“Bring me a rock.” (Pause) “No, not that rock.” This catch-phrase used by staff in a client organization summed up a syndrome they encountered frequently – one which I call “spiraling circularity.” It occurs when the executive tasks members of the organization without setting forth adequate specifications as to what the final product needs to accomplish. The challenge to staff is to present iteratively another version of the product, only to have it rejected with vague reasons for the rejection. They then go back to the drawing board and cycle through this experience once again and again multiple times. Thereafter, as an aside, the final iteration that comes to be accepted quite often resembles the first one that had been originally presented! So what was all of this about? While Spiraling Circularity generates a splendid appearance of “busy-ness,” with people spinning in a tizzy, the end result is usually more smoke than fire.
Round and round we go. Didn’t we pass this point before? Traveling in circles, the organization becomes progressively devoid of direction. Accomplishments become fewer and farther between, with concomitant losses in steam, revenue, potential and valued talent.
When staff are overwhelmed by exponentially more opportunities to be wrong than right, cynical behavior and attitudes take root. Rituals for handling today’s spiral fire drill will have more people just going through the obligatory motions. The wrong set of staff responses get cultivated and reinforced.
Some executives have used this technique to parlay into positions of higher visibility and authority, creating chaos that only they can finally resolve. A problem-solver! However, when you’re looking at your best organizational firefighter, beware that you may also be looking at your chief arsonist. Generating the appearance of frantic “busy-ness” and, ironically, suspending a sense of genuine urgency to achieve results can be a career-enhancement strategy for a Machiavellian player.
The caveat is that Spiraling Circularity may be appropriate if you are indeed sending staff into unknown territory and need to explore all options and vett them with all audiences. Thus, Spiraling Circularity may be an appropriate tactic on an episodic but not chronic basis. That said, if you need to do more thinking about desired outcomes and specifications before you task staff, you should do so in the interests of conserving talent, time, and a reservoir of positive emotional capital in your enterprise. Finally, if you are a top executive who has a report which is abusing your resources through leadership malpractice, don’t be fooled by appearances! Arrest the arsonist soonest before s/he burns your building down!