Let’s be clear

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I recently ran across an article by Dr. Tony Alessandra (he received a PhD in marketing, if you’re curious) that included this bit o’wisdom: “If you’re a person who has trouble dealing with ambiguity, you like to do routine things with familiar people who behave in traditional ways. Changes and surprises make you uncomfortable because they alter the routine.”

Hey, thanks for the horoscope, Tony. But you got this one dead wrong. I like changes and surprises.

Dr. Tony’s main point was that closing off options early in a decision process is often a bad idea, and he’s right. Sometimes. But since the scientific definition of communication is the reduction of uncertainty, by definition Dr. Tony engaged in the opposite. My guess: he was more interested in impact.

If your goal is to communicate, then clarity is essential. But clarity is easier to insist on than achieve. So at the risk of being formulaic, here’s a recipe: Clear goals, definitions, premises, logic, evidence, assumptions, decisions, and plans.

In case this short version isn’t clear, here’s a longer explanation:

1. Clear goals: As George Harrison pointed out, if you don’t know where you’re going, any path will take you there. The problem is, you won’t know when you arrive. If you don’t know what you’re trying to achieve and how to tell if you’ve achieved it, nobody will ever be clear on the most basic point, which is: What’s the point?

2. Clear definitions: Most words have more than one meaning, and each meaning can be fuzzy. For example, ambiguity can mean either “the state of being interpretable in more than one way,” or “uncertain” — yes, ambiguous is ambiguous. The solution: Be explicit about definitions. Dr. Tony, in contrast, provided several definitions of ambiguity but his article used only one of them, and he didn’t clarify which of them it was.

3. Clear premises: Geometric proofs — exercises in pure logic — require definitions and postulates. Since “postulate” sounds either pompous (if you understand it) or like a skin condition (if you don’t) I’m using “premises” here. They’re underpinnings of the subject in question that will be assumed without proof as the starting point of the discussion. Need an example? You might start with the premise that corporate strategy isn’t going to change for the life of the decision to be made.

The reason clarifying premises is important is that until you do, no two people in the room will have the exact same ones. Those starting with different premises will only reach agreement by accident.

4. Clear logic: The usual surrogates for logic are “trust me,” “well, you know what I mean,” and “it’s too obvious to bother explaining.” The first two, and generally the third as well, are so thoroughly unconvincing that only a bowb would fall for them. Some propositions, though, really are too obvious to bother explaining. For example: You need clear logic. Q.E.D.

5. Clear evidence: Pure logic sometimes goes wrong. An argument that appears to be ironclad can have an undiscovered flaw, or a premise can turn out to be an assumption (see item #6) that happens to not be correct. Evidence is the test of definitions, premises and logic. Without testing they’re still better than forceful assertions or dumb looks. Supporting evidence, though, is powerfully reassuring, and contradictory evidence causes, among the rational at least, concern.

6. Clear assumptions: In the absence of evidence, assumptions are often necessary. Business plans, for example, have to make assumptions about market conditions (among many other variables). You should replace as many assumptions with evidence as you can. You’ll rarely replace them all.

The difference between premises and assumptions is subtle. Here are my definitions: You start with premises, which can’t be verified or falsified by facts. You could, at least in theory, verify or falsify assumptions, but actually obtaining the evidence is too expensive, inconvenient, or impractical to manage, and you need to achieve common ground about the subjects they cover to proceed.

7. Clear decisions: In business, a shared understanding doesn’t mean very much if it doesn’t lead to a decision — the commitment or refusal of time, staff and budget toward a well-defined end. Everything else is just talking about it, and you should reserve just talking about it for Happy Hour, or, if you want to be happy during Happy Hour, not even then.

8. Clear plan of action: A decision without a plan of action is a certainty of losing the time, staff and budget the decision committed. Yes, Eisenhower said plans are useless, but planning is indispensable. And if you can figure out how to plan without creating a plan, go for it. I recommend a different formulation: Plan the work and work the plan.

Eight steps to clarity. Skip a step and you’ll find yourself in an ambiguous situation. In deference to Dr. Tony, though, ambiguity sometimes is the best choice.

Just make sure that if you choose to be ambiguous, you’re clear about it.