Monday, March 19, 2018

We Feed Our Own Whirlwinds

We had Chris McChesney speak at my association's Annual Conference a few weeks back. If you don't know who that is, he's one of the authors of The Four Disciplines of Execution, also know as 4DX. If you don't know what that is, it's a book that describes a simple yet compelling system for getting an organization to focus on and achieve the wildly important. I've written about the book and my own organization's experiments with it many times on this blog.

Chris was well-received by my members. I had read the book, and had heard him speak at another event I had attended, so I can't say that I learned anything new from his presentation. But it did help reinforce some of 4DX's core messages and mechanisms and, in one case, give me a fresh perspective.

I'm talking about the whirlwind -- the label that 4DX places on all the day-to-day things that people in an organization must do to keep the organization functioning, and which usually get in the way of achieving what's wildly important. One of the things that I like about 4DX is that it doesn't necessarily paint the whirlwind as something destructive or dangerous (despite all the tornado imagery that the term automatically brings to mind). The tasks that comprise the whirlwind are not bad things to be doing, nor are they simply busywork. They are necessary and important. They keep the lights on and the revenue rolling in. They are, however, demanding and time-consuming. In the eternal battle between the urgent and the important, the whirlwind in the urgent.

4DX doesn't tell you to do anything different with the whirlwind. Indeed, the whole system is premised on the idea that each individual in the system can commit themselves to just one important thing in addition to the urgent reality of their whirlwind. But isn't there, in fact, something that can be done about the whirlwind itself? Isn't there a way to reduce the number of things that are in the whirlwind and which chronically demand the organization's attention?

I believe there is. Because, as I talked with members and staff after McChesney's presentation, I realized that not all of them faced the same kind of whirlwind as I one I just described. Their whirlwinds, to hear their descriptions, were filled with busywork and unimportant things. Tasks that were not connected to the smooth functioning of their operations. Tasks that were really little more than distractions from the urgent as well as the important.

Why? I wondered. Why would people allow their time to be filled with tasks that served neither the short nor the long term success of their organizations? Who was putting these tasks on their plates? Who or what was compelling them to attend to them?

The answer, time and again, was simply that they themselves were the ones responsible. Exploring the concept with several folks after McChesney's presentation revealed to me that they either didn't know what tasks -- urgent or important -- were connected to their success (and therefore took a kind of scatter gun approach to their work, hoping to hit at least some of the things that mattered), or that they lacked the organizational skills and discipline necessary to truly separate the wheat from the chaff. Only in a tiny set of circumstances could it be said that some external force -- a boss, a customer, a vendor -- was compelling them to do something they knew was counterproductive to their success.

This was a bit of a revelation for me. None of us choose to live in our whirlwind. But some of us, evidently, feed the frenzy of our whirlwind with our own habits and behaviors. 4DX is not going to help us in taming this tendency. But if we could, it seems o me, focusing on 4DX's wildly important would probably be just that much easier.

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This post first appeared on Eric Lanke's blog, an association executive and author. You can follow him on Twitter @ericlanke or contact him at

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