Leading simply: cutting through the clutter in new economy workplaces

Strategy & Leadership

ISSN: 1087-8572

Article publication date: 1 April 2000




Jensen, B. (2000), "Leading simply: cutting through the clutter in new economy workplaces", Strategy & Leadership, Vol. 28 No. 2. https://doi.org/10.1108/sl.2000.26128bab.002



Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2000, MCB UP Limited

Leading simply: cutting through the clutter in new economy workplaces

The strategic leader

Leading simply: cutting through the clutter in new economy workplaces

Bill Jensen

Abstract In the world of the Internet, information overload has become a daily problem. People at every level of an organization feel its impact. In addition, most managers and team leaders, even the most well-intentioned ones, make things far too complicated and actually make it hard to work smarter. The author describes a communication process that focuses on five key questions. These questions anticipate what goes through every employee's head when being told about a new task that needs to be executed. It is the leader's responsibility to clarify the worker's tasks and provide the tools necessary for getting the job done.

Keywords Communications, Work, BPR, Organizational change, Leadership

Do any of these comments sound familiar? "Sometimes I feel like a telecom switch. It takes an effort to know when and how to turn off all the noise coming at me," or "E-mail is the great leveler. Everyone in the company has access to me. Sometimes it's really hard to stay focused." As well as, "I think we've done a good job at keeping the senior team focused on our top priorities. It's just that the need for re-communicating is relentless. Am I the only leader who [privately] finds all the re-engaging frustrating?"

If there's a ring of familiarity, you're not alone. Since 1992 I've been studying what leaders are going through. Many of today's leaders are struggling with the tension between "I know it's important to continually communicate" and "How do I do a better job of cutting through the clutter? There's got to be a better way." This tension affects how you lead in a work world of choice- and information-overload.

First, the painful "Aha"

Many leaders (and their organizational structures) create more clutter, noise, and confusion than they ever dreamt possible. Intentions aside, lots of senior teams are creating tons of unnecessary work complexity in how they organize and deliver what they know.

From 1992 to 1999, I spent time with over 460 companies studying business's ability to design work in the Information Age. During that study, I found that the biggest sources of work complexity – how hard people have to work to cut through noise and ambiguity to work smarter and faster – have little to do with the "boogie monsters" we often promote: speed, change, technology, customers, global market forces, and so on.

Work complexity is everyone's increasingly impossible struggle to figure out what's important and how to ignore the rest. Platitudes aside, our biggest limit is no longer the reach of our imagination. It's our personal ability to order, make sense of, and connect everything demanding our attention – how we create our daily clarity.

Many people within our organizations are truly struggling to cut through the clutter and stay focused. We are not creating enough understanding and clarity for enough people. Over 2,500 people in the companies we interviewed said that this challenge is huge. Among their top sources of work complexity are:

  • How we communicate. Many leaders and managers need to move from focusing on messages and context to being more rigorous in delivering useful information and creating deep (and sometimes difficult) conversations that bring clarity out of ambiguity.

  • Ineffective knowledge management. Our organizations are forcing people to drink from a fire hose. Between 60 percent and 80 percent of us can't find or translate the information around us in time to find it useful.

  • Unclear goals and objectives. Despite our efforts, this is still a biggie. Imagine the impact of the following fact on your next communication: Every 1,100 days, the ability of every person in an organization to transform information into work becomes twice as important. (Every three years, the amount of information people will need to capture, organize, communicate, understand, and build into solutions will double.)

According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, up to 75 percent of people in our workforce are missing key literacy skills to perform moderately complex procedures, analysis, and reasoning. This means that, when faced with a tsunami of choices and information, three out of every four people in the general population won't, or can't, take the time to figure out what to do differently or what everything means. If you feel that doesn't apply to your organization because you've pre-selected a high-performing, highly developed workforce, note that all supply chains are becoming interwoven. This statistic affects clarity inside every company.

After seven years, the key takeaway. Change as much and as fast as you want. But know that execution happens at the speed of sense making. We need to rethink how we help others create their own clarity and navigate change on their own.

What to do differently

Addressing how more people in an organization can make sense of things faster is not a checklist kind of thing. No quick fix will do enough. Most of my work with senior executives, and fully half of my book, is spent changing the infrastructure-the work tools and information flows that people use in their day-to-day work.

But we all can start with something small and simple – how we communicate.

The following five-question model for behavioral communication came out of the seven years of study. It's been tested with tens of thousands of people in almost a dozen countries. It works because it is the anatomy of a decision. This model, covering all five questions in a conversation, is the balanced scorecard we each have in our heads when deciding to take on or reject a change (See Exhibit 1.)

Exhibit 1 ­ Behavioural communication model

You can cut through clutter for yourself, your direct reports, and all of your managers when answering the following questions:

How is this relevant to what I do? During the study, we found that many leaders and managers excel at declaring, "You should pay attention to this." However, in today's information-loaded world, if everyone in an organization paid full attention to what is supposed to be relevant, no one would have the time to get anything done! To capture and keep someone's attention, leaders need to be able to quickly connect new ideas to the tasks that must be executed. This means, for example, explaining a new corporate strategy in terms of how it will change the listener's daily routine. A common mistake is to illustrate how the new corporate strategy is different from the old one – as if that creates clarity. For most, it doesn't. What's necessary is to find ways for managers to get their fingernails dirty, comparing differences in activities, meetings, tools, or specific accountabilities. And if that fingernail-level is inappropriate for you, make sure there is a manager at your next big strategy rollout who can cover this dialogue.

What specifically should I do? No, this question is not about returning to command-and-control. During our study, we found that most managers are not good process communicators, meaning that many people in our organizations need greater clarity about specific starting points. What are the first three steps that must be taken in the next 30 days? Who is accountable for those steps? What does the deliverable back to the organization look like? Clearly, what-should-I-do questions should not be answered from the executive level. But it is a leader's responsibility to ensure that managers are trained and developed to define starting points more quickly. Many managers we met fell prey to information- and choice-overload themselves and often skip this part of communication just to keep things moving.

How will I be measured and what are the consequences? Every conversation does not have to be linked to a formal performance management process. But it is important to note that leaders ranked as effective communicators had the ability clearly to define success for projects, or tell people, up front, how and when they would get feedback. We found that another dimension of reducing clutter for people was the ability to clarify consequences – what will happen to the customer or the organization if an effort succeeds or fails.

What tools and support are available? For many people, this is the most critical question. Because it's all about execution –getting everything done. Tools and support can mean many things: training, technology, team meetings, mentoring, even checklists. The leader's role in making the connections between tools and support and the work at hand is huge! Right tools, right time, right way shortens everyone's "to do" lists and helps them focus. The most important thing to remember here is that the leaders rated most effective continually made the connections. Often, an organization has designed awesome tools and support, but they are underused or misunderstood because the communicator didn't make the connection between, for example, the training people received six months ago and the new change about to be launched.

WIIFM-What's in it for me? For us? Believe it or not, this is not the most asked question! (That honor usually belongs to tools and support.) But it is important for people to see a connection between corporate success and their own. Will there be less stress? Enhanced teamwork? More time with my family? A better career track? Again, the most critical role the leader serves is helping people see the connections between organizational and individual success. This means engaging in (sometimes difficult) conversation about the trade-offs between the two.

Cutting the clutter now

Based on all the situations in which we've seen this five-question model applied, here are some tips for getting started:

  • For yourself. Tack a copy of the five questions near your phone or PC. Quickly scan them before sending critical voice-mail or e-mail messages. (The sooner you cover each of the five questions, the more you'll see your communication effectiveness skyrocket.)

  • With your direct reports. Make sure they know you will be listening for how well they answer your five questions. If they don't, let them know you may be "hitting delete" on their voice-mail, e-mail, and requests for your attention.

  • With your managers. Through training and development, help them focus on making connections between your ever-changing environment and the current initiative or change. Most managers I've met want to communicate effectively but are so overloaded they find it hard to make connections between events for people.

There are hundreds of stories I've heard about what happens when people follow the model. One retail food executive saw implementation of a change effort go from nine months to just a few weeks, all because she changed how the store directors' five questions were answered.

But more important than case studies is the reason why communicating this way will cut through almost any clutter that surrounds us. It forces us to look at listening, communication, and information design from the receiver's perspective – with empathy. In a noisy, cluttered, information-loaded environment, one principle will always assert itself: people listen for what affects and interests them and whatever they find useful for the tasks at hand.

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