Seven Steps to Clarity

Why is it that despite what you believe to be a clear assignment turns out resulting in something much different than what you wanted?

In recent leadership development session with mid-level leaders from different organizations, I asked the group to identify a common, persistent problem that was holding back their teams from performing at a high level. After a brief discussion the consensus challenge was this:

Projects assigned to employees were not completed on time, on budget, or to acceptable quality levels. The projects were routine and a normal part of the employee’s jobs. When questioned the employees said they 1) didn’t understand what you wanted, or 2) didn’t know how to do it, or 3) thought they delivered what was requested.

Sound familiar? Does this happen to you?

You Probably Aren’t as Clear as You Think You Are!

Part of the challenge of human language is that words are nuanced in their meanings. People will interpret words based on their own set of experiences. Since each person’s experiences are unique and different, the image one person gets is likely different from what the same words mean to you. Try this experiment with a three or four people:

Use six different words or phrases (in addition to those given) to describe each the following three things. Be specific. Do not discuss or share your answers. Both you and the people you ask write down a list

1. A fast, red car
2. A big storm
3. Chewing gum

Once each person has completed the assignment, compare the lists. Was each of the lists identical to yours? Almost Identical? While there may be similarities, what was described differed in detail from you listed. If you cannot agree on a description of common items, isn’t it likely that no one else will complete an assignment with the specific results you wanted?

Key lesson 1: People will produce a wide range of answers based on their experiences. Each one’s outcomes are correct in their own eyes.

Key lesson 2: if you want people to accomplish an assignment, your expectations must be clear and well-understood or you will get something different from what you wanted.

The Seven-Steps-to-Clarity Approach to Assigning Work

Follow these steps to help your employees to consistently produce the outcome you want.

Step One: Define the desired outcome in terms of quantity and quality.  Outcomes must be defined with specificity, which is why stating the outcomes both quantity and quality are crucial.  Don’t leave it to people to guess how much is enough or how good is good enough.  Be explicit.

Step Two: Define WHY the outcome is important. How does their assignment fit into the bigger picture? What organizational goals does the assignment help accomplish? Who benefits from the completed work?  Who or what is affected if it doesn’t happen as defined?  A major motivator for many people is doing meaningful work.  When people see how important it is, most will rise to the challenge.  This critical step is often missed.

Step Three: Define when it is due.  Make sure you are specific. “Please complete this by next week,” leaves a seven-day period and it isn’t specific.  In addition to being specific, make sure the due date includes some margin for the unexpected.  Better to ask for it a day or two before you actually need it, especially if you personally are on the hook for a date-certain deliverable.

Step Four: Define the resources available to them.  Resources can include tools, systems, people, expertise, and anything else that employees can use to accomplish the assignment.  Don’t overlook the resource which comes when you remove something from their schedule to give them more time.  And be clear to whom they may go should they encounter a problem or need assistance. 

Step Five: Define how and when progress will be measured. People need to know how they will be measured as they make progress towards completion. Because people do what you inspect, not what you expect, this is the critical step where you schedule with staff member(s) when you are going to inspect their progress. This means that milestone objectives need to be established against which progress will be measured.  When you schedule the follow-up meetings to measure progress, keep your word and meet when scheduled. Which brings us to another often missed step, step six.

Step Six: Ask them for their written plan of how they will accomplish the assignment. This is where your assignment becomes their assignment. In steps one to five you’ve clearly defined the outcome and the parameters they can work within, but you haven’t told them how to do it.  Let them determine how they want to do it.  You want them to own the assignment, and there is no better way to build ownership and competence than by letting them design their own plan.  You’ll need to ask them to create a written plan to present to you in a day or two.  While it needs to be a written plan, best to keep it as simple as a bullet list of action steps.  Your very first progress meeting (from step five) will be to meet to review their plan with them.  Your role in this meeting is to be their thinking partner, not the plan writer or editor.  It is their plan, not yours. Ask questions to get them to identify plan weaknesses or missing steps.  Don’t tell them, ask questions.  It is their plan – don’t take ownership of it. 

Step seven: Confirm the assignment in writing with a follow-up email.  You’ll want to capture steps one-six in your email.  Step five will include the meeting to discuss their plan. 


Remember Your Mission

Your mission as a manager and leader is to develop each member of your team to become a self-directed and highly competent performer. 

Too many ineffective managers become the limiting factor on the teams they lead because they don’t give clear assignments and are left to do all the thinking and planning.  They never tap the creative potential of their teams.   Nobody wants to work for this type of manager, so talented performers quit and move on, while poor performers quit and stay. 

Managers who consistently use this seven-steps-to-clarity approach tend to attract and retain the best people.  Talented people always want to work for supervisors who will foster their development. 

Bottom Line

The common problem you’re trying to solve is having employee’s assignments completed well. You have a pretty clear choice:

  • You can choose to continue to use the same old approach you used to use and hope for better outcomes. Albert Einstein defined this as insanity.
  • Or you can get serious about becoming a seven-steps-to-clarity manager and let your excellent results propel your career forward.

This post is taken from the best practices taught in one of our internationally acclaimed leadership and sales training programs, Leading Through People™ 18, Leading More Effectively With Emotional Intelligence.

I love working with people and organizations who want to improve their effectiveness! Here are several outstanding resources that can help you and your organization to go to the next level:

Improving your (or your team’s) management and leadership skills: Leading Through People™. This acclaimed program equips participants in thousands of current and emerging best practices of leadership, hiring, and talent development.

Raising your (or your team’s) selling and sales management effectiveness: B2B Sales Essentials™ (among the 30-plus courses we offer are ones on selling with emotional intelligence and storyselling!)

Conducting a more effective job search: Get a Better Job Faster

I work with some of the world’s top employers by helping them get the most out of their talented people. My company’s extensive leadership development course catalog provides effective skills-building for everyone in the organization, from the new / developing leader to the seasoned C-level executive. My company’s coaching programs produce significant results in compressed periods of time. I also help job seekers, higher ed, and employment services connect people to better jobs faster. My company’s acclaimed career development tools help people navigate the ever-changing landscape of conducting a successful job search. To find out more, please visit us at, email us at, or call us at 215-942-0982.


Latest Leadership Posts


Counterintuitive Life-Changing Principles, Part 5 Continue Reading


The Seven Essential Soft Skills of Highly Effective Salespeople Continue Reading


Counterintuitive Life-Changing Principles, Part 4 Continue Reading