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The Power of Clear Expectations

It seems like such a basic idea. If the shortest distance between two points is a straight line, doesn’t it follow that the most efficient path from setting a goal to achieving it is, also, a straight line? In the realm of theory and thought experiments, perhaps, but we all know that’s not how life works. Life loves to play hide-and-seek and run circuitous paths like a cat with The 4am Zoomies. I’ve spent a lot of time in my professional career craving straight lines, and because I’m hard-headed, I still have a tendency to roll my eyes and stamp my hooves when the lines end up looking more like this:

Perhaps it’s just the nature of working in corporate Creative; rarely, over the last ten years, have I been party to a project that did not make some radical pivots over the course of its progress. Often, these pivots have come very late in the project’s lifecycle, when effort had been mostly completed, when resources had already been dedicated, when money had been spent, when cross-functional energies had already been focused on the goal for…well…months. Every time this happens, I’m left scratching my head as to why. It seems like such a gross waste of time and human capital — two of any organization’s greatest resources. Could we not have planned better? Could we not have had better insight into potential variables at the outset? Could we not have gotten this information weeks ago? Could we not have let the project run to completion, and used it as an opportunity to gather more data, and then made a shift armed with even more knowledge? I’m a pragmatist, and I understand that a Creative team will always need to retain a little flexibility in their calendars to respond to market trends or to a PR emergency; that’s just a given. In those moments, we mobilize forces, we reprioritize efforts, redistribute workloads, and we just get it done. What I don’t understand is why it seems so difficult for organizations to map out project planning the rest of the time and stick to it. Or, if changes need to be made, why the new expectations often come through a game of telephone or hearsay, which brings me to the title of this missive. I believe, with all the twitchy fibers of my caffeinated heart, that human capital is conserved (and it is something to be conserved) through clear expectations. I'm going to repeat that. Human capital is conserved through clear expectations.

This point was driven home to me after I left a six-year relationship in which expectations were constantly in flux, and were rarely communicated clearly. As the recipient of the flux, I was just supposed to intuitively understand when I needed to change courses and follow along, which left me in a constant state of stress, anxiety, and fatigue. It wasn’t until I started dating again and met someone who communicated expectations clearly that the light bulb went on. The difference between the two interactions was positively polarized. In the former relationship, I felt like I was constantly stepping out on a tightrope held by two people walking in different directions. I was always on the defensive; always tired from constantly trying to right my intellectual vestibular system. After a time, meaningful communication and interactions between us became virtually impossible because my trust, confidence, and psychological safety had been completely eroded. In the latter relationship, I felt (and continue to feel) calm and confident, knowing that if directions change, we’ll just talk about it candidly and plot a new course together. Trust has grown. Problem solving is collaborative. It’s the communication of clear expectations that makes all the difference. If it is the nature of large organizations to be mercurial and need to chase directional changes with most projects, I can accept that, but only if the organization commits to communicating these pivots (in many cases, pirouettes) clearly and formally. What does ‘clearly’ and ‘formally’ look like? - In writing, from a relevant leader in the company - Broadcasted in a communications platform that all relevant teammembers use - Or via formal statement from leadership communicated by an appointed project manager - This statement should include: the new goal, any change to scope related to the new goal, and some brief, candid, rationale as to why the change occurred, backed up with any related data, so the executors of the work know what to anticipate next time and have full context for the pivot - The cherry on top of this sundae is providing a dedicated forum for questions and feedback, with an appointed delegate to respond to those questions in a clearly stated period of time I really don’t think this is asking too much. It is basic tactical strategy as well as basic PR -- respectively, conserve your resources and maintain control of the message. Basic or not, I’ve seen teams be dragged through three or four directional changes in a single project, and made to waste significant time either investigating or begging for clear information at each of those turns simply because there was no formal communication issued when the direction changed. Making your executional teams investigate and/or beg for information is a gross waste of company resources and an irresponsible drain on human capital. It undermines confidence in leadership, it undermines trust, and it contributes to cynicism, demoralization, and, ultimately, burnout. Bear in mind that ‘We are having to change directions, and we don’t yet have full understanding of what the new direction is, but we’re working on it and expect to get back to you Wednesday with more clarity’ is also an example of communicating clear expectations. You don’t have to know everything to be clear. You just have to…be clear! One company with whom I’m familiar adopts the party line that if you need clear expectations, you aren’t a ‘true’ creative or ‘the right people’. They espouse a crazy doctrine that innovation can only come at the last minute, through health-degrading pressure. I think that’s just evil and the epitome of disrespect for the people who are building your company's future. It may come as no surprise that said company has a grapevine reputation with therapists and psychiatrists. Can we treat people better than that? Can we give our teams more respect for the energy they’ve already invested in our projects? Beyond the human angle, can we be better stewards of company resources? Can we develop methods for communicating directional changes clearly, and with a unified leadership voice? If we invest in clear expectations, we will see returns. I predict happier, calmer, workforces who stick around longer and are willing to go the extra mile when they are really needed to. At the very least, we lose nothing for trying except the time it takes to align on a message and have someone type it, or pass it to a PM. What expectations can you clarify for your teams today? What lines can you make just a little straighter?

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