Jon Moon

Clarity and Impact

In the Board & exam room

The credit crunch shows we must put clarity on the Board - entities should appoint a Director of Clarity. We must also put it in the exam room - clarity should be a separate discipline taught at College and Business School, on company induction programmes, and as part of professional exams.

Sounds odd? It's odder to lose trillions and not learn from it. Intrigued? Here's a two-page article - and see below for more.

The article refers to the new CV (click, then enter your details at the bottom of the page - the CV is then at the top of the page you get taken to); the Cabinet Briefing Paper; the London Tube map YouTube clip.

Test you and your company! Three one-page documents

Does your company need a Director of Clarity? 20 clues (pdf)
Think you know clarity? Try these 3 questions (pdf)
Could you be that Director? Test your beliefs (Excel - see note)

I've virus-checked the spreaddie and believe it safe. You still may be unable to open it if your Security settings are high. To proceed, reset to Medium (though if at work, you may be barred from doing this) - "Tools, Macros, Security, Medium". Remember to reset to "High" after.

Frequently asked questions 

Who really cares though? Clarity’s just not sexy
If not clarity, what do students of business get taught?

What will Directors of Clarity actually do?
Who should do the "clarity" audit?

Will this save me time? (Of course it will)
Will clarity reduce errors? (Not really a FAQ, but so be it)

How can I tell if people strive for clarity or just "nod" at it?
Is there a job ad to help me recruit the Director?

Who really cares though? Clarity’s just not sexy  

Heck, many topics in business are far more sexy and big-picture than clarity… there’s strategy, acquisitions, leadership. Business Schools teach these sexy subjects. The FT and the Wall Street Journal do features on them. Successful CEOs write books on them: “Miggins on Leadership” (have you ever seen a book called “Miggins on Clarity”…?).

These sexy topics change organisations, shift paradigms, provide global transformational solutions (sorry, I’m getting carried away...). Compare this to clarity which is on fonts, tables, graphs... Wow, big deal. Hardly life-changing stuff.

Wrong. Individually, these topics make little difference, but collectively, they make a massive difference, giving real clarity to everything we do. Yes, sexy topics like strategy, acquisitions and leadership change organisations, but, without clarity, they can all too easily change organisations for the worse (think "credit crunch" for one such example).

Clarity not only changes organisations enormously, it ensures that any change is for the good.

If not clarity, what do students of business get taught?

First, there are the professional institutes (e.g. the accountants). Their syllabi find space to teach not clarity but stuff like marketing and strategy. In other words, trainees learn how to do other people’s work before they fully learn how to do their own. Yes, trainees learn fancy marketing jargon that help them bond more with Marketing Managers, but it’ll all be to no avail if trainees can’t explain their own numbers clearly and with impact. People are paid to be good at their own job, not someone else’s.

As for Business Schools, I suppose clarity isn’t sexy enough to teach … As explained above, that's nonsense though.

However, there’s something else - as I say in my two-page article, it’s far more fun to get MBA students to do a “Body Language” Course. And it really happened, in case you're wondering - a top UK Business School opted for "body language" in preference to "clarity"...

What will Directors of Clarity actually do?

They're to ensure an organisation's documents are clear, and, if they aren't, the Directors should organise training, raise awareness, redo documents, monitor progress and more.

First, the Directors need to organise a "clarity audit" – are documents fit for purpose? The audit should review documents and slides, and talk to authors and audiences - what was the author trying to say? What did audiences think of the document? What did they do with it? Ignore it? Struggle, then give up? For more on to what to look for, read the one-page note: "Does you Company need a Director of Clarity".

The review should check the Board papers first, then do the rest of the organisation's documents afterwards.

That's what the Director should oversee. But who should do the review? See below.

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Who should do the "clarity" audit?

Some of the comments in this section are explained more fully in the two-page article, e.g. the bit about the London Tube map, and why good communicators might be bad Directors of Clarity.

The reviewers need knowledge, attitude and experience.

First, how deep is their knowledge? Have they studied clarity - and all aspects of it too: graphs, flowcharts, layout, numbers, words, and more? If they haven't, they won't know just how good "clear" can be - remember the London Tube map. Click here for three quick questions that test knowledge.

Second, attitude: remember - many good communicators would be bad Directors of Clarity because they believe clarity is subjective. The reviewer needs the right beliefs (for a test that assesses people's beliefs, see near the top of this webpage for a link to an Excel spreaddie).

Third, experience: how wide is it? Most people work on a narrow range of documents - Finance work on Accounts packs, Marketing work on Sales pitches and Corporate Communications, HR work on their KPI packs. It's not enough. You need someone who's worked on all these and more.

So, before appointing someone to review your organisation's documents, check their experience is wide, their knowledge deep and their attitude right. Then contact me.

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Will this save me time? (Of course it will)

The two-page article mentions many benefits of clarity, but doesn't say that clarity will save you time too. This section explains why.

With clarity, there are rules, methods and principles. And they don’t just ensure you do your documents and slides clearly, they ensure you do them quickly. You save time because, when you know what to do, you get to the right answer quickly, not the wrong answer slowly. And it’s incredibly empowering and confidence-building too. You are in control.

Which also means you don't waste time on stuff that doesn’t matter. Let me explain: so many people waste time discussing stuff like the colour of the report's front page - and it's such fun too, a fantastic displacement activity that beats doing real work. And because there are no absolutes, no "correct" colour, it’s a safe discussion to have because no one can show anyone else up by proving their opinion is wrong. So people discuss it endlessly. And they then discuss the colour of the pie charts...

When you learn clarity, you realise this is nonsense. As the two-page article says, you now seek a higher, more worthy goal: clarity. What matters is not the colour of the outside cover, but the clarity of the inside content. Get that right and the colours are fairly irrelevant.

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Will clarity reduce errors?

(This is another by-product of clarity – a small point, but relevant.)

Yes (you guessed that, didn't you). Often, when people redo their work with clarity, they realise it’s been crawling with errors – the August figures were wrong, as were Department X’s, etc. Yet no-one’s noticed this before – no-one understands the document, no-one reads it… not even its authors!

When the document is redone with clarity, people can, for the first time, see the wood for the trees. And they spot all their previously-unseen errors. It's a neat by-product of clarity.

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How can I tell if people strive for clarity or just "nod" at it?

You and your colleagues have a meeting to discuss a report you're all drafting for a client tender. Below are two versions of what you might say. Which version is most like you?

Version 1

"Here’s the numbers we need – income is £10,285,639. I’ve had another look at section 2 and it’s a bit complex, it’s not that clear. Probably as good as it gets though, and it’s always been done that way and no-one’s complained about it.

"For section 3, let’s copy the last tender – after all, it won us the business. In the Summary, remember to say we’re the biggest in our sector and that we recruit the best staff.

"Two last things: put in some more graphs in the report to lighten it up a bit, and make the front cover light blue, not dark blue. Most people won’t read the report anyway, so let’s make its cover look good." 

Version 2

"Income is about £10.3m - here’s what that means for the client. I’ve looked again at section 2, and got it down to a simple: “yes”, “no”, or “depends on this”. Section 4 isn’t clear though – there must be a better way, but I can’t quite see how. It’ll come to me when I’m cleaning my teeth tonight.

"As for Section 3, we could copy our last tender, but we asked that client for feedback and it said it didn't like Section 3. Is there a new angle to try this time? And change the summary - "we're the biggest"!?! So what - how's that benefit the client? And who'd say they don't recruit the best staff?!?!

"And why all those graphs, what do they say? Or are they just to break up dull text?"

Version 1: if you think you're into clarity, you aren't - you just pay lip service to it. Read the two-page article to better understand why.

Version 2: clarity could be your middle name.

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Here's one you can give your recruitment agent:

Director of Clarity for three organisations

Three clients seek to fill similar Board-level roles: Directors of Clarity within a public sector agency, a FTSE 100 plc, and a not-for-profit entity. All clients will consider full-time or part-time applicants or applicants that can fulfill the roles as part of their other responsibilities within the organisations.

The candidates are to bring clarity to documents within these organisations, and our clients expect many positive outcomes. They expect that clearer sales pitches will lead to more new business wins. They expect that clearer Board packs will lead to managers making more informed decisions more quickly. In particular, the Board expect - and want - shorter Board meetings.

The ideal candidates need self-belief, coupled with nagging doubts that things can be better. They should confident and comfortable with both words and numbers. They must be curious, with an analytical mind, keen to see why something works and what can be learnt from it.

Interested candidates should send a CV and covering letter saying why they meet the brief. Avoid clichés. And be clear.

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