’s not clear, it’s hard to commit to.
Clarity drives behaviors and actions that propel organizations forward, all aligned toward common goals.
There are three major areas a leader should consistently drive clarity on to get a team to their peak performance.
Clarity of direction and purpose
Charles Garfield, author of several books on peak performance, spent decades studying peak performers and found that intense commitment to what they do is one of the single most dramatic differences between peak performers and their less productive colleagues.
Having hired tens of software engineers and interviewed dozens of software engineers, I have found that engineers who are passionate about what they do and the problems they solve perform better and retain better than those who are not.
What really makes people develop intense commitment and passion for what they do? It is rooted in a deep understanding of “purpose.” An intense attachment to why they’re doing that thing.
The differentiation of performance in engineering teams is how the members feel about what they’re doing. The “how” stems from the purpose. To better put, the “why” behind that thing.
Effective leaders master how to communicate purpose and direction that inspire others and provoke actions.
McKinsey asked over 5000 executives to write down their peak experience as team members and the descriptions of the environment. The first of the three things was alignment in direction, which is a shared belief about what the organization is striving towards.
When there is clarity of purpose, a team has a navigation aid that helps set the direction of collective actions.
Clarity of purpose stems from everyone on the team understanding why they’re doing whatever they’re doing in the first place.
A northstar to aim for is a crucial part of motivating your team. When a team can’t understand why they’re doing what they’re doing, it becomes a losing battle. A small litmus test to understand if a team has clarity of purpose is:
Does the team understand where the company is headed?
Does the team understand why the company is headed there?
Does the team understand how they’re contributing to that?
Does the team understand how success is measured?
Clarity of purpose drives strategy and resources. To formulate a solid plan, you first need to be clear about what you want to achieve.
Clarity of plan
When you don’t have a plan, randomness ensues. A team member pushes a new activity, and another team member pushes an unrelated task on the side.
There are activities and tasks being done. But the effectiveness of the collective actions falls short. You wonder why the impact was so low. You don’t need to look far to notice an absence of clarity in the destination and the plan to get there.
When you have a plan, it limits your choices and helps people focus on the specific path to get to the intended destination.
Having a plan is the beginning. The end is to get to a place where everyone knows the plan, what they’re to do in the plan, and how that thing they’ll do contributes toward reaching their destination.
A team has clarity of plan when they’re able to understand the pieces and how those pieces will help them get to the destination.
To create plan clarity, start by connecting your overall mission (North Star) to actionable steps that get you to your destination—and creatively distill that into your team.
There are a few steps to take to help you understand and have clarity about your plans.
Together with your team, do focused planning by collectively mapping out the important pieces required to get to where you want to get to. People remember what they co-create better.
Establish a set of measurable key results that you aim to achieve by specific dates.
Map out the big projects that your team will take on to achieve those key results, and then the specific tasks to achieve them.
Actively and consistently overcommunicate the plan.
Clarity of roles and responsibilities
In a soccer game, players play with a clear understanding of their roles. The goalkeeper knows his or her role. The strikers and defenders all play with a clear understanding of what role they have to play in the game. A lack of role clarity impedes high performance.
When I picked up my first job as a software engineer, I was handed a contract of engagement with clauses on my roles and a description of what I would be doing.
Months into the job, I saw how different my day-to-day job was from the 8 bullet points listed in the paper as a job description. There were implicit role expectations and responsibilities that were not in the job descriptions, as I learned the hard way.
When individuals in a team have role clarity, everyone knows what they’re responsible for and accountable for. They know the role that they have to play in the plan. They know what is expected, which tasks in the plan they have to accomplish, and how their performance on the tasks will be evaluated.
If you’re leading engineering teams, pay attention to whether individuals on the team have a full understanding of their roles and responsibilities in your overall plan.
You should consistently ask yourself:
Does everyone understand their roles and what they have to contribute to the team’s plan?
Do they understand the details of the results to be achieved?
If you’re an IC in a team and you lack role clarity, be proactive by asking your manager detailed questions about your role expectations, and your performance will be measured. Put the expectations in writing and send them to your manager for review.