A Culture of Organizational Attention Deficit Disorder
Our story begins on an ordinary day in the life of Michael, a communication company
sales executive. Michael stormed into his office somewhat late in the morning. A few moments earlier John had intercepted him at the building's entrance and gave him advanced warning that a major client was furious because a shipment was late. Diana, a Service executive, had grabbed him as he was going up the stairs and asked him to urgently send her the report on discontinued clients she had been waiting for all week. Michael's main assignment this morning was to complete the quarterly sales and bonus report for the marketing executive. He sat at his desk and delegated the dealing with the angry client to David, a member of his team. When he opened his e-mails, he discovered 87 new ones that had piled up the previous night and began to go over them. He answered some, put others off for later and deleted the rest. After an hour, he finished his e- mails and moved on to the voice messages. He found 8 new ones. Three were "crisis messages". He took immediate action on the 3 urgent calls and left the others for later.
It was 11:30 AM when he finally sat down and began working on the quarterly sales report. A few minutes had gone by when David came rushing in, saying the angry client was continuing to rage, and the problem was getting bigger. Michael left the report and immediately and efficiently dealt with the client, putting out the fire. Eventually he got back to his report only to discover 8 new mails. 3 demanded immediate action. He answered them and then returned to the report. While doing so, he received a phone call from the Credit Department demanding he take care of a certain bill which had not been paid in time. He answered quickly and managed to clear it all up just before receiving a text message from the marketing executive asking for an update on the products in stock. He replied and returned again to his report. But no sooner had he done so, when he received a cellular call from the Service Center, where a certain problem had developed. After solving that problem, he remembered the report. Just then Diana walked into the room asking for the report he had promised her. He managed to get rid of her with a partial answer and again sat down trying to finish the report.
While doing so, he discovered 6 new messages on his MESSENGER, all requiring immediate response. Michael felt he was in a good pace dealing with urgent matters, and so he decided to finish the report that night at home, as he often did, when everyone would be in bed and he would have some quiet time to himself.
Does this vignette seem far-fetched? More and more people working in organizations are functioning like this. This way of working is described in vocabulary common in today's executive world – MULTI TASKING, SAME TIME, TOTAL AVAILABILITY, MATRIX MANAGEMENT, etc. Most of these words are attempts to describe positively the fast-paced way of life characterizing much of today's working world.
For Michael to perform well at his job he needs to develop or to have originally had some degree of A.D.D or even A.D.H.D. He is required to jump quickly from one focal point to another. He cannot spend too much time on any one topic. He needs to deal with a wide range of subjects, some more important, some less.
- Attention Deficit Disorder – Someone with A.D.H.D. or A.D.D. cannot pay attention for long periods of time. Nor can they take in stimuli which are not at the center of their attention.
- Hyper-activity – Someone with A.D.H.D. tends to be over-active. In adults, this is mostly expressed in restlessness. There is not restlessness in cases with A.D.D.
How have we come to a situation in which an employee is required to have a certain level of A.D.D. to perform well in an organization? Is this an inevitable evolutionary development?
How is it that an organizational culture supporting A.D.D. has developed?
The answers to these questions can be found in several developments that have taken place over the last decade, the ever-expanding effects of which have attracted little attention:
a. The development of improved means of communication that enable more and more availability in any moment or situation. Modern technology – mobile phones, IM and emails in particular – has exacerbated the phenomenon.
b. Strong marketing and selling campaigns by the companies who sell these communication services, targeting consumers when they are still at a very young age
c. Endless amounts of information passed along without any distinction between levels of importance or urgency. This information demands constant checking, attention and response without any discrimination between what is more important and what is less.
d. An ideological, nearly "religious", adherence to a basic norm of total availability throughout the organization, from top to bottom.
e. The concepts of open interfacing and total availability in communication are more important than individual activity and personal work.
f. The development of an OPEN SPACE CULTURE, in which each person is approachable at any given moment. The Open Space is appropriate to cultures in which there is a high level of territorial respect for the other's space and privacy. It is less useful to Mediterranean or Latin cultures.
g. Thus, a working culture has been developed that is based on total availability and a quick response. This has lead to endless distractions during every task performed by the employee, e.g. critical staff meetings, conferences with important clients and of course personal work activity.
h. The high level of distraction leads to constant context switches, which in turn leads to a loss of focus and memory. Australian studies documented a reset time of two and a half minutes after each one of the dozens of disruptions occurring as a task is being carried out.
i. The decrease in level of preparation and thinking in advance owing to a norm of total availability to other people, who expect immediate responses at any particular moment; e.g. a husband calls his wife from the supermarket asking for help with the shopping list he has not prepared in advance; an executive runs her staff around at the last minute because she did not prepare properly for an event.
j. Individual work needs are not respected in the work place and so work is brought home, to be completed over weekends or at nights. This is detrimental to family and personal life.
k. Addiction to the constant and invasive stimulation characterizing the work environment. This extends to vacation time and time at home. There is a lack of willingness to recognize the existence of another reality, one not characterized by constant invasive stimulation.
What are the consequences of these developments?
Just as in the story of Michael's stormy work life, more and more people are experiencing a severe lack of "work/life balance". They are paying a big price with long- term consequences.
People work for unreasonably long hours and quickly become burnt out. Level of productivity falls, particularly the ability to perform basic, long term assignments. Level of concentration and ability to carry out high level, continuous activities diminish. The main emphasis is on reaction speed alone. There is an endless dealing with CC's of emails and other kinds of multiple communication distribution.
This makes it necessary for many people working in organizations to handle irrelevant and time-consuming matters. Family life is affected by the hyper activity characterizing the working world. Communication with partners and children is also affected.
Where will we be in ten years if this trend continues?
If we do not see a change in this trend, in ten year's time we will find ourselves in a position in which people who have one of the many types of A.D.D. and A.D.H.D. will find work within organizations while those who need time and focus for themselves will move on to independent occupations or vanish altogether from the corporate world. The level of attention and concentration in the general population will severely drop. Work and private life will become totally enmeshed. Friends and family will become part of the organizational network and function as minor characters in the working world.
It is likely that many people will not be able to keep up with this fast pace and find themselves in lower-level jobs, left by the tracks as the rapid information train races ahead. The influence of the O/A.D.D. culture on family members and the younger generation will become even more evident than today, and family and private life will become more hyper-active and disrupted.
In line with the theory of dialectics, a counter trend has already started to evolve. It has begun with a movement to define clear boundaries in the working world. These boundaries are already being determined by directors and leaders who have become aware of the price being paid by organizations with O/A.D.D culture. There is a move towards blocking certain areas in the organization from communications from other areas and the outside. Areas designated for independent and private work are set and a wide range of technological methods have developed to facilitate this. This is the beginning of a process to screen the never-ending communication, designating specific working hours, times specific people are available and times they are not. In addition, it is quite likely that people will create new organizations that will purposely work in a slow and focused, non-pressured manner (such as the contemporary "slow towns" Movement in Europe).
Do we have now, at present, the ability to make choices regarding this issue?
We all have the ability to choose, and every choice we make has its consequences. One could choose not to be a part of an organization like the one Michael works in. This would be a choice based on an insightful, long term view of the damage caused by his way of functioning. But, it is nonetheless possible to significantly improve one's personal performance in chaotic systems such as Michael's without paying such a high price.
Tips for improvement in the short-term
a. Set up meetings with yourself
Set those meetings in the organizational calendar at your prime time (and these don't have to be in the evenings). These meetings should be devoted to your work on specific and clearly-defined matters rather than for organizational work in general. The meetings should be held in a place in which you are not approachable (perhaps in a meeting room or even coffee shop or cafeteria), and you should eliminate all possibility of contacting you during the course of those meetings.
b. Group several activities together
Try to engage in one kind of activity for a set period of time and avoid the on-going jumping over between all types of activities (Remember Michael?). For example, try and deal with incoming e-mails as a concentrated session every hour or two, taking into consideration of course the specific nature of your job. Make occasional session of out-going phone calls at specific times. Initiate periodic contacts with your team, and get members used to the fact that this is how you work.
c. Filter e-mails
Set rules in regard to your inbox mail so that you can sort out incoming information by origin and by degree of importance. Do not be tempted to deal with or answer unimportant or meaningless mail in order to avoid unnecessary build-up. Get people in the organization to reduce the amount of CC on their e-mails.
d. Screen communication activities
Clarify that during certain activities – staff meetings, meetings with clients, training activity - there are to be no incoming communications. Make sure that during these activities all participants shut down their communication tools. If it is a long activity, decide on breaks during which participants can receive and respond to messages. If there is critical information expected, leave open one channel of communication.
e. Reduce expectations
Accustom the various people who communicate with you – employees, clients and even family members – to a reasonable response time. If you establish the expectation that your response time during the day is within 2 – 3 hours, the amount of pressure on you to respond will diminish considerably.
f. Think before you act
Any response you make will generate additional activity. Any e-mail you send will activate additional systems. Any phone call you answer immediately will generate additional activity. So be selective in your response. Try to develop a default option of not responding immediately. During the time prior to your response, consider whether the subject is really the most important one for you to be dealing with at that moment. Think about the question you have been asked and make sure you are responding at that moment not just to get rid of the person but because it is indeed important to answer him/her quickly. Only after thinking these things through should you then decide to respond immediately, postpone your response or pass it on to someone else to deal with. This concept, while easy to articulate, is not so easy to implement. However, it will have a significant impact on your performance in the workplace.
g. Don't be a victim
This is most important. Do not become a victim of the system or to others in it who do not manage themselves well. Try to maintain functional autonomy while nonetheless respecting the system and its objectives. Try to establish areas of influence, even small ones, where you function well, relying on your own wisdom and judgment.
Tips for managers who seek to improve the chaotic environment in their organizations
a. Group several staff activities together
For example, establish certain hours specifically for meetings dealing with well-defined themes. Set up meeting-free days, and arrange to have several meetings in one day around topics that have logical connections with each other, such as a day for meetings just concerning international matters. Forbid e- mailing and phone calls during weekends.
b. Coordinate expectations
A response within a time frame of one to two hours is clearly reasonable in most organizational roles. Try to establish such a system of expectations in your organization and then live up to it. This applies for you no less than others, in staff relations and relations with clients.
c. Set a personal example
Do not demand from others what you cannot do yourself. Set a personal example of clear focus, response according to priority, preparation in advance and avoidance of unnecessary chatting on the various means of communication.
d. Restrain yourself
When you feel the need to respond immediately to a member of your group, stop and think. How critical is this subject? Is it the most important thing to do at that moment? Try to respect the time-needs of others, taking into consideration their priorities, particularly among your own staff.
e." Screen" block activities
Make sure that the meeting you run does not look like a "train station" but one that respects those present and their time requirements. There should not be any "comings and goings" or answering mails or messages either over" or "under the table" during your meetings."
f. Establish urgency codes based on reality
In your interface with other organizational areas, try to establish mutual agreed upon codes that prioritize urgency. These codes should be realistic in regards to the outcomes. For example, clarify three levels of BUSINESS IMPACT of matters being dealt with. Make sure that over time there is no artificial inflation of the level of urgency.
g. Try to develop a culture that balances independent personal work and work with organizational interfaces.
Encourage people to do independent self work in their prime time i.e mornings for most people even if this occurs during high-pressured hours. Create the spaces which are compatible for this. Try reducing the level of unnecessary e-mails and CC in your organization. Try to make productivity and results your main tool for evaluating effectiveness, rather than the amount of work hours
In conclusion – Systemic Organizational Thinking
There are respective implications for any particular development. Usually we experience these implications only after the passage of time, e.g. the invention of the car and its subsequent effect on air pollution, the invention of fast food and its negative effect on weight and general health, the over-use of antibiotics and its negative effect on the resilience of germs and the contribution of this practice to the evolution of new species of antibiotic-resistant germs. Foreseeing the implications of particular developments and steps is called "systematic thinking". It is a way of thought that takes into consideration all possible outcomes to any particular step, desirable or not. It focuses on the positive aspects of a particular development and minimizes the unwanted side effects.
Fast and over-available communication has its positive implications for the level of service, responsiveness in emergency situations and at times can even be life saving.
In this article I chose to focus on a trend, still in its early stage, towards certain negative developments in the organizational world, namely, a culture of A.D.D. or A.D.H.D.
I invite readers to think about and identify the existence of these phenomena in your working environment and to draw conclusions and make decisions about ways to improve performance.