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.

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