‘Swirling’: An Organizational Nightmare

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Does your organization have problems that never seem to get resolved? Is your team better at identifying challenges than overcoming them? Does your team talk about a problem again and again without fixing it?

If so, bells and sirens should be going off because your organization is at great risk. You are experiencing what our company calls “swirling.”

Swirling happens because it is way easier to identify problems than to solve them. It is easier to suggest solutions when you are not responsible for the results — or unintended consequences. It is also way tougher to develop and implement a solution under the full weight of responsibility for the decision’s impact.

Why does swirling happen? Because leaders often make decisions based on probability, not certainty. If the decision were obvious or easy, someone else would have already made it. Even when the decision has a 90 percent probability of being right, it will still be wrong one out of 10 times. If fear of failure causes a leader to seek a 100-percent certain decision, swirling is often the result.

Swirling is dangerous because it bogs down an organization. Swirling is also incredibly de-energizing to teams that experience it. Years ago, I worked with a gentleman who had an excruciatingly difficult time making decisions. His inbox was known as the “black hole.” If prompted for an answer, he would delay by saying he needed more information. His approach was incredibly demotivating to his team. He was an expert at swirling.

While it is easy to fall into swirling, the best leaders make sure it does not happen at their organizations. Here are some ideas that will help you and your team avoid or stop swirling altogether.

Create Clarity

As with many organizational issues, the first thing you can do to avoid swirling is create clarity. Our team will often do this by asking, “What is the problem we are trying to solve?” It is amazing how that brief question can refocus and rally a team around the issue at hand.

Beware of Diminishing Returns

Like many other leaders, I want to do things right. However, sometimes the effort to get from 97 percent right to 100 percent right just isn’t worth the time. One friend of mine will say, “The remaining juice isn’t worth the squeeze.” Often, the amount of time wasted keeps leaders from getting other goals accomplished. Chasing diminishing returns can be costly.

Seek Different Perspectives

Swirling often happens when the team gets hijacked by one perspective, chiefly negative, and cannot get past it. Getting out of this situation requires forcing yourself to see the situation from a different point of view. The book Six Thinking Hats by Edward de Bono is hugely helpful for seeing any situation from different perspectives. Every leader should read it.

Have a Trigger Word

When our team is swirling, someone will say, “We are swirling.” Having a trigger word can help everyone realize what is happening.

Don’t Use the I Need More Information Excuse

Certainly, leaders need adequate and accurate information to make good decisions. However, continually asking for more information is a deflection that leaders use when they are struggling to make a decision. You’re not fooling anyone.


In the ideal world, when an organization is trying to solve a challenge, there is collaboration, including a robust debate, that ends with an obvious decision. It doesn’t always happen like that in the real world. A leader must be prepared to decide.

The Group Must Commit

When the team has come to a collaborative decision or a leader has decided the path forward, it is time to commit and execute. Even worse than predecision swirling is post-decision swirling. To use a football analogy, once the quarterback makes the call, everyone had better be running the same play.

One of the key principles our team embraces is the idea of being fast and right. Anyone can be fast and wrong, and most people can be right if they take enough time. To excel in the marketplace, an organization must be fast and right. You can’t do that if you are swirling. 

Bill Yeargin is CEO of Correct Craft and author of Making Life Better: The Correct Craft Story.

This article was originally published in the June 2021 issue.


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