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Navigating the Vortex: 7 Conversations for Transformation


Too many people live with the nagging feeling that their team, and indeed their entire organization, could and should be running more smoothly, with more focus, and with more efficiency. But they can’t implement it amid the daily swirl, says business and strategy expert Richard S. Hawkes, CEO of Growth River.

In his new book, NAVIGATING THE Whirlwind: 7 Essential Conversations for Business TransformationHawkes shares what he’s learned from leading hundreds of large and small organizations on their growth journeys and provides a playbook for leading transformational change, applicable at any stage of company development.

I recently spoke with Richard Hawkes, founder and CEO of Growth Riverabout his Swirl concept and how to overcome stagnation to create highly engaged, high-performing teams and organizations.

The best way to think of—and run—a business or company is as an “adaptive social system.” – Richard Hawkes

What is a “Vir”? You’ve seen it in hundreds of organizations. Why is this so common?

A few years ago, when we started working with clients, I noticed that they often complained about being trapped in a vortex in their workplace. They said it felt like falling into a raging river.

Questions like “where are we going, how are we going to move forward together, and what does this mean for me?” was drowned out because managers and team members were too busy keeping up.

Today, my definition of a Whirlwind is an “absorbing state of inertia in an organization” that makes people feel the futility of their work and keeps leaders awake at night, feeling unable to solve the social Whirlwind around business decisions.

U HEAD INTO THE WhirlwindI discuss the many complexities that drive this state of being and provide a blueprint for moving beyond the Swirl to build high-performing teams and companies.

“Trust is a remnant of fulfilled promises, as well as a self-fulfilling prophecy.” – Richard Hawkes

How can people find out if their companies are in the Whirlwind?

In talking to hundreds of executives and employees about Swirl, I discovered that it is a confluence of four things. First, people feel like there is always another pressing issue to solve or drama to resolve. But all the talk and activity seems to be going nowhere. When you combine that with people’s innate desire to connect with a compelling cause, you get Swirl, because people end up feeling trapped and unsure of how to proceed.

When team members are stuck in narrow, ignorant roles, they often have only one option left—to resist change as a way to demand respect.” – Richard Hawkes

We hear a lot about toxic workplaces. How is workplace toxicity related to “Swirl?” Why is it wrong to put up with “toxic rock stars“?

Toxic workplaces are stressful work environments with out-of-control rumors, gossip, and people who position themselves at the expense of others. These are the places where the vortex really gets out of hand and is harmful.

Toxic workplaces are also environments in which “toxic rock stars” thrive. These are individuals who play an important role in the success of a team or organization, but also have a negative impact on others and on the organizational culture.

Sometimes toxic rock stars can seem like a necessary evil. People say to me, “Yes, this person does not work well with others, I know he does not create a healthy environment around him, but he is responsible for half of my business! How can I let them go?” Maybe they are important to the business. However, if you want to create a higher performing team that will be a much better foundation for the company’s growth and success, you must either force them to change their behavior or encourage them to leave the organization. It’s a hard truth, but if you want to reap the power and benefits of distributed leadership, you need to root out toxic mindsets and behaviors at all levels.

“Growth must be chosen again and again; fear must be overcome again and again.’ -Abraham Maslow

You point out that many approaches to how to get companies to “unstick” treat businesses like machines. What is wrong with this approach?

“Treating businesses like machines” means that executives must be expert decision-makers and influencers (they are the engineers), while everyone else must fulfill narrowly defined roles (they are parts of the machine). You can see why this can be very attractive to managers. However, it has two significant weaknesses. First, centralized decision-making by executives inevitably becomes a bottleneck, leading to stagnant teams and companies. And second, when team members are stuck in narrow, ignorant roles, they often have only one option left: to resist change as a way to demand respect. This dynamic leads to the failure of organizational change efforts.

“Broken trust can only be restored by demonstrating the ability to learn and by giving and receiving constructive feedback.” – Richard Hawkes

If organizations are not machines, what might be a better metaphor and approach leading change?

iThey concluded that the best way to see — and run — a business or company is as an “adaptive social system.” The old adage “culture eats strategy for breakfast” puts it right. Effective leaders in a changing world enable teams and businesses to become more than the sum of their parts. They arm themselves and others to address the social vortex around business decisions.

Toxic workplaces are stressful work environments with out-of-control rumours, gossip and people positioning themselves at the expense of others.” – Richard Hawkes

Tell us about seven important conversations in your book.

Imagine a piece of rope. I tie a knot at the bottom. It represents an “Activating Goal” because the way out of the Vortex must connect to a common goal, and in that context, your personal goal, or why bother?

At the top of the rope I tie another knot. It represents “Delivering Initiatives” because you and your team need to get results in the real world, or again, why bother? The Seven Important Conversations are a sequence of nodes that lead from “purpose” to “implementation.”

This is a rope that team members can use to climb the Whirlwind together. Key turning points on this journey include:

(1) Target activation

(2) Focus on management

(3) Change in thinking

(4) Defining capabilities and roles

(5) Ordering interdependencies

(6) Alignment strategies and

(7) Implementation of initiatives.

My partners and I have applied seven critical conversations to guide hundreds of business teams on a transformational path. These conversations align team members and team networks across companies on the path to greater productivity.

“Leaders must force toxic rock stars to change their behavior or invite them to leave the organization.” – Richard Hawkes

What are the most effective ways you’ve seen leaders build trust in a team?

Creating the key conditions for trust is part of the Seven Critical Conversations I call “Thinking Shifts.” Trust is essential to team and organizational performance. Without it, who would want to take the risks necessary to have the controversial conversations around capabilities and roles, interdependencies, strategies and implementation.

There are two main ideas in this conversation that leaders should apply to building trust in teams. The first idea is that trust is actually two things: it’s the remnants of fulfilled promises and it’s also a self-fulfilling prophecy. The second idea is that broken trust can only be restored by demonstrating the ability to learn and by giving and receiving constructive feedback. I’ve seen these two ideas help turn toxic team cultures into trustworthy ones.

Is there one conversation that leaders struggle with more than others?

The most difficult important conversation is the one in the middle. This is a conversation I call “Defining Capabilities and Roles.”

When teams and organizations define roles, they inevitably distribute power – to some extent. You may have noticed that some people tend to be very reactive when it comes to gaining or losing power, or even accepting it.

Many conversion efforts fail at this stage. That’s why leaders and teams are so happy when they’ve spent productive time focusing, focusing, and thinking about creating a healthy culture of trust that can support transparent, authentic, and honest conversations that aren’t marred by issues about the distribution of power.

“Centralized decision-making by managers inevitably becomes a bottleneck that stagnates teams and companies.” – Richard Hawkes

I often talk about alignment versus consent. Talk a little bit about that and how leaders can use it effectively.

An important underlying mindset is that team members choose to “go along” as a unified force with team or management decisions, even if they personally don’t “agree” or would have done something different on their own.

This mindset is fundamental for members of business teams or team networks to resolve creative tensions and conflicts toward competitive advantage. Without it, teams and organizations won’t be able to move in the same direction and break free from the Swirl.

What kind of response did your book get?

The response to my book has been very positive. I feel grateful for the opportunity to contribute. Enabling teams and organizations to achieve far more than people can on their own has been my life’s work. Penny Pennington, a leader who inspires me and is the managing partner of Edward Jones, a century-old financial services company with more than 50,000 employees, kindly wrote the foreword for the book. And Hank Izzo, CEO and CMO of Mars, Inc., another leading company, generously endorsed it as “a must-have for leaders navigating an ever-changing environment.” I hope people use this book to get rid of the Swirl through effective conversations in teams and businesses.

For more information, see NAVIGATING THE Whirlwind: 7 Essential Conversations for Business Transformation.

Image credit: Dan Christian Padure

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