PM Articles > Geof Lory > Focusing the ADHD Organization

Focusing the ADHD Organization

by Geof Lory

In my last article, "FAD and the ADHD Organization," I wrote about the challenges of FAD (Fractional Attention Disorder) for teams in today's dynamic and frenetic project environments. Recognizing FAD behaviors in yourself and others is the first step toward getting in front of this challenge. However, we may see and recognize FAD behaviors in individuals while being totally oblivious to them in our larger work surroundings.

As a consultant, I work in many different organizations, and each has its own persona. This regular variety has increased my organizational awareness. Over the past decade, I have noticed an increase in ADHD behaviors at the organizational level. In companies where ADHD behaviors are tolerated—or even implicitly condoned—that tolerance can create an organizational predisposition that results in an overall ADHD culture. This culture can have a negative impact on the focus, communication, and efficiencies of project teams.

At their core, ADHD organizations lack focus and discipline, which results in a manic and unproductive, start-and-stop, zigzag rhythm to the culture. Here are four common ADHD behaviors I see when working with organizations to implement best practices for project management. After each one I've included some ADHD anti-patterns with suggested ways you can work to overcome these behaviors.

Lack of Focus – Multi-tasking

Multi-tasking is a myth, and the belief that people's time can be sliced and diced like vegetables for a project stew is foolish, as well as personally degrading. People are neither machines nor vegetables. Organizations tend to create work and then attempt to move people through it. Multi-tasking creates a large batch manufacturing approach to task management. That leaves an awful lot of work-in-process, with an overload of partially completed tasks on each team member's conveyor-belt desk. This common behavior is fertile soil for the seeds of ADHD.

ADHD organizations fail to recognize the cost in time required to change context. Studies have shown that simple interruptions like a phone call can cost as much as 15 minutes of recovery time. Shifting gears from project to project or team to team can rob substantially more time. The more complex the task or the larger the change in context, the more time it takes to make the shift, and the more productivity lost in the transition.

The ADHD anti-pattern : Try a more agile approach to work organization.

  • Instead of creating work and moving people through it, form committed teams of people focused on a small set of things at one time and move the work through them. This provides the focus necessary to counteract the urge to multi-task.
  • Ask for committed resources, or at least reduce the number of different assignments and plan for less than the allocated percentage utilization (velocity).
  • Whenever possible, keep all task shifting within the same project, where the change of context is minimized.
  • Focus on throughput, not activity. In the daily stand-ups, ask what was done, not what people did.

Hyperactivity in Plans, Processes and Priorities

Planning has a strong tie to multi-tasking, because in the process of planning we foolishly fractionalize the resources to make the plan work. Planning in an ADHD organization takes on a "who's on first" feeling. A plan is called for. A meeting is held to build or review the plan. The meeting adjourns and the plan subsequently atrophies because it was never created at a believable or actionable level—ADHD organizations lack the focus to sustain the mental effort required to create plans at that level. Even when they do pull it off, they lack the discipline to manage and monitor them to execution. So, within a short period of time, a re-planning meeting is called where the old plan is given a nod and a wink and a new plan is created. That plan too will eventually be ignored.

The same is true for processes. Whenever something goes wrong, the cry goes out that we need a process. So, a process is created with marginal consideration for reality, vaguely socialized, and quickly shunned because adoption of the process takes a level of patience and discipline the organization cannot emotionally endure. Like a plan, a process is of no value if you don't use it.

All this time spent on planning and designing processes leaves multiple people wasting a lot of effort doing the same work multiple times with nominal results. They are more apt to start something new than take the time to coordinate, integrate, or improve on what has been started. The ADHD organization's graveyard is littered with wonderful plans and processes, all victims of the latest shiny object.

The ADHD anti-pattern: Make it real.

  • Assure there is an owner of every process or plan and that they have the authority to take the action necessary to make them a reality.
  • Confirm explicit buy-in from all parties at actionable levels that can be empirically measured. Then, be ruthlessly pragmatic in using the plans or processes.
  • Use the iteration retrospective to review processes and their use and value. Take a continuous improvement approach instead of starting from scratch.

Inattention in Interactions – Listening and Being Present

The word dialogue comes from the Greek dia, which means through, and logos, which means word or meaning. Dialogue is about letting meaning flow through our words, hearing each other's words to gain new understanding, and finding shared meaning. In order to truly dialogue, we have to be present and listen with an intent to understand, without judgment. Be intentional with your attention. While dialogue should be at the heart of most meetings, they are usually a virtual menagerie of ADHD behaviors.

The next time you are in a meeting, keep your eyes open for the following behaviors:

  • People darting in and out as they handle "more important" issues.
  • Team members blurting out answers before questions have been completely asked, or not waiting their turn to talk.
  • Constant repetition of questions because the person asked was not paying attention.
  • Continuous checking of a mobile device for some other critical communication they need to respond to.
  • And (my favorite) attendees with the audacity to open their laptop and process their email while pretending to participate in the meeting—the ultimate socially acceptable multi-task.

But the challenges of being present are not restricted to meetings or caused only by technological distractions (although these are ever present). The inability to be fully present in a conversation centers on the inability to be where we are and do what we are doing, at the moment. It takes a lot of energy to be 100% present, and it is not easy to do. However, while we may find living in the present challenging, the past or the future is not a real option because we can't live in either one of them.

The ADHD anti-patterns: Wherever you are, be there, physically, emotionally and intellectually.

  • Listen actively and don't interrupt.
  • While someone else is talking, make an effort to maintain eye contact.
  • Practice pausing.
  • Ask questions. Instead of launching into solution mode, ask a question. Your genuine interest will make your co-worker feel attended to and appreciated.
  • Echo or request a repeat. Don't be afraid to ask the person to repeat himself.
  • Consider yourself the student and the other person the teacher. You will be surprised by the level of connection it creates.

ADHD Excuse – Busy as a Badge of Honor

I'm not sure why, but somehow being overburdened with too much on your plate has become a source of pride rather than being seen for what it truly is: poor time management. An ADHD environment supports the misbelief that activity equals progress. What it really does is create a high-anxiety environment. High anxiety feeds the vicious cycle and can suck the whole team into the negative vortex. If team members like to wear their busyness as a badge of honor, maybe labeling it as anxiety-producing behavior can turn that shining badge into a scarlet letter.

While it seems counter-intuitive, if someone on the team is "too busy," taking work away from them will actually increase their productivity. It goes back to the multi-tasking issue. But this issue is not just about optimizing work. It's about fulfilling a need to feel like you are valued and making a contribution—the basic need to be needed.

The ADHD anti-pattern: Shift the focus from what they're doing to what's getting done.

  • Counter the behavior by taking work and moving it to other team members.
  • Exclude them from non-critical meetings they may feel a need to be a part of.
  • Force focus. Try to reduce their self-induced multi-tasking and focus them on singularity of throughput.
  • Mostly, let them know you are not impressed by their inability to manage their time effectively but you do recognize getting things done. Results speak louder than activities.

Stop, Look, Listen and Learn to Say NO

If these behaviors sound frightening familiar or even personal, you're not alone. Amongst the organizations I've worked with, most of them display many or all of these behaviors. If an organization like this were an individual, one might prescribe medication. Instead, experiment with the tools mentioned in the anti-patterns. Most of them are pretty common sense, except in an ADHD world.

The mantra I learned as a kid and I used with my daughters might be applicable here. Before rushing into a potentially dangerous situation like crossing a street, we were taught to Stop, Look, and Listen. This is wise advice for overcoming the "blindly jump in and continually change directions" nature of ADHD organizations. The little bit of time it takes to Stop, Look, and Listen can create the pause and awareness necessary to be present and stem the tide of ADHD behaviors in your organization.

In the next article we'll talk about two other critical anti-ADHD behaviors: Developing a contrarian mindset and learning to say NO, both part of courageous conversations. Until then, take time to Stop, Look, and Listen. It can be contagious.

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

Awesome article! I work in an environment where "priorities" can change by the minute, almost, and I've been fighting it for almost a year. This gives me some ideas to help keep my team focused and start getting to some real productivity! I may even turn this into a presentation for my management!

Sorry for the delay in response. I have been away from writing for a couple months and totally spaced looking at the blog.
Glad you enjoyed the article and maybe by now you have created that presentation for management. The question is did they stay focused long enough to hear what you said?

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