How you can learn to “navigate the swirl” to grow and innovate

by | Jun 28, 2022 | Blog | 0 comments

Language is foundational for building and leading organizations, according to Richard S. Hawkes, the author of an intelligent new business book.

Hawkes, who’s also the founder of the the management consulting firm Growth River, believes that “organizations evolve at the speed of conversations.” The book’s title expresses his philosophy: Navigate the Swirl: 7 Crucial Conversations for Business Transformation.

All too often, Hawkes writes, we may think we’re speaking the same language, but we’re not. Instead, we’re defining our words and terms differently, which results in us talking past one another rather than with one another. For example, I may use the word “agenda” to mean a list of items to discuss at our upcoming meeting. You may interpret “agenda” to mean my intentions or motives. If we don’t stop to clarify, it’s easy for us to get frustrated and stuck and worse, get swept up in “organizational swirl” or “the Swirl” for short.”

In the book’s dictionary, “Organizational Swirl” refers to a state of inertia in which teams and companies become so absorbed in the whirl of everyday problems, dramas and turf battles that they don’t feel motivated to think more clearly about a shared journey toward higher performance.”

With the book, Hawkes says his objective is to “plant seeds for a shared language, one that enables team members to work together in a deeply human way to evolve and grow companies.”

Yet as I started reading the book, I got lost. Literally, I had trouble judging the book by its cover and its name! To me, a disconnect existed between the book’s language and numbers, specifically 1-4-3-4-7.

The crucial conversations referenced in the book’s title don’t appear until Part 3 of this three-part book. The book’s content in Parts 1 and 2 are about a set of numbers – numbers representing the operating principles necessary to grow, adapt, and innovate organizations in complex and turbulent times.

Once I figured out that Hawkes wants readers to wait for the conversations until we get grounded in business fundamentals, I started to appreciate the depth and power of the book. The fundamentals make up the “Growth River Operating System – a tightly integrated sets of concepts, frameworks, and processes to guide teams and organizations on a transformational journey of growth.”

In a nutshell, the principles are:

  1. One organizing framework: Organizations are living social systems run by humans, not machines—which is a refreshing orientation that I wish more leaders would embrace.
  2. Four capabilities make up the organization’s social system: Develop, sell, deliver, and support.
  3. Three domains of change that support transformation: 1) leadership and culture; 2) capabilities and roles; and 3) strategies and customer experience.
  4. Four stages of evolution that the enterprise can move through: 1) independent contributors; 2) directive leadership; 3) distributed leadership and 4) leaders leading leaders.
  5. Seven crucial conversations for leaders and team members to have to navigate the swirl: 1) activating purpose; 2) driving focus; 3) shifting mindset; 4) specifying capabilities and roles; 5) streamlining interdependencies; 6) aligning strategies; and 7) implementing initiatives.

In practice, this book can serve as an advanced mini-MBA course for growing and scaling organizations, including leading transformational change. Humans are always at the center of the book. Hawkes makes the crucial point that “Human beings have agency. It’s a game of choice, not compliance.”

This point is worth punctuating, especially since many business leaders even today expect people to function more like machine parts than individuals. For example, employees are moved into a new team role without getting any time to understand the situational context, meet their team members and other key stakeholders, and learn how to navigate their new environment.

Unlike machines, humans aren’t interchangeable; they’re unique individuals with different skill sets, experiences, and expectations. Furthermore, if people are swapped out without their consent or guidance, they can deliberately or unintentionally resist, exhibit malicious compliance, or shut down.

To avoid this from happening, leaders need to build relationships with people and figure out how to work together effectively. This includes helping individuals find their purpose that aligns with the team’s shared purpose plus a common path for fulfilling goals.

Hawkes comes across as a realist, recognizing the complexities of the world we work in today. Rather than try to provide a detailed playbook that runs the risk of becoming outdated, he offers his operating system as a path plus a series of thoughtful questions. The combination can help readers clarify their thinking to navigate the challenges they face, including the swirl they may encounter.

Throughout the book, Hawkes also respects his readers. He doesn’t offer simplistic ideas for these complex challenges. Instead, he works hard to help the readers adopt his terminology as a way to build common understanding and work together with greater ease.

To me, this book is a gift for managing the intricacies of today’s business world. And in the interest of full disclosure, the book was a literal gift as one of of the Growth River consultants sent it to me based on my reviews of other books on Amazon.

Interestingly, while reading the book, I got a message from Amazon that Navigate the Swirl would be an ideal book for me. I agree, and I plan to use the book with college students for our next book circle about leading organizational change and transformation. If they can learn to navigate the swirl in while building high-performance teams, they’ll do well.


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