Culture, clarity, and focus

From CEOs to line managers, management is responsible for making other people productive. One team under different managers can differ dramatically in productivity, but what is it that great managers do that make such a difference?

Great managers do three things well: they cultivate culture, they create clarity, and they focus their team. They do this regardless of where in the organisational structure they sit, but the work required to do so differs.

Culture

Culture refers to patterns of behaviour in a group of individuals. Do they welcome candour? Do they help each other? Do they discuss ideas or gossip over lunch? Do they speak with precision? Do they pick up trash? Are they open to new ideas? Do they label people? Do they reward merit? Culture is what people do.

The unsentimental view on culture is that it matters because it affects the bottom line. It influences who you can recruit, how long those people stay, how well they work together, how things get done, and what things get done. A culture that works well for one organisation will probably not work as well for one with different products, positioning, and market dynamics.

Culture develops over time. Left untended, it develops haphazardly and almost certainly into one that is suboptimal for the organisation. Culture needs active cultivation. Managers shape culture with incentives, disincentives, authority, and social proof.

You usually get the positive action that you reward for and the misbehaviour that you tolerate (fail to punish). Rewards do not have to be large and punishments do not have to be harsh; you might simply acknowledge good work and ask that sloppy work is redone.

Orders from those perceived to have authority will usually be obeyed. This is a powerful tool for eliciting compliance, but it comes with risks. If the orders are perceived as unfair, reckless, or counterproductive, the manager risks losing respect. They might then need to use more authority to get things done, which exacerbates the situation. To guard against that, managers should lead by example, be fair, behave as they request others to behave, not ask for things they would not be prepared to do themselves, and put the mission and the team before themselves.

Humans determine how to behave by observing how those around them behave, in particular those they identify with. This is known as social proof. If you see your peers pick up trash, you are more likely to do so too. As a manager, you should therefore form teams where a majority – or at least the highest status – exhibits the desired cultural behaviour.

In other words, culture is shaped through a myriad of everyday actions, both obvious and subtle. It requires a mix of thoughtfulness, decisiveness, and persistence.

Clarity

Clarity means that everyone in the organisation knows and understands the answers to questions such as: Where are we? Where are we going? Why are we going there? How are we going to get there? Managers are responsible not just for presenting such information, but for ensuring that their team understands it.

Without clarity, decisions can not be effectively decentralised. Without clarity, decisions in one part of the organisation are more likely to be inconsistent with those made in another part. There are several downsides to this: bilateral meetings proliferate in an attempt to coordinate; front-line staff are not empowered to make decisions even though they usually have the best understanding of the domain; people feel like they work in a fog or are being micro-managed (or both); motivation suffers because people are unclear about the impact of their work; problems might not be recognised as such and are less likely to be raised early.

Creating and maintaining clarity is hard and managers should expect to spend the bulk of their time and effort on that. It requires a keen understanding of reality, a clear goal, a simple plan A plan does not necessarily mean a step-by-step list of tasks with estimated delivery dates; it just means a description that allows the organisation to start moving towards the target effectively. How detailed that plan should be depends on the domain, the circumstances, and the goals.

, and the diligence to communicate this candidly up and down the organisation. Clarity goes far beyond just better communication.

Simplicity is essential for clarity, but simplicity requires trade-offs that are usually subtle and hard to argue objectively. Someone in the organisation is bound to have a different view. A great manager needs the ability to identify good trade-offs, the courage to pick them, and the persistence to see them through. That is a rare combination of skills.

Therefore, the pursuit of clarity must be deeply ingrained in the organisation and appreciated at all levels, from the board down to the delivery teams.

Focus

Focus means that teams and individuals focus on the single most valuable goal they can be working towards at any one time.

Focus matters because it affords higher quality output. Without focus, you might deliver more things, but they will all be done less well. Higher quality output matters when the impact of the output is amplified. For example, the design of a product affects everyone who uses it; similarly, a manager influences everyone in their team.

One reason focus produces higher quality output is simply that you spend more time on fewer things. Another reason is that humans are terrible at multi-tasking. Mental switching costs are significant for non-habitual activities, in particular if the activity involves (or benefits from) deep thinking (which non-routine jobs usually do).

To achieve focus, an individual needs a clear goal, few distractions, and the belief that the task is both valuable and achievable.

To reduce distractions for someone, ensure they have only one priority. Break down large, complex tasks into steps that each allow a single focus. Reduce the need for meetings. When meetings are necessary, schedule them in clusters such that large blocks of uninterrupted time remain. Minimise environmental distractions such as noise, notifications, and unwanted interruptions. Shield people from politics.

To help someone see value in a goal, explain how their goal contributes to the organisation’s overall goal. Make the task challenging, but not too challenging. Let them own and take pride in their work. Show them that their work matters. Ensure that incentives are aligned with the goal; in a team effort, individuals should benefit from overall team performance.

To help someone feel that a goal is achievable, first make sure it actually is achievable (even if ambitious). Give ongoing feedback to provide reassurance that they have understood the goal. Show them that you will fairly assess their output relative to resources, time constraints, and the situation. Ensure they have the necessary resources – authority, budget, time, and people – but remember that more resources do not always lead to better results.

In contrast to individuals, organisations and teams can do different things in parallel by splitting work between teams or individuals. However, even for organisations, a single high-level focus can be beneficial because it clarifies internal priorities and makes it easier for external customers and stakeholders to understand the organisation.

Summary

Managers in organisations are responsible for making their teams productive. That requires that they create exceptional culture, clarity, and focus. This is as true for the CEO as it is for a line manager. This short overview explained what culture, clarity, and focus mean. It barely scratched the surface of how to deliver them, much less how to identify and create exceptional versions of them. The message is simply this: think in terms of culture, clarity, and focus when you think about how to make teams as productive as possible.

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