GSD: Clarify

Get Stuff Done: 2 Ways to Use Radical Candor to Clarify Thoughts and Ideas

*This article about clarifying your thinking is part of our new series about the Get Stuff Done (GSD) Wheel and has been excerpted from Radical Candor: Be a Kickass Boss Without Losing Your Humanity.

Once you have created a culture of listening, the next step in the Radical Candor Get Stuff Done Wheel is to push yourself and your direct reports to understand and convey thoughts and ideas more clearly. Trying to solve a problem that hasn’t been clearly defined is not likely to result in a good solution; debating a half-baked idea is likely to kill it. 

As the boss, you are the editor, not the author. Speaking at an Apple memorial service for Steve Jobs, Jony Ive noted that Steve Jobs had understood how important it was to nurture and clarify new ideas. “He treated the process of creativity with a rare and a wonderful reverence,” Jony said. 

“He understood that while ideas ultimately can be so powerful, they begin as fragile, barely formed thoughts, so easily missed, so easily compromised, so easily just squished.”

GSD: Clarify

New ideas don’t have to be grandiose plans for the next iPad. Your team may be saying something like, “I’m frustrated by this process,” or “I’m not feeling as energized by my work as I was,” or “I think our sales pitch could be stronger,” or “I’d do better work if there were more natural light in the office,” or “What if we just stopped doing X?” or “I’d like to start working on Y.”

Of course, it’s tempting to shut down in the face of these sorts of statements— “I don’t have time to deal with this right now!” But taking the moments to help clarify the ideas will save you time in the long run. Take the time to help your direct reports explain what they mean so that they can do something about fixing the problem or pursuing the opportunity rather than just complaining about it.

It’s important to push the people on your team to clarify their thinking and ideas so that you don’t “squish” their best thinking or ignore problems that are bothering them. It’s not just important to understand new ideas clearly; it’s equally important, and often more difficult, to understand the people to whom your team will have to explain the ideas clearly.

Get Stuff Done: Be clear in your own mind

Create a safe space to nurture new ideas

Part of your job as the boss is to help people think through their ideas before submitting them to the rough-and-tumble of debate. My former colleague Russ Laraway explained that I was doing this all wrong when I told my team at Google not to bring me problems; instead, I told them, bring me three solutions and a recommendation. 

“But then you’re not helping people innovate,” Russ explained. “You’re asking them to make decisions before they’ve had time to think things through. When do they get to just talk, brainstorm with you?” I realized Russ was right; I was abdicating an important part of my job by insisting on the “three solutions and a recommendation” approach.

Susan Wojcicki, who is now CEO of YouTube, was great at helping her team nurture new ideas before they got bruised in debates. Early in Google’s history, people brought new ideas directly to Google’s Executive Management Group (EMG). That group included the founders, the CEO, and a number of executives. 

Debate in those meetings could be brutal, and they started to feel like the place where new ideas went to die. Susan, recognizing the stress this caused for her team and the danger it posed for innovation at Google, stepped up and created a pre-EMG meeting where new ideas could be developed.

Here people could help one another sharpen new ideas, or define problems more clearly. There’s a lot of research demonstrating that when companies help people develop new ideas by creating the space and time to clarify their thinking, innovation flourishes. Throughout Silicon Valley, different companies have experimented with different ways to give people that kind of freedom.

Google famously has 20-percent time, where anybody can theoretically work on any idea they want to with 20 percent of their regular full-time hours. Not too many take 20-percent time, so this policy belongs more to the fantasy Google than the real Google. But fantasy informs reality — and it’s also true that a number of important products, including Gmail, did start as 20-percent-time projects.

Radical Candor Get Stuff Done

Scott Forstall, who built the iOS team at Apple, experimented with a different approach, called Blue Sky. People came up with a project they wanted to work on and could apply to Blue Sky. If approved, they got two weeks off from their day job to further develop the idea. 

Similarly, Twitter, Dropbox, and many start-ups have regular Hack Weeks throughout the year during which people can spend time pursuing new ideas. 

Brainstorming sessions are often used to surface and clarify new ideas. These sessions are not just random conversations where nobody is allowed to say anything negative, though. There are plenty of bad ideas, and they need to be recognized as such. Poking holes in new ideas doesn’t necessarily kill them — it can push people to clarify their thinking. 

There are also great ideas that look bad at first blush. A good brainstorming session distinguishes between the two without killing too many good ideas or wasting too much time on the bad ones. 

Pixar has a technique called “plussing.” Rather than saying, “No, that is a bad idea,” people must offer a solution to the problem they are pointing out.

Less dramatic than these kinds of formalized meetings and programs are your weekly 1:1 meetings. These meetings should be a safe place for your direct reports to come and talk to you about new ideas. 

In this context, you shouldn’t judge the ideas but rather help your direct reports clarify their thinking. This is a form of “plussing.” You can point out problems but with the aim of figuring a way around those problems, not killing ideas.

Get Stuff Done: Be clear to others

Make thoughts/ideas drop-dead easy for others to comprehend

When I was at business school, one of my professors told a story about a meeting between President Franklin Delano Roosevelt and the economist John Maynard Keynes. FDR was enormously busy, but he spent well over an hour with this academic. 

If FDR had understood Keynesian economics, some think the Great Depression might have ended sooner and enormous suffering could have been prevented. But at the end of the meeting, the president was not persuaded.

My professor asked the question, “Whose fault was it? FDR’s for not understanding, or Keynes’s for not explaining it well?” This was one of those moments in my education that changed my life. I’d always shifted the burden of responsibility for understanding to the listener, not to the explainer.

But now I saw that if Keynes’s genius was locked inside his head, it may as well not have existed. It was his responsibility to make the ideas that seemed so obvious to him equally obvious to FDR. He failed. Far too often we assume that if somebody doesn’t understand what we’re telling them, it’s because they are “stupid” or “closed-minded.” That is very rarely the case. 

While we know our subject matter, we may fail to know the person to whom we are explaining the subject, and therefore may fail to get our idea across. You’ll be heard more accurately if you take the time to understand the people you are talking to. 

What do they know, what don’t they know? What details do you need to include to make it easy for them to understand — and, more importantly, what details can you leave out?

Get Stuff Done

When you are listening to people on your team, take on the responsibility to understand — to actually listen — rather than putting the burden to communicate onto them. But when you are helping them prepare to explain their ideas to others — whether they are peers or cross-functional colleagues or executives — it’s your job to push your direct reports, and yourself, to do a better job than Keynes did. 

You need to push them to communicate with such precision and clarity that it’s impossible not to grasp their argument.

Georgia O’Keeffe said, “It is only by selection, by elimination, and by emphasis that we get at the real meaning of things.” 

Choosing what to select, what to eliminate, and what to emphasize depends not only on the idea but on the audience. If you are sending an email about a challenge at work to your grandmother, you may want to emphasize how it impacts your love life and perhaps choose to pass over revenue implications entirely. 

If you are writing to your boss about the same subject, it will probably be the reverse. The essence of making an idea clear requires a deep understanding not only of the idea but also of the person to whom one is explaining the idea.

The next time you spend two hours helping somebody edit an email until it’s just two sentences, don’t feel you are wasting your time. You are getting to the essence of the idea, which allows the recipient to absorb it quickly and easily. And you are teaching an invaluable skill.

This post has been excerpted from Radical Candor: Be a Kickass Boss Without Losing Your Humanity (get bulk book discounts for teams!). Learn more about the GSD Wheel in chapter 4 of Radical Candor and download our reading guide to test your knowledge of the concepts as you go. Check back soon for the next step in the GSD wheel, Debate. (Read the previous post about listening >>)


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Kim Scott is the author of Radical Candor: Be a Kick-Ass Boss Without Losing Your Humanity and Radical Respect: How to Work Together Better and co-founder of Radical Candor, a company that helps people put the ideas in her books into practice. Kim was a CEO coach at Dropbox, Qualtrics, Twitter and other tech companies. She was a member of the faculty at Apple University and before that led AdSense YouTube, and DoubleClick teams at Google. She's also managed a pediatric clinic in Kosovo and started a diamond-cutting factory in Moscow. She lives with her family in Silicon Valley.