Insight Blog

How to Combat Organizational Swirl

by Eileen Koch

February 21, 2023 | How To...

There are many traits that a Project Manager must have in order to deliver value for their clients. Translating strategy to an executable plan. Identifying and engaging key stakeholders. Mitigating risks and managing issues. Communicating flawlessly with internal teams and external partners. Crafting project plans that plot a critical path to success. Being enough of a pain when following up with people without being too much of a pain. To name just a few. But the one trait that may eclipse all of those is a Project Manager’s ability to combat organizational swirl.

What is organizational swirl? It’s a noun that means “whirling confusion”. Sometimes it happens as an unintended consequence and sometimes it happens with intent by an individual or a whole team. Regardless, swirl creates noise and a force that blocks progress. The impacts to a team can be detrimental. And I’ve seen teams stuck in swirl for weeks or sometimes months. It is a real drain on team productivity and morale. Like any difficult conversation, the best way to combat swirl is to deal with it head on.

Specifically, here are some techniques to combat swirl:


Accept it – Swirl, like gossip, has no place on a highly effective team. But knowing that it will happen is no different than identifying it as a risk and then developing a mitigation plan for it. At Lake Shore Associates (LSA), we use two primary tools with this technique. 1) Develop a risk and issue log during the initiation phase of a project to identify any possible challenges or blockers (i.e., risks) that might pop up during the project. 2) Create a Stakeholder Matrix to identify everyone impacted by the project, what their engagement or resistance to the change might be and what we as Project Managers need to do to work with each individual stakeholder. Moving stakeholders from a place of resistance to adoption is critical for project success as well as benefits realization.


Call it out – Once a risk has materialized into an actual issue, it needs to be noted as such on the project issue log for everyone to see. Talking about it during executive updates and regular project meetings does two things: 1) Notifies everyone that the issue will be dealt with and not brushed under the rug and 2) Creates a path towards resolution so the project can remain on track. It’s important to discern if the issue is fact based or perception. Either way, it needs to be dealt with since perception is someone’s reality.


Make a decision – Swirl is oftentimes the result of a team’s inability to make a decision. We often tell our clients that any decision, even if it ends up being the wrong one, is better than no decision at all. Operating on a team where decisions are deferred and not made, promotes swirl. If people lack direction they will continue to speculate or even worse, try to campaign towards the old way of doing things. With a decision, people have something to react to and more importantly, it creates purpose and a path forward for individuals and teams. At LSA, we use RACIs or RAPID models to clearly define roles and responsibilities; especially identifying the individual with decision rights if the team is unable to arrive at a decision collectively.


Stick with the decision– We have a rule with our clients that we can’t revisit a decision unless new information has presented itself. Once we document a decision for the whole team to see, we channel that decision for all future work. When questions arise, we anchor to the decisions made by the project team. Of course, if an assumption has changed or a market condition has shifted, then the project team has earned the right to modify the decision if necessary. Otherwise, the surefire way to create swirl – is to continually revisit decisions. This creates project delays, increases cost, and causes project benefits to lag. Sometimes quite significantly to the point a project is cancelled.

Preventing swirl is difficult but combatting it is achievable. Combatting swirl can lead to the single most important productivity factor for the project and provide team members with a healthy environment in which to collaborate, innovate, and make decisions.

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