Last week, I posted commentary on a number of articles I had been reading about the importance of achieving clarity in your organization. Surprisingly, this week, I came across another article – the equivalent of a Chapter Two – on what happens after clarity of purpose has led to success.
In his HBR Blog Network article, “The Disciplined Pursuit of Less,” author Greg McKeown discusses “the clarity paradox,” offering suggestions for how we can avoid the pitfalls associated with having achieved clarity. The concepts apply to individuals as well as organizations. You might find the principles useful in thinking about your own life; I found a number of valuable insights to be derived for the professional communicator.
What is the “clarity paradox”?
As McKeown describes it, the clarity paradox occurs in stages: Clarity of purpose will lead to success; success will lead to more opportunity; more opportunity will lead to diffused efforts as the company (or individual) pursues those opportunities; and the resulting diffused efforts will undermine clarity. The clarity paradox explains why successful companies may not become wildly successful companies. Given the opportunities that come with success, they go down the path of the undisciplined pursuit of more. It’s true with companies, and it’s often true of individuals.
McKeown offers three suggestions for avoiding the clarity paradox that I believe can be very useful in thinking about well-established, successful communications programs.
1. Use more “extreme” criteria.
McKeown uses the reader’s closet as an example. If you’re cleaning out your closet and ask only “Will I ever wear this again?” as the criterion for tossing something on the discard pile, you aren’t likely to make much progress. With stricter criteria, you might ask yourself, “Do I absolutely love this item?” Clothes will begin flying onto the pile.
Think about your communication program: Does everyone need to know everything? Do you need to articulate every single aspect of your business strategy or are you better off concentrating on the two or three most critical components? Does every audience need ongoing attention or can some be relegated to not-quite-so-regular communication? Are the myriad projects to which you’re assigning resources truly giving you good return on your investment?
2. Eliminate the nonessential.
McKeown suggests that individuals conduct a “life audit” – eliminating well-intended activities from the past that have outlived present effectiveness. It works for communication programs, too. Conduct an audit of your routine communication practices pondering the “why-do-we-bother” aspect of each tactic. Do you need an intranet, a social media program, print communications, teleconferences and in-person meetings, or can you limit your program to only the two or three most relevant channels? These are not decisions to be made without the benefit of research, but you may find that additional channels may actually be diffusing the impact of your efforts.
3. Beware of the “endowment effect.”
Studies show that perceived value of an object increases once an individual takes ownership of the object. It’s why you can’t bring yourself to part with old books, favorite t-shirts and tchotchkes from past lives. The same concept holds true for habits and actions that we continue beyond their useful life cycle.
Meetings come to mind most readily: How many regularly scheduled meetings continue more from momentum than necessity? How many executive “pet projects” receive ongoing support long after the executive has lost interest? You may find that others are relieved when you suggest a change. McKeown suggests never starting something new without eliminating something old. It’s difficult to argue with such fundamentally sound thinking.
McKeown concludes that if success is a catalyst for failure due to the undisciplined pursuit of more, the antidote may be the disciplined pursuit of less. I suggest reading the article, then reviewing your communication plan.