by Matt Minahan

Every action we take in every day of our lives is grounded in our values and beliefs. Sometimes, we're aware and cognizant of those values when we act, but many times we're not, and only discover the beliefs and values after we've taken the actions and seen the results. We have that luxury -- of inductively discovering our beliefs and values - in the privacy of our own lives. That's when we're looking from inside of ourselves, out.

However, life in organizations - especially hierarchical organizations - assures that many other people will be looking carefully for the evidence of our values and beliefs, to make sure that what we say is important is consistent with what we do. From inside a hierarchical system every sentence is parsed and every action is scrutinized for any sign of inconsistency, foul play, or favoritism.

This tendency is partly just a function of the human condition; to a certain extent, we're all made that way. We look at organizational actions and behaviors and look for ways to understand and make sense of them actions and behaviors that we see in organizations that are consistent with our own view of the world. Regardless of whether the viewer's glass is half empty or half full, she or he will make judgments about the organization, its leaders, and its intentions by inductively interpreting actions and inferring values and beliefs.

We know that effective interpersonal communication relies upon the parties disclosing those inferences, to either confirm them or to allow them to be refuted. However, there is no such obligation in organizations. There is no requirement that anyone check out their assumptions or their inferences before jumping to conclusions about what the organization has done, or why.

So, if this is the human condition, how should organizations respond? Simply -- extremely simply, and, clearly - extremely clearly.

A few thoughts on simplicity in this environment: We know that the actions of all leaders and the systems of all organizations are constantly subject to inspection and scrutiny, for signs of fault or malfeasance. We know that people who want to find something wrong can, and will, do so, even if there is no intention to do wrong. And, we also know that, the more complex and confusing a system or process is, the more likely it is that people will misunderstand it, which further increases the likelihood that they will find something wrong or infer something improper, because people don't like to feel stupid.

That puts an enormous amount of pressure on organizational leaders and systems to narrow down their objectives to the two or three that we absolutely, positively, can not do without. Any system or process with more than two or three objectives or intended outcomes will necessary be layered and complex, which makes it impossible to understand, and therefore incredibly susceptible to misunderstanding and misinterpretation. All of the design elements in the system need to rooted in the two or three objectives for the system or process, and the organizers must be absolutely brutal about paring down the process, approval, and reporting requirements to support only the two or three objectives of the process; anything bigger or more complex will necessarily be seen as over engineered and heavy handed.

When organizational systems take on these attributes, it is typically because their designers are working to satisfy many different and incompatible sets of stakeholders, often within their own hierarchies. It's very tempting to make just a small tweak here, or include another review there, to satisfy a stakeholder whose agenda is not necessarily consistent with the two or three objectives of the system or process.

It's also symptomatic of designers and system owners who are too far down in the organization, trying to anticipate what the senior leader(s) will want, based upon previous instructions or encounters. Staff at the working level don't have the authority to eliminate multiple or competing objectives, and as a result, put enormous stress on the systems and processes that they design in order to accomplish an extra set of mutually competing and exclusive objectives.

A few thoughts on clarity in this environment - To a certain extent, clarity of communication is a function of the simplicity of the message, but that's not all. Clarity of the message is also a function of the clarity of the thinking, and that's often in short supply in organizations that are trapped by their own perspective.

Clarity of thinking is also a function of length. The one-page rule is a helpful test of the clarity of the message, and if the values, principles, and broad time frame of your message can not be contained in a one page message, chances are that it is overly complex and detailed.

But mostly, clarity of thinking is a function of the time and space that people can make to be clear about their own assumptions, to make them public with others, and to continually seek outside perspective on their work. It is extremely difficult for people deeply embedded in a system to see their own blind spots and assumptions, and those that are embedded in their actions. Any outside perspective - from steering groups, advisory bodies, focus groups, external consultants - can help to overcome the blind spots and traps that keep systems tightly contained and unable to break out of dysfunctional patterns and behaviors.

So, assuming that people will continue to be people, we can expect that they will microscopically inspect the actions of leaders and organizations for symbols and clues about what's really important and what's really going on. When leaders and systems try to meet complex and varying objectives, their actions are interpreted as being untrustworthy and deceptive. When leaders and organizations can be in touch with their own values and beliefs, and then simple and clear about the purpose and processes proposed, they have a greater chance of achieving the outcomes intended.

Because in the end, it's what we belief and what we value, simply and clearly!