Complexity is an all too common problem. These days, it seems to describe everything from business to technology to our personal relationships. (It’s complicated Facebook!) And when you are mired in complexity, it seems like there is no way out.
But there is a way out…clarity. And clarity is nothing new. It’s only slightly younger than complexity itself. But it often gets forgotten in favor of other, less honest tools.
Clarity is a powerful concept. It means being completely transparent and without flaw, which you may associate with water, diamonds, or telescope lenses. But there is another meaning: clarity is the state of understanding without ambiguity. Understanding. Without. Ambiguity.
People with clarity make better decisions because they understand what they are trying to accomplish, and they see connections and dependencies. They understand what happens before and after their part, and they aren’t too focused on or overwhelmed by detail. It’s the Goldilocks principle for information—just the right amount of big picture and detail. Clarity creates focus. Clarity ensures that you’re solving the right problem.
We’ve identified six clarity methods that can help you defeat confusion and live with your complexity.
Clarity is often muddled by the things we can’t see. Restoring context gives us a clear path forward.
It’s easy to lose sight of the forest for the trees. Mapping out the big picture—whether it’s a business process, product portfolio, or technology system—clarifies relationships that we might not recognize from our own vantage point.
To make sense of complexity we must build on what we know. Give people the right know-how from the beginning and you give them a head start.
To find out what know-how your audience needs, imagine that you are a beginner. Give background and provide cross-training so your audience knows what’s happening in other areas. Then, build on that context to provide actionable, role-based knowledge. Once they understand the basics, they can apply new thinking on top of it and make it their own.
Rules and lessons bring clarity, but sometimes they get forgotten. Make it easy for people to remind themselves of what they need to do.
Sometimes, a prompt is all it takes to bring people back to center. Prompts, like checklists or head-up displays in aircraft, act as extensions of the mind and help make people’s tasks clear. They supplement people’s memory, re-focus their attention, and help them respond with agility to changing situations.
It’s hard for people to understand abstract or complex ideas when they can’t see any details. Tell specific stories to help people construct a clear picture.
At the end of the day, people are simply “show-me, tell-me” creatures. We work best from specifics. Make the abstract accessible through a story that grounds the idea with characters, a plot, and pictures. Whether it takes the form of a movie, a diagram, or a simple anecdote, the specifics of a story make an idea meaningful and relatable.
Humans have an affinity for order, but order is not easily achieved. Create information hierarchy to bring clarity to chaos.
The real world is a messy place, but with information architecture, people can create hierarchies and bring order to chaos. Good models share common strategies: grouping related elements, chunking information in people-friendly pieces, maintaining a clear hierarchy, and using a consistent vocabulary.
Sometimes, giving people all the information burdens them. Curate the information you share to help keep people on track.
Purpose is a powerful filter for deciding what to put in and what to leave out. When you know what your audience needs to accomplish, you can curate the information into a manageable set that gives users what they need and spares them the rest.
These six methods can be used alone or together, depending on the need. For instance, you can give people a high-level, context-setting overview, then create a hierarchy of your message details, and slowly trickle them out to your audiences on “right time, right message” schedule.
Clarity doesn’t require magic or a major technological investment. But it does require you to focus on communication, thinking about your audience, what they need to accomplish, and how you can best reach them. It takes time, thoughtfulness, and a willingness to keep trying until you get it right.
But, it’s worth it.