The Leaders Notebook

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The Cost of a Culture of Distraction

July 14th, 2010 · No Comments · Great Questions, Team Notes

I visited with a client this week in Washington DC where a bet-the-business project team is having a hard time making progress.  They have sufficient resource and skilled leadership.  They have a clear and critical charter and even a sponsor who is willing to go to bat for them when needed.  So, what’s the problem?  Distractions!

The culture of this organization can best be described as “Go-Go-Go!”  And while the project is considered mission critical- the team members are all blood-donor staff.  Each has a full time position to cover as well as their place on the project team.  Add to that the number of daily emergencies and over full meeting schedules and the members of the team are looking over their shoulder all the time for the next incoming round of distractions.

For a demonstration of the cost of distraction, have a look at the video below.

Were you watching for the gorilla?

Dan Simons’ and Christopher Chabris’ famous Invisible Gorilla research was done originally in 1999, but I think that this revisit is even more powerful.  It shows us that we can miss critical information even when we know about and are watching for the distraction- perhaps even especially if we are looking for it.

Simons’ focus is on whether or not people observed details that they were not asked to watch for.  But if I was that team’s sponsor, I would want to know how many people counted the passes accurately.  If a team is so culturally trained to be watching for the budget cut, the deadline change, the scope creep, the waffling sponsor or any of the other common team derailers, how well can they actually do their job?

So what is the take away for leaders here?  I go back to a quote I use often from Larry Bossidy and Ram Charan in Execution, The Discipline of Getting Things Done: “And never launch an initiative unless you are personally committed to it and prepared to see it through until it is embedded in the DNA of the organization.”

It is up to a change leader to ensure that those on the team have sufficient time and overhead to get the work completed, and to insulate them from distractions sufficiently that they are not always looking over their shoulders.

For more information on the work of Dan Simons and Christopher Chabris, visit www.invisiblegorilla.com

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