July 01, 2015   ·  

"If you chase two rabbits, both will escape"

When you think about a statement like the one above, I suspect you're pretty comfortable nodding your head and agreeing that it applies perfectly well in a business context. I suspect also, that you'll make a mental note to be more focused and perhaps you may even put into action some steps to reduce the number of things that you are trying to do. The real questions here though are how focused is your company and how many rabbits are you encouraging the people in your firm to chase?

In my experience, the answers would be not very and quite a few!

Most of us thrive on being busy and spinning lots of plates, I think that is part and parcel of working in this connected economy, everything happens quickly and we just adapt and keep up. But multi-tasking isn't the same thing as lacking focus - we can work on multiple tasks but we can't have a huge wish-list of strategic imperatives and expect to be successful.

When it comes to getting things done inside organisations it's increasingly apparent to me that too many companies (and for companies you may also read leaders) value quantity over quality - probably in the mistaken belief that because people are willing to take on more and more work, that it is possible to achieve it all. This has always surprised me, in the same way as those cultures that recognise how long employees remain at their desks rather than what they achieve whilst there. This could get me drawn into a discussion about measures but I'm going to resist that for a moment and instead will stay on the subject of FOCUS. Taking on too many things has a disproportionately negative effect on performance. A good example of this is Rockwell Automation, who prior to adopting a more focused approach to what they did, were successfully completing only 3 of the 20 strategic projects that they started in a given year. They reduced the number of projects that they undertook to 12 (which I personally believe is still too many), but as a result were able to successfully complete all 12.

"Never mind the quality feel the width"

The disproportionate effect comes from the message that failing in this way delivers - knowing that your company has the attitude of... "we'll start lots of things but we know it won't all happen..." is interesting as it tells everyone that we don't mind if the plans we make aren't successful, that it's somewhat OK that we give up on your hard work because we over committed and under delivered. Actually no company would actively say this is OK but we all know that "actions speak louder than words". When you're next asking people to commit to the next strategic priority it's worth thinking about the messages that the firm has been giving in recent years. If you've failed at a lot of what you undertake (and 70% of strategic initiatives fail to deliver the intended outcomes), what impact might that have on the team embarking on the next one. I'll tell you, it will erode their belief, their commitment and result in less action.

A few years ago I had several meetings with the executives of a large well known insurer. The problem they were having was despite having what they considered to be a clear strategic ambition, they were not making the headway they expected with the initiatives underway to realise it. All the usual examples were being used about the culture being like treacle and that it was impossible to get the people to change. At the time there were dozens of projects underway in the business and none were on track. We suggested a few small interventions - let's validate understanding of the Ambition to make sure that everyone is in fact on the same page about where we're going (very few companies we work with share the same understanding of the goal), let's do some work with the executive on aligning the initiatives with that Ambition (60% of initiatives are not strategically aligned) and more importantly, let's think about reducing the amount that we're doing in order to increase the likelihood of success. What that company did was make the Ambition less challenging - seemingly that was easier than taking a harder decision about not doing some things in order to do other things better. I know that there is implied criticism of that outcome and of course I was never in possession of the full facts but I can say that I see enough of organisations to know that continuing to do more than the organisation can handle (and lack of progress suggests that was the case), and instead, to move the goal posts was probably not what I would've encouraged.

What stops many of us from being focused is our obsession with shiny new things - "let's do something new and different over here" and this naturally distracts us from the choices we made previously and will result in (at best) a gradual increase in the number of projects, deviation from the chosen strategy and dilution of available resource - and overloading of the best people that seem to be involved in all projects.

FOCUS is one of the most important disciplines for an organisation to adopt and I could give dozens of examples of how the lack of it affects the success of the organisation as a whole, how it introduces dangerous cultural implications at all levels of the business and cite a similar number of reasons that executives give why it's different in their company. The results are almost always the same. I'll conclude this with a quote from Steve Jobs, and it's one that I like very much - although I'd argue that it would've been even better if he'd said "Focus is saying no to 1,000 things"

"People think focus means saying yes to the thing you've got to focus on. But that's not what it means at all. It means saying no to the hundred other good ideas that there are. You have to pick carefully. I'm actually as proud of the things we haven't done as the things I have done. Innovation is saying no to 1,000 things."

David Bellamy
David Bellamy

Founder and CEO, Connect with David on LinkedIn


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