Dealing with OADD: Organizational Attention Deficit Disorder

How effective is your leadership team?

I recently had a small epiphany (or as one of my mentors used to say, “a blinding glimpse of the obvious”).

I was with a small leadership team working through their transformation agenda (purpose, vision, and strategy). They were grappling with why some elements of their transformation were working well, and others not so much.

One of the leaders noted that the organization had made great strides in overhauling their operating model because, as a leadership team, they dedicated two hours each week to the subject. The areas where they were struggling had zero time allotted. Perhaps there was a connection. There it was! The blinding glimpse of the obvious.

Let’s call it organizational attention deficit disorder: a failure to align leadership attention with organizational priorities.

Organizational attention deficit disorder: a failure to align leadership attention with organizational priorities.

When leaders don’t actively pay attention to an important enterprise issue, you find organizational confusion or stagnation. When leaders do not design rituals and practices to embody the kinds of behaviors they are requesting of their own organization, those same leaders are seen as either ignorant or hypocritical, stating as a priority something they don’t prioritize themselves.

If innovation is a priority, for example, how does your leadership team set a regular rhythm of check-ins to report on progress and hold each other accountable? How do you design rituals to get your team out of the building on a regular basis to learn from others at the edges of innovation? How do you create practices to infuse your leadership with the kind of behaviors that foster an innovation mindset?

Almost anything that rises to the level of an organization-wide priority is worthy of having structured time and rituals designed to ensure that priority gets the attention it needs.

In my experience, Organizational ADD is primarily a matter of inertia. Leadership teams are well-oiled machines when it comes to paying attention to business-as-usual. Leaders have spent years climbing up the ladder by accruing experience on “the way it works around here.” They are insulated from the outside world, and reality is defined by what takes place “in the building.” Or worse, leaders draw an even tighter circle around their exposure, and reality comes to be defined by what they hear in the boardroom. It’s why you find so many boardrooms are the last place to get the news flash that times have changed, or why leaders are referred to as “crusty old dinosaurs” in hallway conversations.

The cure, as indicated above, is to intentionally design your leadership meeting agendas AND rituals to reflect the priorities you have set for your organization.

The cure, as indicated above, is to intentionally design your leadership meeting agendas AND rituals to reflect the priorities you have set for your organization. In the case of the leadership team above, one of the gaps was related to being “customer centric” — a term often used, seldom practiced. In response we created a monthly ritual for them to head out into the world together on a set of “seeing tours” — each tailored to answer specific questions they have. On the tours they would directly interact with their customers in the market and take in shared learnings. These learnings would then be packaged and distributed for staff to benefit from — and to set an example of leadership “walking the talk.” Top leadership was paying attention to their customers and serving as a kind of insights group for the rest of the organization. Simple but effective.

There is a saying that you can only manage what you can measure. To this I would add a more important one: You can only manage what you pay attention to.


Joshua-Michéle Ross is a Principal at SYPartners, and passionate about finding new ways to unlock human potential and enable social transformation, innovation, and opportunity within business. Previously, Joshua was based in London as the global head of creative strategy for FleishmanHillard. He has been a guest lecturer at Harvard University and has appeared on NBC and CBS Evening News as a business commentator.