Culture, Clarity, and Focus

From the CEO at the top to the line managers at the bottom, a manager1 is responsible for making their team as productive as possible. The same team with different managers can, and often does, differ considerably in productivity. So what is it that good managers do that make such a difference?

Good managers do three things well: they cultivate culture, they provide clarity, and they focus their team. The work required to do that varies depending on where in the organisational structure they are, but the goals are nevertheless the same. This model can help you think about what to expect from managers2 and how to become a better manager yourself.

Culture

Culture is made up of the ideas, the customs, and the social behaviours that the members of a group exhibit. Do they welcome candour? Do they help each other? Do they discuss ideas or gossip over lunch? Do they speak with precision? Do they leave trash on the floor? Are they open to new ideas? Do they label people?

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, what things get done, and what is left undone. There is no one culture that is suitable fo all companies. A culture that works well for one organisation might not work for another with different products, market position, or market dynamics.

Culture develops over time. Left untended, it develops haphazardly and almost certainly not into the one that best serves the organisation. Culture needs active cultivation. Managers shape culture primarily by using rewards (incentives), punishments (disincentives), authority, and social proof.

You tend to get the positive action that you reward for, explicitly or implicitly, and the misbehaviour that you tolerate (fail to punish). Rewards do not have to be large nd 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 clear 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 tend to determine how to behave by observing how those around them – in particular those they identify with – behave. This is called social proof. For example, if you see your peers pick up trash, you are more likely to do so too. Managers should therefore form teams such that the majority exhibits the desired cultural behaviour.

Thus, culture is shaped through a myriad of everyday actions, obvious and subtle. Doing this well 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 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; observed 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 it. It requires a keen understanding of reality, a clear goal, a simple plan3, and the diligence to communicate this candidly up and down the organisation. That is, 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 a great trade-off, the courage to pick it, and the persistence to see it through. This 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 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, and similarly, a manager influences everyone in their team4.

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, no distractions, and the belief that the task is both valuable and achievable.

To reduce distractions for someone, ensure they have only one priority. When the road ahead is long and hard, break it down into steps that they can focus on and finish one at a time. Reduce the need for meetings. When meetings are necessary, schedule them in clusters such that large blocks of uninterrupted time remain. Minimise environmental distractions5. 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, ensure individuals benefit from overall team performance.

To help someone feel that a goal is achievable, first make sure their goal is actually achievable (even if ambitious). Give on-going feedback to provide reassurance that they have understood the goal. Show them their output is fairly assessed relative to resources, time constraints, and 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 as productive as possible. 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 brief overview tried to explain what culture, clarity, and focus mean. However, it barely scratched the surface of how to deliver them, much less how to identify and create exceptional versions of them. The takeaway message is simply this: think in terms of culture, clarity, and focus when you think about how to make teams as productive as possible.


  1. The article uses “manager” to refer to those who lead a team in an organisation, regardless of level. “Leader” could have worked too, but a leader sometimes refers to someone who does not manage others – as in “thought leader” – or someone who influences others without formal authority. That said, much of the article also applies to those who influence people without formal authority, except that they have fewer tools at their disposal.

  2. Those in a managerial position usually have additional responsibilities such as hiring, budget allocation, strategy, people development, and so on, which may overlap with the job of managing people, but those will not be covered here.

  3. A plan does not necessarily mean a step-by-step list of tasks with estimated delivery dates, it just refers to a description that allows the organisation to start moving towards the target as effectively as possible. How detailed that plan should be depends on the domain, circumstances, and goals.

  4. A product design affects users, but their use of the product may in turn affect others. Similarly, a manager affects the team, but the team’s work may in turn affect others.

  5. Environmental distractions include noise, people coming over to chat during focused work, push notifications, or a particularly uncomfortable working area. To alleviate some of these, managers might simply encourage people to turn off automatic notifications or work from home. For others, bigger changes such as investing in better equipment or moving offices are necessary.