Groping in the dark

Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD). It’s almost something of a buzzword these days. The best way to describe the symptoms is a ‘storm in your head’, which makes it very difficult to stay focused.

I ran across this term in a completely different context: Strategic ADD, which stands for the inability of organisations to stay focused on the same goals and priorities for a longer period of time. Harvard professor Teresa Amabile used this great analogy in her contribution to McKinsey Quarterly: ‘How leaders kill meaning at work’. Her study shows that making progress in meaningful work is the main motivator for people in their jobs. In many organisations people experience the opposite. Work life feels like a foggy night, with them groping around for meaning and never knowing if their toils lead to anything.

The importance of focus

Lack of focus turns out to be the main cause of the ‘foggy night experience’. After all, don’t we all prefer to work with clear goals that we can realise step by step? In that ideal situation everyone knows exactly what their role and added value in the general process is. With colleagues working towards the same goals, teamwork is excellent. By consistently prioritising the same things for a longer time they make progress and see the concrete results of their efforts. Organisations that manage to create such a focus are shown to perform best.

Amabile argues that creating focus is primarily the responsibility of top management. I have found that managers often underestimate that role, and are unaware that their organisation suffers from strategic ADD. In their position at the top they tend to think the goals and priorities are clear to everyone. But further down the ladder people don’t see the whole picture. They have to deal with an exponentially higher number of objectives and priorities, which all seem out of context. And that’s a shame, because managers are in an ideal position to create focus in the organisation. Time for a test.

The ADD test: How focused is your organisation?

  1. Does your organisation have a clear ambition? Is it an ambition that inspires your people? Or is it an abstract management ambition?
  2. Does your organisation have clear priorities? I am not referring to your strategic priorities here, such as cutting costs or improving processes. What I mean is the two or three specific things you want your people to focus their time and energy on.
  3. Is your senior management really on the same page when it comes to priorities? Or do employees in different business units get different messages about what is important?
  4. Do you and your team manage to stick to these few priorities for a longer period of time (several years)? Or do new goals and initiatives get added constantly because they are also important?
  5. Is there any consistency between your priorities and what people actually see happening in the organisation? The choices you make? The investments you make? The people who get promoted? The projects that matter? The projects you terminate because they are not in line with the priorities?
  6. Do you manage to show concrete progress in realising your ambition? Do employees notice that you are becoming more specific each time you discuss it? Or are you still talking in general strategic-plan statements after two years, like ‘we are going to place the customer at the centre of our attention’?
  7. Do you officially wrap up the implementation of the strategic plan? Or does one strategy peter out – usually after a change of management – to be replaced by the next?

If the answer to several of these questions is no, then chances are your employees, too, are groping in the dark. Which means it is high time to take action and work on focus!