Monday, September 16, 2013

Churn from Playing Office Politics

Another driver of churn: playing office politics. The HBR IdeaCast featured a good entry on the subject recently. Both the audio and the transcript are available here:

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Pushing the Churn Metaphor

I had a lot of positive feedback on my post on churn. One of the emails reminded me that I gave little consideration to the more conventional dictionary definitions of the word. I was using the word the way I have often heard it… more along the lines of business slang.

So… allow me to push the metaphor just a bit more.

   churn, noun – a vessel that agitates and separates

The most common use of the word is when it is a noun, describing a device… usually a butter churn. There was a time not all that long ago when a butter churn was a common household appliance. If you had a cow (or even a goat I suppose), you probably had a butter churn.

The metaphor still works when thinking about churn in terms of business/organization slang. A butter churn is an agitator (now… I want to be really careful about saying anything that might be misconstrued as a negative stance on butter… because I LOVE butter). In a butter churn, the agitation separates the watery stuff from the oily stuff.

Organizational churn separates as well. It isolates people, creates factions, and often results in defensiveness. Unlike a butter churn that productively separates the desirable stuff from the undesirable stuff, organizational churn usually just unproductively separates.

   churn, verb – to stir or agitate violently

This verb form usually describes the movement of a liquid, or at least something that is moving like liquid (leaves blowing in the wind might be described as churning). Churn is different than flow. There might be violence in a flow (whitewater), but there is positive energy. Churn generally is violent stirring or agitation without anything positive or productive.

I don’t mind a bit of whitewater when it is associated with productive flow in an organization (truth be told, I’m often exhilarated by a bit of organizational whitewater and have some skills navigating whitewater). Skilled leaders can tell the difference between whitewater and churn, and can confidently navigate whitewater, assuring those in the organization that everyone will make it to the other side and it will be worth it.

   churn, verb – excessive turnover by a financial broker of a client’s holdings in order to generate commissions

This may be the definition that most closely parallels some of what I was getting at in the previous post. Unscrupulous financial brokers will churn their client’s accounts merely to create activity, regardless if there is any productivity, because the financial broker benefits from the transactions.

We often have churn makers in our organizations; they will likely not earn a commission because of the organizational churn, but they think they acquire some other capital in creating churn. When we identify such churners, we need to rehabilitate them, redirect them, or in some cases move them out of our organization.

Can you think of any other definitions I’ve missed? I’m always glad for your feedback.

Friday, August 02, 2013


Churn: that part of organizational work that consumes resources but produces little benefit. It is organizational friction, lots of activity with little productivity, lots of heat but little light. Every organization has it. I’ve observed it in small and large organizations, mom-and-pops and the world’s largest businesses, the most profitable companies and non-profits, the hallowed halls of academia and the holy ground of churches. Churn exists everywhere; it is part of the price of doing business

While churn can occupy large parts of our days, it seems that it is seldom about the main thing. Churn doesn’t often swirl around strategic issues, but rather surrounds our tactics. It is what makes that task that ought to take 20 minutes consume 2 hours, or  even 2 days.

There is no use in trying to entirely eradicate churn, nor should we obsess on it. Churn is part of the price whenever people are working together, and it is worth it since the benefits of building an organization (working together) outweigh every alternative (is there really an alternative?). 

We can’t eliminate churn, but we can reduce it. I’m sure I’ve created more than my fair share of churn, but I’ve had some success in reducing it as well, and I’ve seen resources that might have otherwise  been burned up by churn redirected into productive work. We accomplish more, take less of a toll on our people, and have more fun doing it when we reduce churn. 

Here are some of the strategies I’ve used to successfully reduce churn.

Organizational Discipline 

Work The Manuals
A lot of churn is simply a result of people not knowing what to do. Organizations may have missed keeping up with our emerging cultures approach to information. There was a day when we focused on acquiring knowledge; now our focus is on access to knowledge. Students are less concerned with knowing the facts than being able to access the facts. If our organizations rely on merely what people can cram into their heads, we are inviting churn. 
The best way to make sure that we’re all on the same page is to have a page. And the best page, of course, isn’t on paper but rather in electronic form, indexed and accessible at the desktop or on a handheld device. The manuals should be considered a living document, easy to edit and expand. Make it an incremental process. There’s no need for an exhaustive manual in the beginning; take it step by step. And once something is manualized, always drive people back to the manual to get them in the habit of looking to the manual first. 
Work The Org Chart 
Churn is minimized when (1) communication networks are open and fluid and (2) decision-making structures are understood, simple, and locked down.  (See my brief article on Networks and Structures here>>>)
Ambiguous organizational structures result in churn. I’ve observed some of the most churn when people work for (or at least perceive that they work for) many superiors; trying to keep all the bosses happy inevitably results in churn. When people on the inside of a decision making structure are not sure how they fit, they end up spending far too much time and energy looking around (staying out of trouble) instead of focusing on what is ahead (accomplishing the goal). 
That is true for folks outside of the decision-making structures as well. When it is not clear who has the authority, resources, or perspective to move things forward, people are easily lost in a game of hot potato as they and their issue are dumped off from one person to another. (See my brief article on No Hand Backs here>>>
The best org charts are built from a bottom-up perspective. Rather than answering the question “which positions should work for this boss to best resource this boss,” we should ask the question “which leader would best resource this position?” 
Work The Communication Networks 
We shouldn’t merely assume that everybody knows everything; we should champion the cause of open communication. Whenever possible we shouldn’t waste any energy on controlling information (that easily happens when we confuse organizational structures with communication networks); let every interested party in on the communication networks. Create a culture in which people can know and chime in on anything they want, a culture that welcomes open communication but does not confuse the decision making process (a culture that understands that while every perspective and opinion is valid, it may or may not ultimately impact every decision). 
Utilize both push and pull strategies for open organizational communication. It is not enough to have open-door policies that require people to ask (pull); we need to push information out. Furthermore, we need to archive that information so that it can be easily searched and referenced in the future. 
Open communication reduces churn not only because people know what is going on; it also is key in building trust.  

Personal Discipline 

Don’t Create Problems to Solve 
It seems that most every organization has someone who creates (or at least draws attention to) problems that only they can solve (or at least think they can solve). These are the ones who routinely make mountains out of mole hills, usually because they think they are uniquely suited to summit the mountain. They want the attention and sense of self-worth that comes from solving important problems, so they create important problems that they can publicly solve… all the while scooping up their colleagues in a whirlwind of churn. To reduce churn we need to resist being that kind of person, and we need to identify those who do this and redirect their energy. 
Don’t Short-Circuit The System For Expediency 
Bosses need to be especially vigilant in exercising this disciple. It is too easy to take matters into our own hands and just handle things ourselves. Even when we are right, we are wrong when we short-circuit the organizational structure for expediency (unless there is truly an emergency). It creates churn by both (1) sending folk scurrying in response and (2) disempowering folk for future decisions. I’m not saying that we need to stand idly by, hoping that the systems will work; we simply need to expend the little bit of energy to work the system. (What may seem like a little bit of churn for leaders can result in relieving a lot of churn for those deeper in the organization.) 

Leadership Discipline


Build a solid organizational structure and stick to it. If it doesn’t work, fix it until it does. And then work the system by delegating not only responsibility but authority and resources as well. Trust the decision makers closest to the situation, thus reducing the churn of always running up and down the chain of command. 
Don’t Underestimate The Impact Of Churn 
For a lot of people, the strongest root of stress is a feeling of powerlessness. That powerlessness often manifests itself as churn… and many leaders are oblivious to it. It is easy to be blind to the churn that occurs deeper in the system (whether we have any hand in causing it or not). Leaders can go a long way toward increasing workplace satisfaction (thus boosting productivity) by being churn busters… not only doing what they can personally to reduce churn, but building systems that minimize churn.