The Art Of Focus
When asked about strategic decision-making, Steve Jobs emphasized the power of focus by stating, “Focus means saying no to the hundred other good ideas.”
This philosophy resonates deeply in today’s dynamic environment, where organizations grapple with an abundance of promising initiatives and limited resources.
Right now, I’m working with two big-name organizations, both with tens of thousands of employees and billion-dollar budgets, trying to figure out the best way to prioritize among a ton of great ideas. Even though their top-level plans are solid, they’re wrestling with what’s called the “missing (and sometimes messy) middle” challenge. It’s all about finding the right path forward amid a bunch of options.
Our approach hinges on three strategic keys, each serving as a vital tool in the prioritization process.
1. Non-Negotiability: Identifying the non-negotiables is the foundational step. These are commitments made to various stakeholders or indispensable elements that drive the overarching strategy. This step creates a clear boundary, narrowing the field of options. It requires the team leader to be ruthless in defining their non-negotiables.
2. Reversibility: The next key is reversibility, a lens through which irreversibility becomes a guiding factor. Initiatives that have reached a point of no return, whether due to policy implications, sunk costs, or imminent returns on investment, are filtered in. This step streamlines choices by considering commitments that cannot be easily unwound. Knowing what isn’t reversible influences what’s non-negotiable and your options.
3. Optionality: The remaining options undergo scrutiny through the lens of optionality. Employing the “4Ds” assessment—Don’t do it, Delay it, Do it differently, Delegate it—provides a structured framework for decision-making:
- Don’t do it: Evaluate the impact on the overall strategy if the initiative is omitted.
- Delay it: Explore possibilities for time-shifting within existing constraints.
- Do it differently: Consider how the initiative can be re-scoped for greater efficiency or innovation.
- Delegate it: Identify alternative parties or divisions that could handle aspects of the initiative.
The fifth leg of optionality may also include Stop Doing.
Most teams I work with can identify a handful of things they do on autopilot that don’t directly serve the strategic initiatives at hand. And, if your team is like most, you’re being asked to do more with fewer people and resources. Knowing that you can’t do it all with excellence will ultimately lead you to decide what you need to stop doing.
In the pursuit of success, we often overlook the silent underminers—those small errors that, when repeated consistently, become the formula for failure. It’s the classic case of the slow burn, where consequences aren’t immediately apparent, but rest assured, they’re on their way. It’s not about lacking intelligence; you’re astute enough to grasp the potential outcomes. The challenge lies in recognizing when these consequences are silently approaching, veiled by the guise of delayed impact.
Ultimately, what both organizations aspire to achieve (and likely yours, too) and what we are diligently crafting is a method of disciplined prioritization. This approach combines informed judgment with predefined criteria, ensuring adaptability to environmental changes over time — all aimed at realizing your strategic goals.
Over to you:
How systematically are you prioritizing your efforts, and how willing are you to let go of great ideas, actions, and initiatives in service of strategic focus and excellence?
“Things which matter most must never be at the mercy of things which matter least.”
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February 6, 2024
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