PM Articles > Geof Lory > FAD and the ADHD Organization

FAD and the ADHD Organization

by Geof Lory

When my daughters were in grade school I went with them on a weeklong field trip up north as a parent chaperone. All parents were assigned to monitor a cabin of either male or female students as well as facilitate exercises and other administrative functions throughout the week. It was a great experience for my daughters and me. We all learned about wilderness survival and some of the less-than-traditional education you can only get away from the hustle and bustle of the city.

It was on this trip that I had my first exposure to the proliferation of Attention-Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) in children. Growing up in a small town in the 60s, this was not something I had seen. Every day at camp, at a prescribed time, there was an announcement over the PA system. Any child who had a prescription drug (for ADHD or any other condition) was required to come to the makeshift infirmary. It was my job to dispense the proper drugs to the correct student. I was surprised by the number of kids that were getting Ritalin for their ADHD.

Since that time, I have paid greater attention to this in my daughters' friends as well as in teammates and coworkers. It seems to be increasingly common. I don't mean to make light of the impact of ADHD on a child's development and learning, but rather point out that many of the symptoms and behaviors of ADHD that affect the maturation of a child can also affect the performance and productivity of an organization. Like ADHD, recognizing and understanding the disorder can help address it.

Add to this generation—already well versed in ADHD—the ubiquity of cell phones, IM, texting, email, conference calls, and the expectation of 24/7 availability and you get an environment ripe for a related form of attention deficit: Fractional Attention Disorder (FAD). FAD is a syndrome characterized by a persistent pattern of short periods of attention without the ability to block out intermittent stimuli that cause distraction or to stay focused for an extended timeframe. FAD can be externally or environmentally induced by outside stimuli, or internally induced through a lack of ability to focus.

I've worked at organizations where it was not uncommon to witness someone interacting and reacting simultaneously through three to five different communication mediums. These people think they're multi-tasking, but they're really fast-caching; while they are doing one thing they are NOT doing the others. At any given moment their attention—and therefore the communication connection—is in flux, ramping up or ramping down, but not fully engaged. The more people in this mode, the less likely everyone is engaged on the same thing at the same time. Result: communication breakdown.

You've seen it: Your manager checking his/her Blackberry as you are asking a critical question. The need to respond to a text message, especially if it is that "special ring tone." That person who is irritated because they can't get a wireless connection in the meeting room when they don't even need their PC for the meeting. I want to grab them by the shoulders, forcing them to look me directly in the eyes, and say, "Stay with me for another minute, you can do it, you can, it's not that hard!"

I have a private office in my house and I occasionally work from home because I can do everything I can do at my client site except physically be with the team. The lack of external interruptions allows for greater productivity, especially on tasks that require concentration for extended periods of time. Sprinkled throughout the day are also the inevitable conference calls and email. I have a glass panel door I can close to shut out the noise and distractions. Growing up, the girls knew that if they were looking for Dad, the first place to look was in the office. When they would come home from school, it was not uncommon for them to knock on the door, or even burst into the office demanding my attention.

I used to put the phone on mute or continue answering emails while they explained the trauma or excitement du jour, until I got caught. In the middle of my inattentive "uh huh, uh huhs" Erika said, "Dad, are you paying attention to me?" Before I could answer, she stormed out of the room because she knew the truth. I had marginalized her, and she could feel it.

With so many demands on our time at any given time, it is challenging to manage the multiple priorities. We can easily justify our FAD. I don't want my daughters to feel that my work is more important than they are, but I also make commitments to clients and I want my daughters to understand the obligation and commitment that comes with work. The line is not that black and white, but trying to attend to both simultaneously just does a disservice to my daughters and my clients. It got me thinking that maybe my clients or team members were feeling the same way about my behavior.

So, here is what we settled on. The girls agreed to ask a simple question when they found me in the office: "Dad, are you in the middle of something?" If not, they got me 100%; otherwise I would say, "Let me finish this so I can give you my undivided attention." They would impatiently wait, if it was important enough to them, after which time I would push my chair away from my desk, turn away from the monitor and give them 100% of my attention.

This is not just a simple time management trick; it is a powerful leadership practice. I now do the same thing at work. When someone stops in at the opening of my cube and has a quick question, I ask if they can hold for just a second while I finish what I'm in the middle of because I want to give them my undivided attention. The message I'm sending is, "Our interaction matters, you matter, your ideas matter, and right now nothing is more important than listening to what you have to say." In an ADHD/FAD world, imagine the power of that.

At the past three companies I have consulted at, the addiction to these methods of distraction was so systemic it created an overall ADHD culture. (I define culture simply as the things most of the people do most of the time.) It was common behavior to answer emails while holding a conversation, text during meetings or IM while on conference calls—to the other people on the same call, no less. No one found these behaviors odd, except me.

We often hear that as project managers we need to maintain our cool in the chaos of the project, yet the frenetic FAD behavior encouraged by an ADHD culture works against that. Many PMs believe their ability to fast-cache is one of their essential assets, but I disagree. Being 100% present is critical to optimal communication, and optimizing communication is critical to the success of every project.

In all three of these companies we were implementing Agile methodologies. While this is not easy in any organization, the known predisposition to FAD presented some special challenges. Unfortunately, we didn't have the opportunity to give the company one big dose of Ritalin, but we did have to take the ADHD culture into consideration. This resulted in some creative and courageous tailoring of the Agile practices to fit their environment. In next month's article, I'll dig into Implementing Agile in an ADHD organization and dealing with FAD behaviors. Until then, thanks for your undivided attention. It means a lot to me.

Related Links
Kimberly Wiefling wrote about Being Heard Above the Communication Blizzard and Cinda Voegtli shared her thoughts on communication lessons learned from the Girl Scouts. To get and keep the team's attention, make sure everyone understands why the meeting exists and consider management by walking around. Can't even get people in the door of the meeting room? Check out our burning questions for an answer.

Not all comments are posted. Posted comments are subject to editing for clarity and length.

100% with you!!!

I live in Peru, and all you say is happening now over here. It is very important to understand this simple concept. Everybody needs an undivided attention.

It's true if we need the 100% result

This is so true especially today with RIF's commonplace and the remaining people doing more than ever and not focusing on the things that matter, like employees first, the bottom line second and customers third.

Great observations.

In my old days ... this was called being impolite, and in meetings people might not have been emailing or SMSing but would dream looking thru the window or draw on their notepads. Not much difference, just that we haven't been role modeling this with our kids and we haven't told them off when they were responding by "huh, huh" to our questions while watching TV. So now that they are in meeting rooms, they watch their screens and respond "huh, huh" too without even realising it is so impolite.

Great Article. Your points are well made with respect to corporate environments and the working attitudes, especially within mixed projects.

Thanks for all the great responses. Seems I hit a common nerve with the ADHD theme.
BTW - When I wrote this article in September of 2010 we were doing budget planning for 2011. We still haven't begun executing on 2011 and it is February. The reason is every meeting the priorities change.

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