There have been several articles over the years on the topic of the pitfalls of leaders giving vague directions. There are various reasons for this happening: sloppiness, lack of knowledge, being rushed, etc. Whatever the reason, it can lead to surprises, disappointing outcomes, excessive cost and wasted time.
An example I saw in the Harvard Business Review recently along these lines came from IDEO, the company that helps organizations generate significant new product ideas. In analyzing the effectiveness of their work, they realized that they had fallen into a trap caused primarily by their client’s behavior. Specifically, their clients were spending way too much time trying to estimate market/financial potential and develop prototypes of specific ideas that popped up early in the idea generation phase, causing the group to come up with surprisingly few ideas in the allotted time. This was particularly troublesome, because clearly the scarcest resource for their clients was great ideas, and that is why they sought out the services of IDEO in the first place.
The fix that IDEO came up with was extremely simple. Specifically, the first step in the process IDEO was using with their clients was telling the group to brainstorm in the areas in which they were willing to do business. What was needed was to add some very specific rules; namely, “Defer Judgment,” “Encourage Wild Ideas,” “Go for Quantity,” “No Analysis of Potential Allowed.” This rather obvious fix led to far more robust idea generation sessions.
Stepping back, this example reminds us of some basic but important tips for leaders when it comes to describing a strategy or goal:
1.) Supplement the strategy/goal statement with specific guidelines/rules – As we saw in the IDEO example, if you give people the latitude, they will likely wonder off into areas that you really are not interested in.
2.) Regularly check to see what your communications are leading to – You may be surprised, as the IDEO people were, that you have given inadequate guidance to avoid efforts that are irrelevant.
3.) Clarify and/or add specificity on the fly as you learn – No doubt as you get into the task, you will observe behavior that clearly you should have anticipated, but didn’t. Don’t hesitate to clarify via some additional rules that will help guide the group away from the areas you want avoided.
In summary: Be Specific! Carefully think through what guidelines/rules you can provide that make the strategy/goal much clearer.