Workplace Culture

When ‘Agility’ Adopts the Symptoms of A.D.D.

By Staff Report

Jan. 13, 2012

Authors Teresa Amabile and Steven Kramer have coined a useful term: “strategic attention deficit disorder.”

It refers to leaders lurching from one priority to another in short order, and I suspect this morale-melting shortcoming is on the rise.

“We see too many top managers start and abandon initiatives so frequently that they appear to display a kind of attention deficit disorder (ADD) when it comes to strategy and tactics,” Amabile and Kramer write in the January issue of the McKinsey Quarterly. “They don’t allow sufficient time to discover whether initiatives are working, and they communicate insufficient rationales to their employees when they make strategic shifts.”

The authors say strategic attention deficit disorder—let’s just call it SADD—is one of several ways that leaders routinely “kill meaning at work.”

Have you had a manager with SADD? I worked at a media company where every few months we received a new directive. “Focus on consumer technology.” “Wait, let’s turn up the volume on our coverage of business technology.” “Whoops—back to consumer tech.”

The yoyo-ing eventually had reporters rolling our eyes. Amabile and Kramer make a similar point about what some call initiative fatigue: “If high-level leaders don’t appear to have their act together on exactly where the organization should be heading, it’s awfully difficult for the troops to maintain a strong sense of purpose.”

To be sure, companies need to have a degree of agility. The pace of business has increased. New competitors in many fields can appear almost overnight. Stock market volatility soared last year.

In response to the tumult, the mantra one hears most from executives and consultants these days is some variation on “innovate,” “change is the one constant,” “we must be nimble.”

But agility is overrated. In his newest book, Great by Choice, business researcher Jim Collins found that high-performing companies changed less in reaction to a radically changing world than other companies. “Just because your environment is rocked by dramatic change does not mean you should inflict radical change upon yourself,” Collins and co-author Morten T. Hansen write.

In fact, the best sort of agility for companies seems to be democratic, bottom-up change. That’s been the formula for success at India-based HCL Technologies, where employees have contributed valuable ideas in recent years.

Traci Fenton, the CEO of advisory firm WorldBlu makes the case that organizational democracy may lead to slower decision-making but overall change that’s just as fast as top-down dictates, because employees buy into the moves.

Edgy execs, take a deep breath. Be wary of SADD. It could make your workers, and ultimately all your stakeholders, sad.

Ed Frauenheim is senior editor at Workforce Management. To contact him, write to efrauenheim@workforce.com.

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