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Control, Competence, and Clarity

TL;DR — As a leader, be aware of the levels of control, competence, and clarity for your teams so that you can help them be effective. Understand that each variable is on a spectrum, and your team will feel differently depending on how those variables are set.


I recently watched a keynote about creating leadership and engagement, where the speaker — a retired submarine captain (David Marquet) — unlearned the typical naval approach to leadership (i.e., command and control) and achieved amazing results. After watching some of his other YouTube videos on intent-based leadership, I learned about controlcompetence, and clarity, and how people on a team respond to certain levels of each.

This post…

  1. defines control, competence, and clarity
  2. explores how teams could feel based on how much of each the team has


(The concepts of autonomymastery, and purpose from Dan Pink’s talk sounded similar to Marquet’s lessons; however, they seem to apply more to leadership rather than motivation.)

Control — how much control your team has over what they do

Competence — how capable your team is with being able to do their work successfully/efficiently

Clarity — how well your team understands what they are trying to achieve

I did some more digging on the clarity aspect, as it’s a little less clear about whether you have it or not:

  • Why are you doing what you’re doing? How does that relate to your mission as a company?
  • Do you have clear objectives that everyone understands?


What intrigued me was how in this video he created a two-dimensional graph:

In all of his videos, competency and clarity were always grouped together. This post is a thought experiment about what would happen if you decoupled competency and clarity so that they could vary independently.


Low on all three: Lost/helpless

Hopefully not many teams would find themselves in this category. A developer I work with who has Army National Guard experience said that basic training can feel like this: You have no control over the system, you’re trying to learn how to do things, and you’re often wondering why you’re doing some task.

High clarity: Growing

Although not ideal, this is still on the line that Marquet draws in his original graph. Here, you either have processes or managers making up for the lack of competence by serving as control over the team. Gradually as the team becomes more competent, they’ll be more effective if they can take back more control.

High competence: Misappropriated

Your team is highly capable, but doesn’t have clear direction or expectations, and doesn’t have enough control to take the wheel to possibly address that shortcoming. This is an example of wasting your resources.

Low control: Stifled

The team knows the what and the why but is powerless to decide how their work gets done. Some terms that come to mind for this category are micromanagement and having process for process’ sake.

High control: Chaotic

Having lots of control is overwhelming when you don’t have the skills or clarity to best use that control.

Low competence: Frustrated

You’re in a car with the GPS telling you exactly how to get to your destination (clarity) and you’re at the wheel (control). Unfortunately, you don’t know how to drive a manual transmission. A developer I worked with felt frustrated when he was assigned to fix bugs in an application that was new to him: He had full access to the code, he knew what bug he was supposed to fix, but didn’t know about how the application worked (and some of the frameworks/patterns it used).

Low clarity: Bored

Your team has the skills and the autonomy to figure out how best to do the work. However, if there’s nothing to strive for, motivation can be depleted rapidly.

High on all three: Ideal

At this point, your team understands the intent and can simply execute their tasks as they see fit.

Wrapping Up

After examining each aspect independently, I found myself racking my brain to think about how certain scenarios could exist in a real workplace — especially for Lost and Chaotic. However, many of the combinations are very real, and I’ve worked in a few of them.

The takeaway is that leaders should realize where their team is on these spectra so that you can either maintain course or make adjustments. When your team is competent and understands the direction, you as a leader need to give more control to them so that they can for the most part manage themselves.

(Thanks to Houston Miller, Jared Smith, and Gillian Hunt for helping me figure out how to describe these scenarios.)

(First image credit)

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