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Around in circles: Breaking circular conversations and getting to alignment through tradeoff discovery

Imagine that you’re sitting in a planning session with your department heads. Your VP of Marketing and your CTO are debating the merits of moving to an automated customer service platform. Marketing emphasizes the need for real-world customer experiences. IT stresses the cost savings and efficiencies to be gained via automation and outsourcing. Both have valid points – that’s not the problem. The problem is that neither are backing down. The conversation circles round and round for an hour, eating up everyone’s time.

This isn’t the first instance in which these team leaders have gone head-to-head on the issue. The frustration in the room is palpable. Ultimately, the onus falls on you – the Chief Executive – to build alignment with your teams. Where do you start? How do you identify the underlying tensions that might be driving the conversation around in a circle, stop the pattern, and act?

Don’t mistake awareness for ownership

In a circular conversation, the dialogue can go on endlessly as participants repeat the same pattern without moving toward any resolution. While a circular conversation may promote an awareness of core problems impacting your organization, the danger arises when leaders confuse awareness for true ownership. Awareness is a leader’s ability to be conscious of the disruptive, changing ways in which businesses are developing. Ownership is the leader’s mindset to boldly act despite disruption or changing ways of business.  Without ownership, teams may find themselves treading water – instead of aligning toward a shared aspiration or vision.

Karrikins Group founder Peter Sheahan discusses moving from awareness to ownership. 

Identify and uncover tradeoff sources straining alignment 

Leaders who aspire to drive alignment learn to differentiate between awareness and ownership and move toward ownership to create alignment. But it’s equally as important that they learn how to identify the oft-concealed tradeoffs that are propelling these circular conversations to create an environment in which people feel safe discussing these tradeoffs.

At Karrikins, we define tradeoffs as the pull between diametric forces in an organization that influence decisions, actions, and beliefs. When leaders learn how to identify and thoughtfully maneuver around – or between – these tradeoffs, they can create an environment that fosters trust, collaboration, and greater clarity in decision making, stop the pattern of circular conversations, and ultimately guide their team to alignment.

Through the close discussions we’ve had with leading CEOs and changemakers across the business spectrum, we’ve identified several sources of tradeoffs to help illuminate the underlying strains that impact organizational alignment, and have developed the following exercise to help you think about tradeoffs at your organization. 

Step 1

List 5-10 behaviors leaders demonstrate at your organization that have contributed to the organization’s success up until now. These are organizational strengths.

Step 2

When overused, strengths can have unintended consequences, constrain decision making and even stand in the way of transformational change. Circle the strengths that may need to be let go of or reframed to reach your desired future state. These strengths, while perhaps valuable looking back, may not serve you today or tomorrow – especially as the business environment changes.

Step 3

For each of the strengths circled, name the corresponding behavior shift(s) necessary if these strengths were deselected or reoriented.

The outcome of this thinking may highlight the inherent tradeoffs within teams and organizations that are influencing behaviors, decision making, misalignment, and friction. Acknowledging that these tradeoffs exist, and naming them, is the first step a leader can take in moving toward greater alignment.

When teams are empowered, aligned, and have shifted from awareness to ownership, people begin to move toward disruption – a new way of looking at the same problem that lifts the approach out of circular conversations. They lean into disruption instead of distancing themselves from it, shifting from a mindset of frustration, anxiety, and disbelief to one of urgency, excitement, and conviction. Ultimately, they are more prepared to make better decisions, take clear action, and deliver on the shared aspiration of the company.