I realize I talk so much about “context” in this blog, it might sound like I’m just tossing around management jargon to sound smart. So let me take this opportunity to clarify about what “context” means and why it actually is important in the work we do, whether you’re a manager or an individual contributor.
To start with, the reason I discuss this a lot is due to my belief that “management by context” is a key differentiator in modern management. It’s the new and improved alternative to “management by control”. Throughout my blog, I often refer to setting context as a key step in a lot of management processes like delegation, prioritization, and decision making. Whereas “chain of command” still makes sense in some organizations, knowledge workers, as Drucker calls them, require a lot more space and empowerment to make creative decisions. In short, management by setting the right context, rather than by asserting “authority”, is key in today’s workplace.
So what exactly is “context”?
“Context” spans any and all information relevant to the situation at hand. It probably isn’t wise to frame it in too narrowly, given the dynamic nature of information these days, but just to set a jumping point to providing better context to your team, the common 5W framework is a good place to begin. (This framework often comes in the form of 5W2H, but the 2H part I would argue leans more towards “control” than “context”. I’ll explain later.)
Expanding the 5 W’s, here’s a quick and easy list of questions you should reflect upon and answer about the situation:
- What‘s going on? What’s the problem or opportunity at hand?
- Who‘s involved? Who are affected?
- Why does this matter?
- When should this be addressed? And until when is it relevant?
- Where did this problem or situation start and how far does it reach?
Getting at least this much information across to your team is often sufficient to allow them to make sound decisions that are based on facts. That’s “context” in a nutshell.
Why not the 2H part?
The 2H part of the framework refers to “how” and “how much”. Providing the “how” borders dangerously on micromanagement. Giving your team specific directions on how they should approach the solution is often a bad idea. Allow (and nudge) them to figure out the “how” and you might just come across some genuinely creative solutions. That’s not to mention you’ll do wonders for their confidence and growth which is your primary responsibility as a manager.
Likewise, the how much is often tied to how as different solutions will have different costs. If you’re talking about constraints in the budget, “how much” does make sense as part of the context. You’d understandably want to have some control over costs. On the other hand, allowing your team to find out and assess the cost of their solution for themselves is a great way to encourage them to think more about business value. (Of course, if you can’t afford their solution, just say so.)
As straightforward as the framework above sounds, it’s never so simple when dealing with humans. There are a lot of nuances you need to consider when delivering context. Sadly, there’s no one surefire way that fits every team and every individual. Setting the right context is an artform and getting to know your team is the best way to practice it.
Here are a few tensions you might need to navigate when setting context for your team.
Known vs. unknown
You might be tempted to try and boost your team’s confidence by pretending you know everything there is to the situation, but you’re not fooling anyone. As much as we would like to be in the know, there are always unknowns lurking along your path. Even worse, you’re bound to eventually discover unknown unknowns. These are circumstances that are likely going to be in your way and you don’t even know it yet.
The diagram above shows what I call the “scope of control” and the “scope of uncertainty”.
The scope of uncertainty includes unanswered questions, both those you already know you need to figure out and those that may not even be in your mind yet. In the scope of control are factors you already know will affect you, but may or may not have answers to yet – things like, will the customer actually buy our new product? Being aware of these unknowns at least gives you some level of control over their outcome.
The intersection of the scope of uncertainty and the scope of control is a key part of the context you need to set. Sharing the known unknowns (basically, your risks) is as important as sharing the answers you already have. This keeps the team on their feet and allows them to leave room in their plans to find or deal with the answers when they come.
Explicit vs. implicit
My boss likes to write long explanations and tries to shed light on every detail that might be a factor in decisions. I, on the other hand, prefer to write more succinct information and provide only what I think is relevant to the situation. Neither approach is wrong. It’s simply a preference of how much context you keep implicit. Implicit context are the details that can be surmised or inferred from the explicit context you provide. You don’t necessarily have to lay it down word for word as people will likely understand it in any case.
There are tradeoffs to consider here. Making everything explicit could lead to more important details being watered down or buried in short attention spans.
On the other hand, you have to be extra careful with the context you keep implicit. It could be tempting to control decisions by obscuring certain parts of the context. Likewise, your assumptions about what people can surmise could be way off. In this case, it might be best to just let them judge which details are relevant to their decision themselves (that is, if they have the attention span for it).
Internal vs. External
I’m sure you’re being pretty clear about the internal context you’re working with – these are circumstances that exist within your organization such as the teams involved, perhaps your company policies, and budget constraints. Things you have a good amount of control over, basically. On the other hand, it’s also important not to forget about the external context.
These are questions like what are the competitors doing? What are our suppliers doing? How does this affect our customers? Understanding what’s going on outside of your own circle of influence is important as this gives you a chance to temper expectations and adjust your actions to adapt to what you have little control over.
As Drucker said, “results exist only outside the organization”. That means whatever you do will eventually make it or break in the outside world, so it’s good to know what you’re dealing with in that respect.
That’s about it for this explanation of “context”. In essence, it’s all about communicating the right details to facilitate sound decision making. Like any communication, that requires navigating a lot of different factors in order to come up with just the right approach for the right people. Only you have the right context to make that work.
I talk a bit about “unknown unknowns” in this article. These are basically your risks and making your risks known is a crucial part in planning and making decisions. If you’re interested to learn more about risk management, I’m currently working on my first book which will be out in August 2020. Mailing list subscribers will get the book absolutely FREE. Read more about it and subscribe here to be one of the first to get your copy!