Lack of Clarity = Meeting Overload

Written by James Elliott
on September 5, 2018

Do any of these symptoms show up in your organization?

  • Lots of meetings with lots of discussions to reach consensus on things
  • E-mails fly around with lots of people cc’d, often for unclear reasons
  • People check-in with everyone before making decisions, and expect others will too
  • People have lots of ideas about what “we” should do… but “we” don’t do it.

These are all symptoms of lack of clarity, and many organizations suffer from them. When we’re not clear who needs to be involved in a decision or who has the authority to make it, we often default to getting everyone involved for lack of a better option. That at least allows a decision to get made (sometimes), and no one’s toes get stepped on (usually), though it sure has a price. It also points to a much deeper issue – a lack of clarity of what roles (not people) are needed given the organization’s purpose. What work each of those roles (not people) needs to do, and what authority each of those roles (not people) needs to do it. Until we have differentiated the organizational Roles from the people doing them, we will have a fusion of the people and the organization which limits both. Once we have this clarity – or better yet, a trusted process for continually generating this clarity over time – we can then find relief from the symptoms above. We no longer need meetings for everything, as we know exactly which other roles to involve in various activities and decisions. And when we do engage in a discussion, we can do so without creating an expectation of consensus, because everyone is crystal clear on which Role owns the decision. We no longer need to cc everyone on e-mails or check-in with everyone before making a decision. We now know which roles should be involved in what and to what extent we should involve them, and just as important, to what extent we should just use our best judgment and make a decision autocratically. Organizational clarity frees us to be a good leader when we’re filling a role and need to balance input with expediency, and a good follower when another role owns a decision and shuts down the discussion to make a judgment call.

So, how can you move towards this kind of organizational clarity?  The medicine for this fusion is organizational clarity – a defined structure for how the organization will pursue its purpose. This structure has nothing to do with the people, and it is best defined without reference to them. People come in later, to energize the Roles the organization needs to pursue its purpose. To define a Role without reference to the people, give the Role a descriptive name, and one or more related activities which the person filling the Role will energize for the organization. This Role-holder must have authority to execute upon and make decisions around those activities, and may also have defined limits of authority or constraints which ensure other Roles can do their work effectively as well. With Roles defined around what’s needed for the purpose, we can then look at our available talent and assign the best-fit to energize each Role – and most of us will fill multiple roles quite naturally. (Done well, this is quite different from a conventional job description exercise – more on that in a future post.)

Some other techniques include:

  • When Seeking Consensus: When a discussion seems to be seeking consensus among the people about what decision to make, I ask “Is it clear what Role holds the authority to make this decision?”
  • When Involving Everyone: When lots of people are pulled into a meeting (or e-mail chain), I ask “What Roles need to be involved and why?”
  • When There’s Fusion: When a given human is habitually referenced by name as someone to check with or work with, especially if it’s a founder, ask “What Role is it that needs to be consulted, and what Role is asking?”

These questions begin to highlight the lack of clarity and habitual fusion that necessarily exists in the early stages of any effort. It often still exists quite a bit later, despite fancy job descriptions and org charts that pretend otherwise. It is in answering these questions that something emerges beyond just the group of people – only then is a genuine organization born, as a differentiated entity.

25 %

only 20% of managers believe that their systems for managing commitments across silos, work well all or most of the time

Why Strategy Execution Unravels, HBR - 2015
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