Founder ADHD

Before reading this post, you may want to check out my previous posts about the One Metric That Matters (OMTM). In part one, I explained why OMTM was problematic in general. In part two, I shared an alternative to OMTM when tracking growth.

This third post focuses on using the OMTM as an antidote against founder ADHD*.

Founder ADHD?

This is not a new idea. Les McKeown, author of many books including Predictable Success, has spoken about founder ADHD. He has a great way of explaining why the visionary that starts a company is so distractible.

When McKeown presented at the Do Lectures he said:

All businesses start with a visionary… often charismatic, good communicators, and really obsessed with making a real change. The problem is they usually have got mild ADD…

Visionaries are wonderful at really focusing and getting highly viscerally engaged with something, and then finding something else to get highly, viscerally engaged with, and they sort of give you whiplash…

Alistair Croll, who with Ben Yoskovitz co-authored Lean Analytics, shares McKeown’s feeling.

Here is what Alistair Croll wrote about the subject of founder ADHD on his blog:

Founders are magpies, chasing the shiniest new thing they see. Many of us use a pivot as an enabler for chronic ADD, rather than as a way to iterate through ideas in a methodical fashion.

Magpie stereotypes** aside, I love this description of founders as ADHD. If Croll’s blog post had ended there, this blog post wouldn’t exist.

I agree with the description of the problem that Croll and McKeown provide. It is the solution that Croll proposes that I reject:

…That means it’s better to run the risk of over-focusing (and miss some secondary metric) than it is to throw metrics at the wall and hope one sticks…

That doesn’t mean there’s only one metric you care about from the day you wake up with an idea to the day you sell your company. It does, however, mean that at any given time, there’s one metric you should care about above all else.

I have been on both sides of this problem. I’ve worked with many startup founders, and I’ve been a startup founder myself. Founders think about the business every minute they are awake. Founders also think about the startup every minute they dream in their sleep.

Since I started my most recent startup I’ve found that there is never a time I am not thinking about the business. The only time I’m not mulling over a business problem is when I’m tackling a rock climbing problem. I need to be at least six inches above the floor of a rock climbing gym for that part of my brain to unclench. It might be the threat of falling to your death that does the trick.

Photo by Liane Metzler

Given all this time spent thinking about the business, it’s natural for a founder to generate new ideas to push the company. The problem is that when these ideas are socialized with the team for feedback, they feel like more than ideas. It feels like they are changing course for the business, not throwing out a straw man.

Why OMTM is not the solution to founder ADHD

I’ve attempted to use the OMTM approach to ground the founding team and focus our attention. It seems like a well founded idea, and there are some benefits to it, but combating founder ADHD is not one of them.

A founder is as capable of driving everyone insane with one metric as they are with many metrics. A founder can give you whiplash with one metric or one hundred. Some founders can take a single metric or buzz word and warp its meaning to get a team working on something. There are certain people that will change the OMTM every day. Even more, some will switch between two or three OMTM depending on the conversation. They do what is necessary to enable this distracted behavior. The visionary will do anything to support their latest flighty fascination. Hence, a founder can be as directionless using the OMTM as they can using an entire dashboard of metrics.

This is not only a problem with founders — a creative lead on any project can do this. Focusing on a single metric is as likely to enable that behavior as keep them focused. The notion that focusing on a single metric fixes this is nonsense.

Australian Magpie Feeding” by Toby Hudson is licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0
If not OMTM, then what?

One of the first (but not last) things a visionary personality should do is to team up with an operator. An operator is someone that counters the unproductive parts of the visionary personality, thereby preventing the visionary from changing directions and goals too often. The operator helps to ground the visionary in reality and keeps neck injuries to a minimum. The right person on your team will be critical to your success far beyond what the OMTM can claim to do.

This should be someone with startup experience and a convincing voice the founder will respond to. To be fair, it doesn’t have to be a person. Some visionaries can split personalities and serve as their own operator too. That’s rare though, and very hard to do.

This isn’t advice for only founders. Anyone leading an initiative can run into these sort of problems. McKeown’s approach is not a silver bullet, but it will be more successful than the OMTM.

The takeaway

No matter what the end goal of your business, surround yourself with good people. People that will counteract your weaknesses. People that will support the use of your strengths. There is no substitute for the company of good human beings on the journey to startup success.

Some parting comments:

*The sources in this article refer to ADD, not ADHD. According to WebMD, doctors now refer to both hyperactive and non-hyperactive forms of attention deficit disorder as ADHD. I’ve never met a founder that didn’t seem driven to the point of hyperactivity, so for the purposes of this post, I’ve chosen to use the broader term.

**Magpies don’t steal shiny objects according to new research. This reference Croll made is inaccurate. It is a stereotype that might be offensive to magpies. The myth of the “thieving magpie” pervades European folklore. Instead, the study showed that shiny objects scare magpies, not attract them. You can read about the study here.

In this blog, I have criticized aspects of Lean Analytics many times, but it’s only out of love. The book Alistair and Ben wrote is amazing. I own two copies. One copy Ben signed when he presented at a Lean event in SF. The other is wearing thin and 50% of its current weight is in sticky notes. I have referred to it often and I appreciate what they wrote. Yet, they also have helped promote a couple of concepts that are dangerous in the wrong hands.

By the way, McKeown’s stages remind me of the more complex Adizes Corporate Lifecycle by Dr. Ichak Adizes. I featured Mckeown’s work here because I’m more familiar with it and feel it is simpler, but both have their place and I tend to switch between them as needed.

Finally, Les McKeown as a person has a a very interesting history. His background makes him uniquely qualified to advise the rest of us about business. He knows what it takes to get something important started and ensure it is successful years from now. I encourage people to get to know him. McKeown has several books, one of which is Predictable Success. The title is accurate but takes away from how great the book is. Add it to your wishlist.


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