business, leadership

Vicious Circles and Virtuous Snowballs

In my last post, I referenced vicious circles and virtuous snowballs. These can occur in lots of areas of our lives, whether with habits, relationships, strategies or tasks. If we do the wrong thing, it can set in motion a string of bad things. A true vicious circle is one where there is a direct correlation between the two events. Let’s look at an example – a basketball player misses a few shots, starts to “press” and get stressed about missing a few shots, causing him/her to lose form and miss more shots, which cause him/her to press more…you see. Imagine the opposite scenario, where the player makes a few shots, becomes more relaxed so his/her mind is clear and can translate all the practice into good form, making more shots, becoming more relaxed, etc.

In leadership and work situations, I feel the most common vicious circles (or at least the ones I’ve witnessed and experienced) occur when time becomes short, when projects get backlogged, when we don’t prioritize. So it looks like this: We can’t get around to completing a process improvement project, meaning we have re-work and other inefficiencies, which causes us to work longer just to get the basic process completed, meaning even less time to finish the process improvement project that would fix the issue.

Notice how “easy” it is in concept to turn a vicious circle into a virtuous snowball   If we could finish the process improvement project, we would complete the base process faster, leaving more time for further process improvement projects, saving even more time, etc.

So how do you turn a vicious circle into a virtuous snowball? It may depend on the situation, but I think taking a few cues from sports is relevant here again. When a golfer gets into a “slump” he or she may take a few weeks off from the tour to work with their coach, going back to some fundamentals. We can’t take off a few weeks of processes in most of our work lives, but we can re-prioritize time. We can get some distractions off our plate (maybe asking for support from others on certain tasks, or getting a deferred deadline for some tasks). We can put in a few extra hours on the issue at hand – whether it’s some quality time with our team to re-establish our trust and align on our goals, or to huddle as a group to resolve the underlying issue causing us to fall behind.

Usually these problems are resolved through a combination of solutions. Temporary assistance on the root cause of the issue, like bringing in a consultant to help fix the process issues. Sometimes its permanent staffing increases, to both resolve the current overload as well as work on improvement projects more long-term. But I find that these and other solutions only last if you do two other things: 1) prioritize, and agree to remove or defer material amounts of “stuff” that has creeped into your world, and 2) investing in the training/coaching time with the team to both do #1 and teach them how to think more process and project oriented. Nothing better than a little Lean Process Management to clear out the system. Most of us just have too much junk in our systems, but if we don’t know the proven processes and techniques to de-clutter our work, we will not turn the vicious circles into virtuous snowballs, we may just achieve some temporary relief.

So get drastic – we use the term RUTHLESSLY PRIORITIZE in my team. Free up time, then hold everyone accountable for using that time to invest in developing your collective abilities to make sustained change, to build virtuous snowballs.



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