Around in Circles: Breaking Circular Conversations and Getting to Alignment Through Tension Discovery

By James Parker

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 towards 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 towards a shared aspiration or vision.

[VIDEO] Awareness to Ownership by Peter Sheahan
Click the above video to watch Group CEO, Peter Sheahan discuss moving from Awareness to Ownership. 


Identify and Uncover Tension Sources Straining Alignment 

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

At Karrikins, we define tensions 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 tensions, 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 Tension Sources to help illuminate the underlying strains that impact organizational alignment and have developed the following exercise to help you think about tensions at your organization. 

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

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.

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 tensions within teams and organizations that are influencing behaviors, decision making, misalignment, and friction. Acknowledging that these tensions exist, and naming them, is the first step a leader can take in moving towards greater alignment.

When teams are empowered, aligned, and have shifted from awareness to ownership, people begin to move towards 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 firm.


If you’d like to discuss how to further illuminate tensions at your organization, and further, how to move from awareness to ownership to ultimately create greater alignment, drop us a note and we’ll be in touch soon.

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