Becoming agile

Agile, through the storms

My name is Acme.com, and I have ADHD

I attended a conference on ADHD recently, and, while I discovered that probably I, too, suffer from some form of ADHD, it occurred to me that many organizations I work with, and worked at, also suffer from organizational ADHD.

What follows in this blog post is describing what is ADHD and some of its symptoms of ADHD in humans, their manifestation in organizations, and how agility may serve as a treatment.

To begin with, ADHD is not something you cure. It is something you learn to live with, sometimes to the extent that the well-being of the individual (or the organization) is not impacted by ADHD. At others, it is something one must be aware of, and accept its limitations and drawbacks. What more, there are some qualities that significantly define the population of individuals with ADHD – they are pleasers, keen to succeed, tend to be artistic and creative, and more. I wish to hypothesize the organizations with ADHD also have such collective qualities – but this will remain for further analysis.

A disclaimer

This blog post is what it is – a blog post. By no means does this even attempt to be a scientific work, nor is it based on extensive empirical data. It is based on my own experience, with my own subjective analysis, and lame insights.

The reader’s initial response is likely to be ‘surely not our organization’. And yet, let me share some of my thoughts following the conference. Please revisit your original thoughts after reading the entire post.

ADHD in Organizations and Potential Treatment

In this post I discuss Scrum as a potential treatment. If you like, Scrum to organizations is like Ritalin to humans. (I actually intended to have this as the title, and opted eventually to the existing one).


Photo by unfolded, source: http://www.flickr.com/photos/unfolded/3698543176/

ADHD is transparent

Transparent in humans

First and foremost, people (and children) suffering from ADHD do not know that they suffer from something. Anything. It is transparent. And by that I mean in several forms:

It is transparent in the sense that individuals suffering from ADHD commonly looks like any other person. Yes, they have some subjective difficulties that they try very hard to hide, so others will not think they are different or lesser than others. They try very hard to stay within boundaries – something they find incredibly hard. They do so because they want so badly to be good – and they are considered good children or person.

Transparent in organizations

Now let’s talk about organizations: If you think that your organization is potentially really good, and that you are trying very hard to keep it a good one, and you are convinced that other organizations are also the same – please read on. What comes next might also be relevant for you.

Note that I am not trying to say that something is wrong with your organization. It is transparent, remember? It is seen as a problem neither from the inside nor from the outside.

Scrum and Transparency

Scrum is about transparency. It is about taking empirical data relevant to your own organization, and using it to find out what your organization is really like.

Take, for example, this video (watch until about 16:00): http://youtu.be/IyNPeTn8fpo?t=13m33s

ADHD is about Attention Deficit

Attention deficit in humans

Individuals suffering from ADHD find it hard to stay focused – to maintain attention for long periods. That is, a child with ADHD can sit on the chair for hours on end doing homework. But in practice, within the first minute they run off the subject, moving to other things. Any disturbance – either external or internal will get them out of focus.

When reading a book, they will get stuck on the same line and read it again, and again, and again. If there’s a fly in the room, they will have to read the line again, because the noise distracts them. If they just recalled something that happened at school, they will need to read that line again.

Attention deficit in organizations

Take support for example: What do you do in your organization when a P1 support call comes in? Can the team still focus on existing requirement? Or do you turn to the P1? How about P2? How about a medium priority bug? How about when someone has a question to ask the team?

Often teams will work on multiple concurrent requirements, increasing the spread of effort and reducing the focus.

If this hits a chord, you might have organizational ADHD.

Scrum and attention deficit

Scrum provides a prescription of practices, aimed, among others, to focus the team frequently and effectively.

The team works in short sprints – preferably one week long, starting with a planning session – what will we do this week, and ending with a review – what have we accomplished.

In between the team will meet daily to plan together the daily tasks.

Scrum training and coaching also advocates focusing on few things during each day. Virtually every Scrum training graduate can quote the proverb “Stop Starting Start Finishing”.

ADHD interferes with organizing things

Organizing difficulty in individuals

Next, individuals suffering from ADHD find it very hard to organize themselves. They find it hard to maintain sequence of things, to make order of information, to focus on a single solution. Some individuals just can’t organize, and struggle with it frequently. Others find it helpful to organize meticulously, making sure, for example, that everything is prepared to the last detail in the evening to get it right in the morning. (For this reason, some individuals are wrongly diagnosed as suffering from OCD [Obsessive Compulsive Disorder] or only from OCD, while their obsession is secondary to the underlying ADHD). Treat the ADHD and the OCD will reduce or disappear altogether.

Organizing difficulty in organizations

Let’s get back to your organization. We already know that it is a very good one, and that you are trying very hard to keep it that way, despite the difficulties.

Do you find that your organization has difficulties to focus on things? To order the requirements correctly? To make sense of the right sequence to do things?

On the other hand, do you find that your organization is obsessed with planning, to get it absolutely right? Maybe even yourself? Maybe someone you work with? And do you, or colleagues, find it traumatic that things don’t go according to plans? And then you are disappointed that you did not plan well enough in advance?

Do you frequently find that integrations are hard? That deciding when to do the integrations is tough?

Have you experienced that prioritizing is particularly difficult? If you are working in a development team, did you ever find that deciding when to start testing your code is challenging? That in your team it is ‘easier’ to assign individuals work on one thing, and in practice everyone, or most, get eventually involved in everything, and that things then just don’t finish? Oh, oh, hold on to that thought – I am jumping ahead of myself. First let’s look back at Scrum.

Organizing difficulty and Scrum

Scrum prescribes two backlogs: The product backlog, and the sprint backlog.

Product backlog is intended for the upcoming 2-4 sprints, maybe the upcoming quarter.

Sprint backlog is intended for the upcoming sprint.

In both cases, Scrum prescribes to prioritize the backlog in ascending order. There will be no two items with the same priority.

This is hard to do, to begin with. And it is critical to having things organized such that the organization can focus better on what to do now and next.

ADHD and procrastination

Procrastination and individuals

Now that’s a real killer. A small confession: I mentioned that I recently attended a conference on ADHD. That was back in March. To be precise, it was on March 1st. The idea for this blog post was born that day. 77 days later I am finishing it up, with 76 days of zero progress on it.

As it turns, individuals that suffer from ADHD tend to procrastinate more than those who don’t. As a result, these individuals find themselves in a situation that they must start many things late. As a result of that, they find that they do not finish things.

For example, a person having ADHD condition might start to read several books in parallel, finishing only some, or none of them. Sometimes this person will only read the first few pages, and, although he or she really wants to read the book until the end, they cannot bring themselves to it.

Coming to the first point, that people with ADHD try very hard to be good, this puts them in an impossible situation: they simply cannot finish that book, and then they think that they are lazy and incompetent. Often, others will ‘helpfully’ tell them that they are lazy. Or incompetent. Or both.

Procrastination and organizations

Can you spot procrastination in your organization? Can you find that things are started and never get finished? That many things are being done in parallel, and few, or none, get really Done (and here’s a hint towards the Scrum treatment)?

And how do you feel about that? How do others make you feel about that? Do you think that, despite trying very hard to be really good, you feel that collectively you are lousy because you never or rarely finish things?

It is common to procrastinate in organizations – at the individual level, at the team level and at the greater circles as well.

Procrastination and Scrum

Scrum recommends defining a good Definition of Done, one that gets revisited now and again to reflect the changing maturity of the team. Done may mean finishing coding, or it may mean finishing coding and unit testing, or it may mean that Done is accepted by the customer.

Whatever the definition, the notion of Definition of Done provides the opportunity to realize whether collectively you are accumulating technical debt (that is, procrastinating), or not. Conversely, whether you are really finishing things off before moving on to the next ones.

ADHD and self-esteem

Self-esteem and individuals

As you may notice, there is a build-up of a vicious cycle that characterizes people suffering from ADHD. A person that has ADHD tends to be very critical of him/herself. Boys tend not to cry, and instead to come raging from school, and act it out instead of talk about it. Girls tend to cry it out in what seems to be hysteria.

It so emerges that these people tend to be more suicidal than others. Both in thoughts and in action.

Self-esteem and organizations

Back to your organization: Have you ever thought, or talked to someone that this place is going nowhere? That we are doomed? Does your organization tend to let-go of key individuals?

When things don’t go as you expected (and they never do) – do they get discussed? Or do they, instead, manifest in shouting, fighting, and other aggressive behaviors (a “boyish” organization)? Or do they manifest in whining about it, without actually talking about the real problems (a “girlish” organization)?

Self-esteem and Scrum

There are very few measurements I advocate. I can most likely make you discard any measurement you come up with by proving how it can be gamed, either consciously or not.

One indication that does help indirectly is a “fun-o-meter” – how good does it feel to be a member of your team?

I find that there is a strong correlation between self-organization and a working Scrum to the feel-good factor of a team. This comes both from what people are reporting and from my own subjective experience of working with a team. My own humble experience consists of probably a few dozens of teams. And I hear the same from others who witness successful Agile implementations.

Other ADHD symptoms

ADHD has other symptoms, and this post is already getting too long to detail others. At this point I wish to discuss the “treatment” part, in particular the contribution of Agile frameworks.

This post is not a comprehensive detail of ADHD symptoms, nor is it a comprehensive description of Scrum.

A dose of Scrum for Organizational ADHD

I will begin with some reservations. If the first part of the post appeals to you, you should be aware that not all organizations have all symptoms. Some organizations have some of the symptoms, but not all; some (probably not many) have none.

Note also, that Agile is not a ‘magic pill’. Neither is Ritalin. Sometimes it helps, sometimes it doesn’t, and at others it should be combined with other types of treatment.

The important things to remember are (and this applies both to Agile and to Ritalin…):

  • A lot of patience is required. Adopting agile is a frustrating experience. It might take a while before results show. It might take longer before the original goals are met – maybe even never.
  • Not all practices will work for you. The right ones need to be tried out and tested based on empirical data – what, in the middle and long term, does this do to your organization. TDD might be the right thing to do, it might not. It might not be relevant now, and might become necessary later on.
  • Collecting empirical data is hard! It requires focus, discipline, stamina, order, following sequences – the very things that are hard to do with ADHD. You will need responsible adults (parents or managers) to make it sustainable. If you are in management, this clause is intended for you!
  • In this post I have used the most popular Agile framework, Scrum, to exemplify how this treatment makes sense. Other agile frameworks may work better for you. Maybe non-agile frameworks are right for your organization. TOC (Theory of Constraints) is one such example.
  • Agile is not the only ‘cure’. I am a great believer in Agile – and you are welcome to take everything I say with a pinch of salt. I stand corrected – I encourage you to challenge me.

    How many Scrum pills a day should I take to get cured?

    I hope that this post is indicative enough to suggest that if done properly enough, Scrum may be a treatment to alleviate the ADHD symptoms of the organization.

    It is important to understand that’ like ADHD in individuals, there is no cure. Sorry to be the baddy on this. People don’t get cured from ADHD – they learn how to use the right treatment to live with it adequately. Organizations cannot be cured from Organizational ADHD – they either die, or use a treatment, such as Scrum, to avoid their dysfunctions resulting from their ADHD.

    Going back to transparency, Scrum doesn’t solve your problems; it makes them visible. Just like ADHD is transparent until you get diagnosed. Once you start doing Scrum, problems emerge, ones that you didn’t know they existed before. Quite often we hear that Scrum is creating problems in the process. This is like saying: “Until I started using Ritalin everything was great! Since I started it seems that I am crap in math. I’d rather not use the medicine, and not know about it”.

    Many of the Scrum practices sound counter intuitive initially. Try explaining to a child that watching TV is not going to help him/her do their homework, or that reading five book concurrently is not good for their book report.

    Similarly, explaining that feature-teams and cross-functional-teams are good is no easy task. This is a result of not seeing the problem – the same as a person that resents taking Ritalin because he/she does not accept the ADHD condition (in denial).

    We have completed our Scrum dosage. Are we done now?

    It is quite self-explanatory that if you don’t see the problem, and you don’t think you have one, you also don’t want to get help. Moreover, if, for example, there is an expert in the picture that tells you that you are procrastinating – when you are convinced that you are not, you will resent hearing about it. The contribution of Scrum (and Agile in general) is that by retrospecting frequently, there is a good chance that by reflecting with supporting empirical evidence, at some point, hopefully sooner than later, the team will accept that treatment is required.

    Retrospectives can become boring, and it is a good practice to play around with retrospective practices in order to get the team engaged.

    To analogize with ADHD in individuals, sometimes Ritalin works well, then Concerta may work better, and at others you may try out CBT like Attengo.

    Scrum beyond the organization

    It is worth mentioning that the Scrum practices are helpful not only in organizations – also in families. The book Agile Kids is a good example.

    Other thoughts

    I already mentioned that I wish to explore the relatedness between “Organizational ADHD” and creativity. If you have any information or input I will be happy to hear about it.

    I also mentioned that this post is not based on scientific evidence. It will be interesting to turn this hypothetical article into a research topic.

    Finally, if you are interested to learn more on this, or on other topics, feel free to contact me either by commenting on this work, or through the contact-me page.

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