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Unraveling complexity: The power of specification

Unraveling complexity: The power of specification 

"This transformation we're envisioning requires new values that better match this company." You might have heard a version of this sentence in your career. Transformation is upon us, and that means we must act differently. Translation: our old values are less relevant, so we'll introduce some new ones that are way more appropriate (e.g., "Integrity," "personal growth," "equality," and "result-driven"). Easy to grasp, attractive to the market, and in line with social norms. "All we have to do now is share them with the rest of the company. Easy peasy lemon squeezy!"  

Famous last words... 

From frustrating container concepts to specified values 

Organizations often find themselves dealing with complexity, and to simplify matters, they resort to using container concepts (e.g., when defining (new) company values). However, container concepts are vague values and high-level results that leave room for interpretation and assumptions. Although this is always done with the best intentions, this approach of using containers to deal with complexity often leads to a disconnect between leaders and employees. Leaders don't get the desired outcomes and behavior from their employees, and employees are unsure of what is expected from them and what they can expect from their leaders. You can imagine all the fun there, right? (Read more about container concepts in our blog: The danger of using Container Concepts) 

Instead of further simplification, we propose an alternative approach: specification. Rather than relying on ambiguous container concepts, the focus should be on specifying clear and unambiguous results and behaviors. What do we want to achieve with these values? And which behaviors do we think we can achieve those results? So, you want to go from frustrating container concepts to specified values that leave significantly less room for interpretation. This approach involves asking important questions about assumptions and addressing any ambiguities and interpretations.  

Your first steps toward specification 


One important aspect of both results and behaviors is clarity. Identifying and articulating the specific result that the organization aims to achieve is crucial. To do so, we must focus on what is left behind when all actions and behaviors are done. This means that results should be measurable and well-defined, providing a clear understanding of what success looks like. This includes ensuring that the people working towards the results clearly understand what they need to do to get there. What behaviors do they need to show, and can they demonstrate what these behaviors look like? If not, your results and behaviors are not specific enough yet! 

Identifying different contexts 

Specifying desired behaviors is crucial and highly dependent on the context. Different contexts may require other behaviors to contribute to the overall goals and results. With context, we mean different groups, let's say. From an organizational perspective, a team can be a context, a department, or a collection of individuals working together closely. All these contexts have a shared company vision and mission, but within the contexts, there are differences. For example, IT must (partly) achieve different results and goals than HR. The leadership team has different results to work on than sales. It is all connected, but splitting these contexts when defining results and behaviors is helpful. If you are in a context, you must be able to influence it. Identifying and communicating the specific behaviors needed to achieve the desired result per context is important. 


Feasibility is another key consideration. As mentioned before, when setting a desired result, it is important to assess whether achieving the goals within the context in which it will be pursued is feasible. This involves considering the available resources, capabilities, and limitations of the organization and/or teams. As leaders, we can enhance feasibility by adding to the environment and enabling people to show the right behaviors to achieve the desired results. In addition to behaviors, it is also essential to assess whether the individuals who are expected to show the desired behaviors are adequately enabled to do so. This involves identifying any barriers or gaps in skills, resources, or support that may hinder their ability to perform as desired. 

Common language  

Another role we can play as leaders is to avoid misinterpretation and unwanted assumptions. Clear and precise language should be used to eliminate any potential misunderstandings. Establishing a common language is essential for effective communication. The described result should be clear and well-defined, ensuring that all parties involved have a shared understanding, and, as leaders, it is up to us to check whether we all have the same perspective. Establishing a common language helps eliminate misunderstandings and promotes alignment, but reaching everyone in the organization takes time. 

Who has got the time to do all that? 

Now, we understand that after reading our recommendations about specifying, you may have some concerns, especially regarding the time required to do all these specifications. This approach indeed demands time and effort, as each context and ambiguous item needs to be addressed. But (and this is a big valuable but), based on our experience, it is time well spent! In contrast to simplification, investing in specification is the key to effectively reaching goals and guiding teams in the right direction. It might take more time at the beginning; however, you will lose less time on correcting, fixing, and reiterating down the road. And, from our experience, you will endure less resistance.  

Your next steps 

Our advice on initiating the specification process: Start by identifying your company's container concepts, values, and buzzwords. From there, focus on specifying specific results and behaviors directly linked to these concepts. Doing so establishes a clear framework for achieving desired outcomes and provides a solid basis for effectively leading and steering teams toward success. 

Are you curious about behavior and the science that can help you specify and change it? Read our blog about Behavioral change is (not) about you!


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