The ‘Swirl’ That’s Impeding Your Company’s Growth

How can you focus on the future when you keep getting bogged down in day-to-day pain points? Seven ways to beat organizational inertia.

“We’re doing the same things we’ve always done, but it’s not working for us anymore.”

“We’re moving quickly, but we’re not sure if we’re going in the right direction.”

“Everyone is working hard but we’re tripping over each other.”

“We’re stuck. We don’t seem to be going anywhere.”

Do those sentiments sound familiar? Most people in business are on intimate terms with some—or all—of these frustrating experiences. And nothing captures that common feeling quite so well as one metaphor I hear again and again: the swirl.

The swirl is an absorbing state of organizational inertia. It draws our perspective in on itself, narrowing our vision. Our very consciousness runs aground in the muck of the everyday. There is always another problem to solve, pain point to acknowledge, issue to fix, turf battle to win, drama to ameliorate, or political challenge to overcome. And in the midst of it all, we lose track of the future. Questions like, “Where are we going?” and “How do we move forward together?” fade into the background as the endless demands of the everyday stifle our momentum like heavy weeds entangling the rudder of a boat.

I’ve been an organizational consultant for several decades, and have guided hundreds of organizations, large and small, as they have navigated the journey of growth. What I’ve learned is that breaking free of the swirl requires that teams engage in a set of seven crucial conversations. These are structured dialogues that will generate breakthrough insights, encourage continuous improvement and lead to increasingly higher levels of productivity and performance in a team. This purposeful sequence of conversations will walk teams through issues of leadership and culture, capabilities and roles, and strategies and implementation. Here’s what you need to discuss:

1. Activating purpose. Great teams are animated by purpose. This first conversation involves such critical questions as: Does this team have a leader willing and able to activate a shared team purpose? How will decisions be made in this team? What is the shared purpose of the team?

2. Driving focus. Whereas Activating Purpose is all about the structure, format and shared vision, Driving Focus is about getting clarity around priorities, visualizing the team’s work together, and energizing around the goals of the team. This conversation deals with questions including: Are team members focused on a shared transformational journey? Is the destination clear? Have gaps and primary constraints been identified?

3. Shifting mindset. Teams must learn to embrace their diversity of perspectives and transform them into a tremendous asset. This means creating agreements to support one another, be accountable, and be coachable. This conversation involves questions such as: Are team members able to bring their best efforts to the team’s success? Are they accountable and coachable, giving and receiving feedback? Do they resolve conflicts directly at the source?

4. Specifying roles and capabilities. Individuals and teams, alike, have roles to play in moving the organization forward. Clarifying roles to ensure that everyone knows who is accountable for what, and what perspectives they represent, is critical. Questions in this conversation include: Does every key capability and concern in the team’s purview have an owner advocate? Are the roles and responsibilities clear? Are creative tensions leveraged?

5. Streamlining interdependencies. Teams are not freestanding. They exist in the larger organizational social system, and must optimize cross-functional business processes and pay attention to how they interact with multiple functions, teams, and sometimes even multiple businesses. It’s crucial to answer such questions as: What other teams do we need to align with? Are the points of interdependence within and across teams explicit? Are shared processes and handoffs efficient? Do rewards, and incentives support working as a team?

6. Aligning strategies. Change initiatives often start with strategy, but first you need to hammer out the issues dealt with in the first five conversations.  Only then it’s time to focus on questions such as: Is there a strategy and a strategic planning process in place? What is the role of the team in this process? Is the path towards competitive advantage clear?

7. Implementing initiatives. You don’t always know what’s around the bend in the river until you get there. Conversation Seven is about achieving laser focus on the quality and impact of the team’s initiatives. Do team members plan and manage programs and projects effectively? Can the team forecast demand and budget their projects? Are there sufficient dashboards for measuring and tracking performance?

I can’t tell you that the journey will be easy. Transformational journeys aren’t like that—at least not when they involve changing how people work together. This journey will involve real work—reflective moments, honest conversations, hard-won insights and difficult choices. It will include making important distinctions about team, business and organizational life. And it will require courageous leadership.

Richard S. Hawkes, author of NAVIGATE THE SWIRL, is CEO and Founder of Growth River, an international consultancy that guides leaders and teams to create higher performance in businesses and organizations. Clients include Edward Jones, GENEWIZ, Hitachi, Pfizer, Johnson & Johnson, and Mars.