Purposeful Obfuscation

Dave Kinnear1-On Leadership

Leaders often make the mistake of trying to leave room for creativity by being less than clear on the goals they wish to achieve or the mission they intend to accomplish. Call it “purposeful obfuscation.” I’m sure the idea is to not be too prescriptive in their directions, thus leaving room for interpretation. Good intentions with potentially unintended negative consequences.

There is a difference between setting a clear and concise goal while also leaving open the ways in which that goal might be achieved. The creativity desired should be in “how” not “what”. When an employee comes to ask you how to do something, you may well respond with a form of “that’s why you’re here, I depend on you as an expert to figure out the most efficient and effective way to achieve the goal. So are you clear on the goal?” On the other hand, if the questions being asked of you as the leader/manager indicates that the goal is not clear, then you must clear up the confusion.

There is a fine line here and a leader’s communication instincts are critical. As we develop our companies into what Daniel Pink calls “Type I” organizations (Drive, Daniel Pink, 2009), it will be critical to not prescribe HOW a task is to be accomplished but rather to clearly communicate the expected results in order to provide the intrinsic motivation that highly creative employees need to function. What Pink is suggesting with his model of “Motivation 3.0″ is that we cannot motivate our employees, instead employees must be self or intrinsically motivated. So it is our job to provide environments where they can find that intrinsic motivation and minimize the habit of depending on extrinsic (carrot and stick) motivation. That means we will need to learn how to be clear when communicating the expected outcomes while being quite non-prescriptive in stating how the outcome is to be achieved. And, we will have to learn that by delegating “the how,” we do not abdicate our responsibility for the results. We still own it and are responsible and accountable for seeing that the task is accomplished through others.