Some time ago I gave a talk in the US, as the event had to do with sustainability and leadership, I spoke about a continuum from the ‘disaster waiting to happen’ or being ‘suspended’ to having a good chance of sustaining an organisation’s existence for a long time.

I have looked inside large and small organisations and pondered on their DNA. What makes one company so much fun to work in and another a drag? While there are research and other documents out there [Collins and Porras: “Built to Last” as an example], this is based on my own experience and an image I found and altered when preparing for the talk.

In business one disease to avoid above all else is the “Spiral of Horror”. If you are within an organisation, which displays the symptoms of this difficult, but not wholly incurable, disease, I suggest you take a long hard look at the impact it has on you. After all, life is short and your humanity is precious.

Any and all resemblance to any one organisation I may or may not have worked for/in/on is purely coincidental. Most organisations display some of the symptoms and fight really hard against some of them.

Before I get to the symptoms, here are the key areas causing the symptoms, all a part of how a company acts:

  1. Disclosure: How it shares news [despite share market issues if public]?
  2. Relationships: How it engages with others? With what mindset?
  3. Issues: How it embraces changing environment and context?
  4. Structure: How it views ‘organisation’ and ‘ecosystem’?
  5. Leadership: How it enables thinking and acting?
  6. Intent: How it takes responsibility to delight?
  7. Doing good: How it enacts with purpose, for humanity’s benefit?

Sustained or suspended?

If a company chooses to act without care in all seven areas, the company should expect to have the following kinds of issues:

  1. Disclosure: Lack of trust => leads to loss of stakeholders, digging dirt
  2. Relationships: Lack of ‘us’ => 2 wolves and 1 sheep: “what’s for dinner”
  3. Issues: Lack of flexibility => “why didn’t we do that?”
  4. Structure: Lack of life => poor use of skills, margins centre stage
  5. Leadership: Lack of facilitation => helping or paying lip service to people
  6. Intent: Lack of inner drive => doing the bare minimum, just comply
  7. Doing good: Lack of value to humanity => no sense of purpose, creating jobs is not it, cause in the end it is that mentality that leads to less jobs

The consequences of “Spiral of Horror” are dire. At worst the patient will die. If the symptoms are diagnosed correctly and early there are mental and physical exercises to avoid the worst.

Here are some of the symptoms of the “Spiral of Horror”?

  • Embarrassing revelations: caused by shame or total lack thereof, not dealing with it early
  • Late notice of difficulty: belief in ability to overcome before noticed
  • ‘Take’ mindset with ecosystem: ‘only the paranoid will survive’
  • Narcissistic behaviour is rewarded: “a personality that pushes, at least pushes”
  • Going for ‘kill’: language and behaviour is very militaristic and win at any cost
  • Not listening: talking too much or making too few higher ground decisions
  • Masking with change: any change is better than what we had [most reorganisations]
  • Allergies to concepts/ language: right time for allergies: then time for sensitising
  • Partitioned firmly in ‘units’: with long time teams and roles, ‘us’ and ‘them’
  • Scarcity minded: no creative way forward [let’s cut people]
  • Ego gets in the way: objecting delivered and received as a personal attack
  • Low ability to discover roots causes: taking the short term, ‘easy way out’
  • Challenging without constructing: fear of showing weakness
  • Focus on defined competition: “no one was ever fired for saying no”, risk avoidance
  • New ideas to delight people ignored for reasons of ‘operations’: ‘competition’ or ‘market’ not challenging enough
  • Sticking with the knitting, even when yarn has run out: focus is good but not when it is time to change
  • Humanity not in brand, CSR, process: lacklustre, no shine, no radiance, no pull

Here we are at the bottom of the Spiral of Horror and we wonder: “Can this soul be salvaged?”

These are the matching set of means to climb up that helix to peak performance with Spiral of Delight

  1. Be transparent => We all have issues, catch the stuff that you would be embarrassed to shout from roof tops early and the rest, shout it
  2. Engage ecosystem  => Well before need to go out and sell stuff
  3. Define purpose => What do you stand for exactly?
  4. Think all of business  => Everything impacts on everything
  5. Think and act ahead  => Don’t wait for trouble, create your own
  6. Dare to be market creative => The answer is in the in-between spaces
  7. Seek game changing opportunities => Mostly means huge jump in meaningfulness and profit

Wouldn’t it be nice if we humans could get ourselves out of the way of good things, see the mutability of our success, feel the breeze of change, hear the warning bells and touch the essence of sustainability – act with others and ahead of must and in the direction of pleasure for the people that engage with us.

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