Is Your Company Mindful or ADD?

If companies were children, many would be on Ritalin. They operate in a hyper-frenzied manner that leads to distraction, a lack of consistent focus, and bad outcomes. In short, they behave as though they have attention deficit disorder (ADD).

Do you run an ADD company? Here’s a quick quiz:

  • Are people texting or checking email during meetings you attend?
  • When you talk to someone, is he or she doing something else?
  • When you call someone, do you hear them typing in the background?
  • Do you get conflicting messages from your company?
  • Does one memo stress that “sales is our top focus,” and then another criticize your team for not providing better service?

If you answered “yes” four or more times, your firm has ADD.

How is this different than a ten-year-old who can’t stay on task and sometimes speaks out inappropriately?

Think about a business that lists its new top three goals, but doesn’t change its compensation systems to reward people who accomplish those goals. Is that logical? Is it mature behavior? Is it much different than a student who claims he wants to get into a good college, but who can’t remember or finish his homework assignments?

If your goal were to design a company for the specific purpose of encouraging ADD-like behavior among employees, you would do many of the things that routinely happen today in many firms:

Meetings would conflict with other meetings and other obligations
Employees would be overloaded with “urgent” but ultimately unimportant tasks
No time would be set aside for introspection or considered thought
Opinions would be given more weight than facts, and facts that are too hard to unearth (can you say “siloed databases?”) would be ignored
Forceful personalities would have more say than intelligent and creative ones
People would be promoted because they are fun or funny (i.e. their boss likes them), rather than because they focus well on what matters most
In contrast, let’s consider how a person behaves when he engages in “mindful” behavior. Jon Kabat-Zinn wrote in Wherever You Go, There You Are that, “Mindfulness means paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally. This kind of attention nurtures greater awareness, clarity, and acceptance of present-moment reality.”

A person in this state does one thing at a time. He not only observes carefully, but also notices small details. He can observe reality for what it is, rather than being blinded by his own opinions and preconceptions.

Many artists and athletes strive to be mindful, because it can lead to flashes of insight and to those “flow” moments in which you are so absorbed in what you are doing that your performance rises to extraordinary levels. I play squash – badly – and during most games I swipe at the ball in a rushed manner. But there are occasional matches in which time seems to move more slowly for me, and I can see both the ball and my opponent’s position more clearly. It becomes easy to beat the person who swept eight games in a row from me the night before.

Comparing mindfulness on an individual level to that of a mindful corporate culture is fraught with difficulties. On an individual level, it involves meditation and an attempt to get past the often-foggy perspective of our normal waking state. It sometimes involves doing nothing at all. It can be the furthest thing in the world from a bunch of people working together to make money.

But at the core of mindfulness may be an idea essential for the success of a business competing in today’s volatile and often-confusing environment. That is the ability to focus intently on what is happening right here, right now.

Look around your organization. Are people dealing with reality? Does your boss really understand what you are doing? Are your subordinates shocked by the way you evaluate their performance? Do people have diametrically opposed views on what your group need do to succeed? In many organizations, this is exactly what happens.

People appear deluded, because they are. On a day-to-day basis, they see what’s happening through a lens clouded by their own ambitions, circumstances, goals and marching orders. In many companies, it is simply impossible to speak the truth. (Try saying, “Face it, we stink at this” to your CEO.)

Being deluded can work in the short run, and the short run can last years. But the more competitive and volatile your marketplace, and less likely this practice will work in your favor.

So what would being mindful mean on a corporate level? No, a Mindful Company wouldn’t have to burn incense in the company cafeteria and have daily meditation breaks (although the latter wouldn’t hurt.) It would represent a giant step forward for such a company to simply minimize the time spent being distracted by… nearly everything… and to maximize the time team members are intently focused on one thing at a time.

Being a Mindful Company means changing the values of a company and its management to insist that all employees deal with reality, speak – and accept – the truth, and abandon distraction in favor of focus.

This is no small task.

The dirty little secret of mindfulness is that it is incredibly difficult. You either practice every day, or you end up just as distracted and disjointed as everyone else.

In the right time and industry, ADD-like behavior can serve companies well. In its heyday, Microsoft was a highly successful ADD company. Its practice was to be fast, not necessarily coherent or high quality. The firm was famous for half-baked product releases that grabbed market share even as they frustrated users. But as long as the market rewarded Microsoft for speed, it had no reason to change.

But we are entering a time in which there are no clear or obvious paths to success. Digital innovations are destroying old business models without highlighting obvious successors. The music, media and publishing industries are in disarray. Bricks and mortar retailers are under attack by fickle price-checking consumers armed with smartphones. Hundreds of thousands of apps are flooding the market, many developed by teams that don’t even qualify as “companies.” Innovators are working for free, because they have no choice, because they seek or be rich, or both.

Even more importantly, data is everywhere. Every interaction through a digital device creates memories that can be accessed, analyzed, and leveraged. But thinking of this as “data” obscures the magnitude of that change underway. Data is an abstract term. It’s too fuzzy.

The truth is everywhere

Yes, all this data serves to reveal the truth:

  • How does our firm actually make money?
  • What do customers really want?
  • Where are we investing in services no one uses?
  • Which customers are profitable, and which not?
  • What does an employee really do with her time?
  • What specifically was said in that meeting last Tuesday?
  • How many people read our annual report?

Have you ever told your boss, “I had a client meeting,” when you actually were at the gym? We are getting closer to the day when your phone, security card or GPS is going to tell on you when lie like that.

That’s the bad news. The good news is we won’t have to keep guessing about what works and why. We’ll be able to break down the data to understand the truth. Sure, this may take a few years longer than software vendors claim. But the change is coming.

There is, however, a huge catch. You can’t see the truth if you are too distracted to notice, or too opinionated to accept it.

Work smarter, not harder

Keep your nose to the grindstone in today’s market and you will not only end up with a short nose, but you will also be run over by your competitors. Hard work towards the wrong end is futile. Since there are no clear paths to success (yet), you need to apply intelligence to the countless developments and surprises that rise up each week.

You need to be smarter than your competitors.

Distraction doesn’t lead to smart behavior. Quite the contrary, it leads to a convoluted, often random path. The ADD-like behavior that drives many firms is flat-out wrong for our times. Far too many executives have their heads in the sand, choosing to ignore disruptive technologies that are all but certain to render their current business model unworkable within a few years.

It is dangerous and immature to make million dollar decisions by the seat of your pants. It is foolhardy to invite a researcher, contentious manager or other employee in to brief you, only to miss every other word they say simply because some random person texted you three times.

Investors shouldn’t tolerate distracted behavior, and neither should customers. You can see the results everywhere: phone systems, ATMs, new products, product packaging, offensive ads… all of which look like they were designed by a hyperactive ten-year-old rather than a thoughtful professional process.

Above all, employees should revolt against ADD corporate cultures. They cause incredible amounts of stress, put immense pressures on marriages and families, and ultimately undercut the financial security of all involved. “Work like a dog, and then fail” ought to be the mantra of ADD firms, because that’s where they are headed.

The case for the Mindful Company

Let’s consider the alternative: an organization that focuses close to all its energy on what matters most. Such a firm can recognize the reality of most situations and adapt to that reality. It will be smarter together than any of its members is on their own.

Such an organization would need a culture that encourages, enables and rewards mindful behavior. It needs leaders who behave mindfully, metrics and reward systems that reinforce this type of behavior, and also the ability to state with clarity why mindful behavior will lead to success.

There are many benefits to living in a free society with a free market. Every year, a flood of new products and services reach the market. We get to experiment, try new things, and share our feedback with others. But as a result, we are surrounded by so many toys and tools that they can become the focus, rather than what really matters to our success. It even can be hard to keep in mind what success means.

The paradox is that even as we acquire the resources to take amazing steps forward, our organizations become so perennially distracted and unfocused that they can fail to even recognize the opportunities – and obstacles – at hand.

A Mindful Company will recognize that it takes constant work to replace mindless urgency with mindful clarity. There aren’t many such firms yet, which is why becoming one holds such immense promise.

Please take the six principles below with a grain of salt. They represent a starting point, nothing more. You should question them, just as you should question every other thing that competes for your time, attention and focus.


1. Avoid blinders
If you adopt the idea of a Mindful Company, please don’t be bound by any set of principles, including these. Otherwise, you risk blinding yourself to the truth of your organization, industry and environment.

2. Single-minded focus
Create a culture that values and rewards focus on what is happening right here, right now. Whatever the task, your firm should help employees focus 100% of their attention and energies on it. This principle has many implications. It may lead to shorter meetings, and more frequent breaks, so that employees can attend to other obligations – also with 100% of their focus. It will likely demand a higher quality of work, and a more rigorous thought process. If you go into a meeting with a stack of reports you barely understand, that won’t cut it in a mindful corporate culture; such behavior reveals 10% of your energy, not 100%. And if you’re in the room physically, you need to be in the room mentally.

3. Be accurate
Toss corporate bluster out the window. “We’re the best!” has no place in a discussion that reveals your team to be third in sales, fourth in service, and tenth in R&D. Accuracy means confronting the truth, being determined to obtain the actual facts, and being able to accept even information that threatens the very foundations of what you are trying to achieve.

4. Be tolerant
Don’t force others, even your employees or subordinates, to adopt your views. Respect the right of others to be different and to choose what to believe and how to decide. If you fear this might lead to chaos and disorganization, think again. By fostering a diverse set of opinions and including a diverse set of skills, you are likely to reduce risk and produce far better decisions.

5. Minimize suffering
Literally make life easier for customers, employees, partners and other people your organization touches. Doing so leads others to make a stronger commitment to the relationship they have with your organization, and that increases the chances that your efforts will prove both sustainable and profitable.

6. Communicate openly and truthfully
Remember, the truth will come out. In a 24/7 interconnected world, any attempts to obscure or distort the truth will come back to bite you. Instead, be a leader in the practice of open, honest and clear communications.

© Radius 1 Consulting GmbH