Wise pal Brain Bailey, along the way to writing about Woody Allen, perfectly articulates my challenge in thinking about how a team should work:
The combination of clarity and freedom is what makes work a joy; one without the other is where you find frustration. When you have great freedom, but an incomplete understanding of the goal, you’re likely to invest hours of effort in a futile attempt to hit a target you can’t see. You know this is the case when you see revisions requested again and again, or products that are perpetually delayed.
On the other hand, a clear goal with little freedom in how to achieve it produces uninspired work by dispirited people. The lack of freedom is experienced as a lack of trust and confidence. People in these environments will eventually seek out new places to work.
Personally, I oscillate between attributing failed projects to too much freedom or not enough freedom. It’s not about that at all. It’s about the balance of that freedom and clarity. If I’m given freedom without clarity, I run off and invent something interesting but impractical. If I’m given over-constrained clarity, I get discouraged.
(Freedom is a funny thing on teams and projects. I have a lot more freedom than I usually think, but I’m still very conservative in acting on that freedom.)
I recently asked my team lead to give the team I’m on a stronger direction in which to go. We already had most of the freedom we needed. We talked over how we could proceed as a team and came up with a direction that was useful for the other teams around us and not so far afield from our current momentum as to discourage us. My morale immediately doubled and I think our team did some good excellent work once we had that strong direction.
Whether you’re managing yourself, managing a team, or managing your manager, asking for clarity is a thing I you should do!