Overcoming the obstacles of interruption and speed

Whether or not it is true that the number of interruptions is relative to the number of people you lead or the size of the organization, interruptions get in the way of productivity.

In 2006, Dr. André Martin conducted research on a sample of 800 leaders.[1] Four global trends were identified. The first two, were addressed in “I just don’t have time!”. They were 1) The Ground Truth of Globalization, and 2) The Rise of Complex Challenges.

Martin believes that the global landscape is changing so rapidly that leaders have not been prepared for the challenges they face. Let’s take a look at the third and fourth global trends and their implications.

The third trend is The World of Interruption.

Martin states that 11 minutes is the average time spent on a task before an interruption, and 25 minutes as the average time it takes to return to the task. We live in a world of continuous partial attention or what he describes as “Organizational ADD”.

In the 1940’s, Intelligence Quotient (IQ) was a huge factor in determining a person’s job suitability, and in the late 1990’s and early 2000’s, a person’s Emotional Quotient (EQ) came onto the scene via Daniel Golman’s work. Not surprisingly, a person’s Fluid Intelligence (FI) is considered to be increasingly important.

FI It is not what you know, but how quickly you can access the information needed.  It is the ability to overcome the two major obstacles of interruption and speed.

This has obvious implications for leaders of organizations that want to be effective and competitive. Consideration must be carefully given as to how workplaces can be shaped around different work styles, schedules and cross-functional teams (where specialized skills can cross-pollinate).

The fourth trend: Leadership for Longevity.

For the first time in one hundred years, the next generation could see a decrease in their lifespan in comparison to their parents. In developed countries, 70-80 percent of health costs are attributable to lifestyle behaviors: poor diet, drinking too much, smoking, stress, and no exercise.

Health issues have a significant impact on organizations. Martin presents the following equation to identify interrelationships between key factors:

Complexity + Interruption = Stress = Higher Health Risk = Lower Performance.

This is particularly alarming when considering that 40 percent of EU citizens (60 percent in the U.S) were cited as doing no moderate-intensity physical exercise in a single week.

What’s the bottom-line?

As Daniel Forrester states,

There’s an intangible and invisible marketplace within our lives today, where the products traded are four-fold: attention, distraction, data, and meaning. Yet we rarely step back to question the pace, personal impact, chaotic information flows, unpredictability, and a lack of meaning that swirl within our organizations.[2]

The world of interruption and speed most likely will not go away, which means for leaders and organizations new strategies will need to be pursued to help manage this reality. If we don’t, leaders will simply burnout. Below are some things to consider:

  • Look for different skills in leadership. There is a need for leaders to adapt and collaborate like never before. We need leaders who don’t feel insecure when others know more about something than they do. It’s impossible to be across everything!
  • Begin to incentivize teams to take time out to reflect and evaluate on what might have gone wrong or could have been done better, rather than blaming someone and moving quickly to another solution.
  • Make health and fitness a part of leadership development and ensure that performance reviews for staff have goals in health and fitness.
  • Regularly review your goals and stay focused.


[1] André Martin, “A New Map of Leadership: Global Trends Impacting Leaders and Leadership Development,” Center for Creative Leadership (CCL), http://www.ccl.org/leadership/community/mapWebinar.aspx (accessed April 16, 2011).

[2] Daniel Patrick Forrester, Consider: Harnessing the Power of Reflective Thinking in Your Organization (New York, NY: Palgrave MacMillan, 2011), 4.



Great article Glenn – thanks.
It does make me wonder though if we are accepting too readily the fluidity, chaos and expectation of disruption. Is it plausible to create structures around certain times of day or days of the week that are quarantined? Emails from 8.00-9.30. Internal meetings Mondays and Fridays. Client meetings Tue – Thurs etc. Do we teach our direct reports to aggregate topics that require leadership input -etc? Thoughts?

Glenn Williams

Actually, doing what you have suggested works very well. Due to the exhaustive number of emails, some people schedule specific times during the day to review and respond to emails. One thing I have found very helpful is the creation of a weekly report for direct reports to use, stating exactly what is required. For example, one table list items where they need authority to make a decision?; another table lists emerging issues and challenges and their status; and another table merely informs and updates you on their key projects. It is maintained as a rolling weekly report. If you have a number of direct reports, they can be consolidated into one weekly report for you. Hope this helps!


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