Several meetings I participated in last week left me musing on 'implications of swirl'. This is a phrase I came across in a Bain brief 'Four paths to a focused organisation' looking at change and transformation. They have a graphic that illustrates swirl that runs on the lines of:
1. Issue identified that requires resolution
2. New process/initiative proposed to resolve issue
3. Data needed to determine whether proposal merits go-ahead
4. Meetings scheduled to review data
5. Additional requests come from meetings before any decision to go ahead can be made
6. Data needed to answer requests
7. Follow up meetings to review answers before any decision to go ahead can be made
The implications of this is that a) a lot of people spend time and resource getting stuck in the data sludge b) the issue is not resolved instead heading towards the plug-hole the swirl leads to.
What Bain doesn't go on to describe is that further implications are that, in my experience, at this point either someone gets frustrated by the lack of progress and hands the issue to a different group of people to resolve. They then work through steps 1 – 7 above.
Or the person or people who recognized the issue in the first place moves on to a different role without handing over information about the issue or where they are in the steps above and the new person spots the issue and sets off the whole process again. It's immensely frustrating to everyone.
Instead, Bain offers four suggestions on how to 'eliminate swirl and build a company that can get things done'. It looks straightforward in their paper. You:
1. Decide where the work is to be done
2. Determine the appropriate level of supervision for each kind of work
3. Assign roles for critical decisions
4. Define and reinforce behaviours that eliminate the culture of swirl
If only. Even if the players change, in organisations where swirl happens then the ingrained responses mean that any issue is likely to go through the 7 steps outlined above. In fact the issue may compound as most likely each of the Bain's four steps to resolution could create its individual swirl.
I wish I could be as confident as Bain in suggesting four things to resolve swirl. But I'm not. I think 'swirl' as described is a complex issue related to factors including risk appetite, anxiety about trying new things, wanting assurance that the proposal is the 'right answer' before giving any go-ahead, power, territoriality, belief that data (usually numeric) will yield a way forward that is 'better' than the one originally proposed, and lack of effective knowledge sharing. So what to do? I see swirl in action a lot and I'm thinking of two possibilities to stopping it:
Abort the swirl process. Once the issue is identified and some proposal is made to resolve it trust that the proposers have done enough to be confident it is worth trying and test it out on a 'test and learn' basis i.e. action the proposal and then gather data on its effectiveness in action. In this approach you only go as far as step 2 in the Bain 7 steps.
Treat the issue of swirl as a 'wicked problem' rather than a 'tame problem' which I think is what Bain's suggestions for treatment look like. Wicked problem approaches require creative thinking and doing enough of the right things at the same time.
How would you address the swirl issue? Let me know.