What does “strategic ambiguity” mean? Marketers, politicians, and others use it all the time. It’s the art of making a claim using language that avoids specifics. So, you can be purposefully vague to derive personal and organizational benefit. On the other hand, it creates an environment at companies where employees try to avoid blame.
Today, my guest is Karen Martin, president of TKMG and author of Clarity First. She describes how a pervasive lack of clarity strangles business performance and leadership on marketing teams.
Some of the highlights of the show include:
- Definition of Clarity: State of something being easily and accurately understood; similar to transparency, but different from certainty
- Conveying and receiving information can cause ambiguity or clarity for employees and customers
- Primary reasons for lack of clarity all come down to fear
- Ramifications of lack of clarity: Takes time, builds frustration, and creates inefficiencies
- Five Ps for clarity:
- Key Performance Indicators (KPIs): Visual of the marketing team’s health
- Profit is not your purpose; profit is the outcome of delivering high value to customers, and purpose is to solve a customer’s problem
- Are you a clarity avoider, pursuer, or blind? Take Karen’s Clarity First Quiz
- Where to start to focus on clarity: What do you do? What do you really do? Why does that product, and not something else, to solve a problem?
- Fearless Workplace: Multiple perspectives, but not a single understanding; feel comfortable having difficult conversations
It was the early 2000s, I was in graduate school at North Dakota State University and I was studying organizational communication, and I went across this term, it was strategic ambiguity. Oh, I loved it. The definition is this, the art of making a claim using language that avoids specifics. I could purposely be vague to derive personal or organizational benefit. It was beautiful. You can see politicians using this. You can see marketers using this all the time.
But as I realized there was the other side of the coin to strategic ambiguity and that was creating this environment in companies and employees were trying to avoid blame, using it to create a cover-your-ass type of work environment. It shouldn’t be that way, costing organizations millions of dollars, it provides tons of cloudiness around marketing initiatives and goals, it’s just not a great thing when it comes to marketing execution.
My next guess, through all of her global consulting projects, she’s a keynote speaker, and she’s worked with thousands of leaders. Her name is Karen Martin. She’s president at TKMG and the author of Clarity First. She has seen firsthand how this pervasive lack of clarity just as strangling business performance and marketing teams and leadership. How do we remove ambiguity and achieve clarity first? It’s a fantastic episode.
Karen provides tons of methods and insights for achieving clarity and unleashing potential in yourself and in your teams. She shows us how to identify and communicate the organization’s true purpose. What is your mission statement? What are your marketing goals? How do you set achievable priorities? How do you deliver great customer value through a more efficient process and how do you define tangible marketing goals and create KPIs for measuring them? It’s a really good episode that gets at the process of what you all do and holding ourselves accountable to performance.
My name is Eric Piela, I’m the host of Actionable Marketing Podcast and the Brand & Buzz Manager here at CoSchedule. It is another action-packed episode. I can’t wait to introduce you to Karen. Buckle up because it is time to get amped. Alright marketers. Welcome to another episode of the Actionable Marketing Podcast. I’m joined today by our guest; her name is Karen Martin. She is the president at TKMG and the author of Clarity First. Karen, welcome to the show.
Karen: Hi, Eric. Thank you so much for inviting me.
Eric: I’m glad you could be here. I’m super excited to talk about this book. I know you’ve got a lot of leadership, a lot of entrepreneur, and marketing background that you’re going to share with our listenership today. I’m pretty pumped. This is exciting.
Clarity First, tell us about where was the passion to create this book, where did it come from? I always find authors are really passionate about, if you’re going to go ahead and write a 300-, 400-, 500-page book, you usually are really passionate about the topic. What lead you to this book, Karen? Maybe just let our listeners know a little bit about your background as well.
Karen: Okay. Well, I think I was actually born to seek and tell the truth, and that is something that I discovered very late in life or very late in career I guess, I should say, but the impetus for this particular book came when I wrote the Outstanding Organization back in 2012. Clarity was one of the four foundational practices or conditions that I discovered organizations needed to have to have outstanding performance and yet they were always a bit lacking in those four areas. Clarity got the most attention and the most emotion shared by readers that were reading that chapter. I thought, there’s something to this. I wanted more real estate to explore clarity more deeply and that’s why I wrote an entire book on it, but it wasn’t an easy book to write, I have to say.
Eric: What makes it so difficult then?
Karen: I didn’t realize until I got deep into clarity, how dang difficult clarity is. There are many components of clarity. It seems like, “Oh, it’s a single subject book. It’s going to be super easy to write.” It wasn’t. It was quite a little monster.
Eric: I call my children little monsters sometimes too. I love them, but boy, they’re a lot of work. Let’s dig into a little bit. Let’s […] if you can, Karen, because I think about clarity, there’s the traditional definition of clarity but if you could maybe elaborate on that, is it the same as transparency? Is it the same as certainty? What kind of definition do you use in this book?
Karen: Well, the simplest definition is the state of something being easily and accurately understood. There shouldn’t be a lot of effort in understanding what information is being relayed or conveyed and there shouldn’t be anything inaccurate about it—so it’s easy and accurate. However, it is very close to transparency. You need to be clearer if you’re attempting to work with transparency and convey information with transparency.
It is not the same thing as certainty. That’s an interesting thing I discovered that I hadn’t really considered. That you can be certain about something and be actually pretty unclear because certainty comes from a place of ego. They’re related but they’re not the exact same thing.
Eric: Interesting. I have to imagine putting in the labor of love into this book. Obviously, there must be a problem existing right, I think, our organizational cultures and the way that we do business. Basically, it’s costing companies, and educational institutions, and government agencies, etc., etc., billions of dollars a year because we’re not getting, is it the clarity that we need to achieve outstanding performance, or is it a way in which we’re communicating or is it a process-driven thing, Karen?
Karen: Good question. It’s actually both the way we are conveying information ourselves and the way we’re receiving information. When you look at an organization, there’s a lot of a pretty common level of ambiguity which is the opposite of clarity, and how people communicate purposes of meetings or they don’t communicate the purpose at all. How customer requirements come into an organization, how an organization is actually performing, and then the marketing area in particular, most of the time, there’s kind of fog over how the organizations will be performing and what’s actually appealing to a customer.
The data is getting a little bit better but there’s still an awful lot of organizations, the smaller the organization, the more prevalent this is, that really don’t know what customers are responding to. That makes poor decisions, it can make for wasted money, spending money to go pick a product that customers don’t want. It has all kinds of [tentacles 06:16] that cause for poorer performance than an organization could have.
Eric: Yeah, I can definitely see that. I think without clarity, there’s assumptions being made, there’s guessing that’s being made. As marketers listening on the call for how we think our audiences will receive our products or services or brands, how they perceive and interpret our marketing messages and creatives and copy, all of this stuff, but also, I think internally. We all work in marketing teams, we’re collaborating with other marketing professionals, our business leaders, our stakeholders or whatever your business model is, I think ambiguity can be a huge danger there.
I have to imagine where I’ve been on both ends, where I felt like maybe I have tried to provide—I don’t know if this is the real term but I call it strategic ambiguity—you provided enough information to feel like you’ve given yourself a little bit of wiggle room to sneak out of the situation which is almost like a scapegoat for yourself. I think I’ve been guilty of that myself. Do you see that happening? Are people scared of clarity or is it they’re not just fully thinking through that I might not be providing the clarity needed?
Karen: Well, I discovered that there were several different primary reasons for the lack of clarity but they actually all boil down to one thing and that is fear, which is what you just mentioned. When you’re an information provider, there’s the fear that if you are crystal clear about something then you’re held accountable for it. There’s a little bit of that. You’re mentioning wiggle room, when you build a wiggle room then that makes it so that you don’t have to necessarily deliver exactly what someone said. The more precise you are, the more you’re held to a certain bar, the bar is raised, and you’re held accountable for that work.
If you have wiggle room, as information recipient, same deal. If you get information, oftentimes it is unclear and people are afraid to ask for clarification because either they’ve been punished in the past for that or they don’t want to sound stupid or whatever it might be, but every time you do that, you sell a little bit of yourself away because without that crystal clear information, you don’t know necessarily what the person’s asking for and how to deliver, and then you can get yourself into all kinds of problems not delivering what the questioner was asking you to deliver.
Eric: I’ve been on the receiving end of that. I think everyone can put themselves in that space where the marketing has said, “Hey, I need this done.” You’re like, “Yeah, I think I know what she means,” but you don’t want to ask, maybe it was the second the second time they told you, and now you feel like a fool. What are the ramifications of not getting that clarity, and how does it trickle down, and then it goes back to that dollar-time energy that ends up being wasted? Why is it then so important for employees to feel like they have that clarity? I got to imagine it makes people feel like they have the right expectations, they know how to deliver on their work, but can you elaborate on that piece as well, Karen?
Karen: Yeah, sure. The very fundamental area has to do with actual productivity. When you have to sit and figure things out or you have to wonder if it means this person’s but that takes time away from actually doing work and delivering value to customers. That’s the first thing, it’s a bit of time suck. It’s often very frustrating to not understand what someone actually means. We’re starting to see a little bit of a tie between the level of ambiguity in an organization and the level of engagement that’s got with their employees versus not. While crystal clear communication can sometimes be hard to hear, it does make for a much more efficient way of getting work done because you don’t have to guess about things.
Then the last thing is confidence, when you’re giving clear instructions and you’ve checked to make sure that what you think is clear to the recipient it just makes everyone more confident in what they have to do, to do the work. That confidence feels really good and lack of confidence doesn’t feel good at all. It makes for a more productive and better-quality results as result.
Eric: Yeah, that makes total sense. I definitely can visualize that even though it’s three components, even though when I think about a marketing campaign and developing messaging, and setting goals, and making sure that the entire team has clarity on exactly what it is we’re looking to accomplish with these efforts and exactly how we’re going to get there, and again, where there is not clarity is where I think there’s a lot of trashing, there’s a lot of lost time, a lot of inefficiencies that happen in the process.
Now, you do a really clever thing, which all great authors do, is you found the way to really package up a lot of your main points, you kind of call your ‘Five Ps’ that can make it really digestible for the reader. Could you talk through each of those Ps for me?
Karen: Sure. It’s being crystal clear about the purpose and purpose of everything. Purpose from why the organization exist all the way to the purpose of a meeting or a phone call or an email—that’s the first P. The second P is priorities. What are the agreed upon priorities of a work team, an organization, so that everyone is working towards the same ’True North’ as we call it, the same direction. So, crystal clear on those priorities.
The next one is performance. I’m sorry, process. Process comes first. Process, how specifically do you get your work done so that you get more predictable quality results at the end of that and then linked to that, performance. How are those processes actually performing? What are the measurables that you use to determine whether you’re being successful or less successful in whatever the work might be. Whether some marketing campaign, or it’s market share, or it’s the actual customer service part of products that are being offered.
The last one is problem solving. Once you know how you’re performing, it may be you’re not performing at the level you’d like to be and that’s a gap between where you are and where you’d like or need to be, and that’s what we call a problem to be solved. Being clear about what the problem is and what that gap is and why you need to close it is very helpful. Oftentimes, people fumble around in problem solving not really even understanding what the problem is to begin with.
Well, hey there. I hope you’re enjoying this episode of the Actionable Marketing Podcast. While we take a breather, I have a quick favor to ask. If you love the show, if you’re enjoying the guests that we bring on, I would truly appreciate a rating and review on iTunes. You know what, before you hit submit, if you take a screenshot of your rating and review, if you send that to me via email at email@example.com, as a sign of my appreciation, I will hook you up with a really cool CoSchedule swag pack just to say thank you. Alright, let’s get back to our show and our interview with Karen Martin.
Eric: That’s fantastic. I love that taxonomy, Karen, because as you talk through it and as I read it in the book, I can definitely see the universal application of those five processes, of those five steps I should say. I look at our marketing efforts here at CoSchedule, I can definitely see us breaking down right that purpose, I can see us breaking down the priorities, our goal, what are our goals, how are we going to reach them, what’s the process and strategies to get them, our performance, how are we evaluating achieving those goals, what are our KPIs and our ROIs. And then finally, the problem-solving piece which has got to be the, “Okay, we didn’t achieve those results we wanted to do. How do we iterate and make them better?” Really, really cool. I love the idea of stop, methodically look at each of those five different components, and really make sure you’ve got clarity at each of those.
Let’s make this a little bit more tangible for our listeners, if you could Karen. Is there an example of potentially where leaders have done a good job of communicating these five Ps or are there ways that you’ve seen organizations implement these that a listener today could kind of—I wouldn’t say necessarily emulate—but at least listen to and figure out and make sure it’s unique to their company when they roll it out.
Karen: Yes. I was fortunate in having two corporate experiences early in my career where we had stellar CEOs that happened to be well-wired to do this kind of work and just speak with clarity. We were very clear in both cases of what our priorities were, and how we’re performing or where we’re supposed to be working in all of that. What I find most helpful no matter what the size of the organization is—and they can even be a subset within the organization, a work team, for example—is really brainstorming on what all the priorities are that you could be working on and then decide the relevance to you that you’re going to work on at one time and you hold all those others at bay because we tend to juggle too much and we can’t get it done as effectively and efficiently as what otherwise be able to when we’re juggling too much.
Just having a conversation of, “What are all the other possible things we could be working on?” And then get consensus around, “What are we going to work on? In what sequence?” Limit how many things you’re working on at any given time. You’ll get more done per unit of time by limiting how many items you work on at one time, projects or whatever. Then you’ll have sometimes 30%, 40% times more work accomplished in the course of a year for example by operating that way.
Eric: I like that.
Karen: That’s what priorities set. I think that’s a very good way to go. On the KPIs, the key performance indicators, it’s again important not to be measuring every single thing and having everyone have to think every single thing but rather pick the relevant few KPIs or metrics that you can use to determine how healthy you are as a work team or as an organization and monitor those visually, so it needs to be up on a board. Even in a […] workforce with a bunch of computers and people all over the place, there needs to be something like on the homepage, for example, that shows those KPIs so that they’re top of mind and people are watching them. Then you’re also talking about them in meetings to start identifying those gaps and start problem-solving. The visual look of KPIs so that everyone can see them is critical. It can’t be buried in a computer. We can’t just talk about them; they have to be visual. That’s a really big one.
Eric: That is really good advice. That’s something that we try to embrace here at CoSchedule for sure. This book was actually recommended to me by a friend and a fellow marketer. One of the things that really popped out of me was the statement that profit is not your purpose. I think, as marketers, we get super eager when we see the numbers. We’re measuring our success by profit indicators if not net revenue gained right from our efforts. That’s good to have that motivation but I think I love that you talk about that can’t be you purpose. Could you expound a little bit more on that?
Karen: Yes, I would glad to. Thank you for asking because I’m very passionate about this. Profit is an outcome. It has always been an outcome; it will always be an outcome. It’s an outcome of delivering high value to customers. The purpose of why you’re doing that is to solve a customer problem. Customer has a problem, the what that you provide whether it’s good or service, that is solving that problem. The most important part of purpose is getting down even deeper into why you’re solving that particular problem and not another problem for the customer.
There’s always something emotional the customer gains from the product. Whether it’s feeling better about oneself, whether it’s safer in life, whether it’s having nice, full-bellied, feels good of great food. Whatever it is, there’s an emotional connection to every single product. Most organizations don’t make that tie, or they don’t make it consistently enough that everyone is keeping that top of mind. This is why we’re doing what we’re doing.
Eric: I like that. You also, really cool, you talk about the chapter on you. You were talking about organization curb, but it ends with you. I think there’s ownership that it’s really to point fingers at people that aren’t providing you the clarity but is there ownership in what you can control and what you can do to make sure that you or at least adding to a positive of the equation.
Karen: I had classified people into clarity avoiders and clarity pursuers as far as their active engagement with information. And then there’s clarity blind which is a different group that are just not aware of the value of having clarity and operating with clarity and they aren’t even aware whether they have it or they don’t have it. They’re just not aware.
We fluctuate within different circumstances. For example, you could be a clarity pursuer at work and be a clarity avoider at home. Or, you could be a clarity pursuer at work about this one aspect of work and a clarity avoider about another aspect of work. We’re shades of all three of these different categories, but most people are primarily avoiders, pursuers, or blind.
Part of the book’s purpose, Clarity First, is to help people start recognizing where are they. I have an online quiz that people can take that’s at clarityfirst.com, that’s a free quiz just to help people be able to start sensing, “Aha, maybe I am operating on a little bit of fear, a little too much fear, maybe I should be doing something about that and asking for clarification more than I do.” Things like that, it’s subtle, it’s deep, it’s psychological, but it really makes the difference on how productive and how successful we can all be.
Eric: I’m laughing at all the different ways in which you approach clarity depending if it’s your personal life or fi you’re in the office or if it’s a project. I can definitely see myself, when I’m really engaged on clarity and when I’m maybe not necessarily as focused on it. I think we all struggle with that. There are certain ramifications, as you’ve outlined, if you don’t find that clarity, where we’re going to hold ourselves back and our organizations back.
If anything, Karen, we’ve established the need for finding clarity, seeking clarity, the benefit statements and value prop is there, but where do we begin? If I’m a listener, I’m figuring out, “Okay, I want to start getting focused around clarity.” You talk about maybe some three questions especially when it’s around finding your purpose, we’ve talked about purpose in the past, what are those three questions?
Karen: From an organization perspective, the first question is, “What do you do?” That’s always the easiest one to answer, it’s the product. “What is the product that you deliver?” whether it’s a good or a service. Next question is, “What do you really do?” That gets back into solving that customer problem. This is where you have to get very precise. What specific problem or problems are you solving for the customer that your product is able to do perhaps better than another product—and getting very clear about the differentiation.
The last question which is the toughest one is, “Why that product and not something else? Why did you choose that problem to solve and not something else as organization?” Sometimes, for older organizations, you have to go all the way back to the founders that were, decades and decades ago, about why they started the business.
For some of your listeners, they maybe be very new business owners and that why did they choose that particular problem to solve is probably more top of mind because it’s more recent and getting clear about the emotional benefit that your product provides to a customer, that is where you get employees tied to the singular vision of what you’re trying to achieve as an organization, and frankly, it’s more fun to come to work everyday because you’re solving people’s problems in a profound way. It feels good.
Eric: It does feel good. I definitely get that. That’s a great way to start a good exercise that all of our listeners can go through to find those real answers. I love that, “What do you REALLY do here?” It’s a good question. I know you’ve talked about Clarity First a number of times, Karen, on different podcasts, and shows, it’s probably been a little bit since the book first launched, what is something that you’ve seen, maybe just recently, whether it’s a new piece of research or a new iteration with Clarity First, even an application as you do consulting where you’ve seen Clarity First to make an impact on an organization.
Karen: It never fails to surprise me when you get a group of people together whether it’s top leaders, or frontlines, or middle managers, and they start talking about any one thing how different everyone’s perspective is about that one thing and how typically there’s not one understanding of why work is not feeling as good or why it’s not being achieved in a way that it needs to, and it takes safe space and being honest about what’s going on about the work.
I’m getting more and more intrigued about how to create a fearless workplace and how to get people feeling comfortable shining a light on problems or gaps between where you are and where you want to be and how to have what might be otherwise considered difficult conversations about how different work teams are working together or not working together.
I’m always calling out the elephant in the room and when you do it with a safe environment and you ask people to feel comfortable, people actually do start talking, and if so, healing. This is why I love about this work. It heals relationship in a way that they hardly ever get unraveled because they finally have a point of commonality and because they’re finally clear on what ‘it’ that they’re talking about is actually ‘is’. It just is wonderful to see that lack of understanding was what was causing strength to begin with. Once you’re clear about everything from how you do work to why you’re doing it to what the customers really think, all of that, this tension that you see just melts away. It’s wonderful.
Eric: It’s fun to hear that. It’s nice to know that there are success stories out there and that you get to be a part of those. I’m sure it’s really rewarding. I know that there are listeners and myself going, “I’m looking for that aha moment.” I know that we all deal with this and […] and lack of clarity. It sounds that we’re at the part of the podcast here where I know you would have some suggestion on where our listeners can go to learn more about Clarity First. We’ve talked about that free quiz you have, if you can just refresh us where they can learn about that, and if they want to pick up a copy, where’s the best place to go.
Karen: Sure. clarityfirstquiz.com is where the free quizzes that I mentioned. It assesses both organizational and individual relationship with clarity and then the book is available at clarityfirstbook.com or our website, tkmg.com. In the past, I’ve given a lot of free webinars and those are all available on the website as well. There’s five webinars about clarity and Clarity First, those are the newer ones on there. I’m going to start giving webinars again later this Summer. I’m looking forward to doing it, I’ve been traveling so much for the book. I just haven’t had the chance to be in my office long enough to have webinars, so they’re coming up as well.
Eric: It sounds like it’s been a whirlwind tour with the book launching. Congratulations on a great book. Thank you so much for coming on the show. There’s tons of actionable things that I know our listeners can go and do right now to really seek out that clarity and appreciate your thought leadership on the […] today, Karen.
Karen: Thank you so much, Eric. I really enjoyed being on the show. I appreciate your questions, they’re good ones.
Eric: You bet. Alright. Have a great rest of the day.