The first time I met my new boss was at a one-on-one getting to know you session over lunch. At some point over the salads and iced tea I heard, “I don’t understand your job.”
Gulp #1. And it wasn’t the tea.
I no doubt stumbled a bit in describing my work and finally turned to the truth. “As the job is currently configured,” I responded, “it lacks clear-cut responsibility and authority.”
Gulp #2. What had I done?
This individual went on to become one of my most influential mentors and a good friend, but at that first meeting I certainly could not predict what lay ahead.
Without knowing it at the time, what was taking place was the first of many lessons on maintaining focus in the face of an unpredictable world. In trying to handle all my responsibilities and whatever else the job threw at me each day, I found myself struggling to set priorities.
So much of how we focus is making intentional choices about what to do and what not to do. I had practiced making focused, intentional choices during different parts of my life. In leading a start-up organization early in my career, we engaged with more than 150 groups and many wanted very different things. Over time we honed in on two key elements of our mission.
It turns out I was very good at one of our priorities and not as skilled at the other. After losing a bruising legislative battle and learning that lesson the hard way, I hired someone who could provide the leadership we needed in that part of our work while also pushing myself to learn more about the ins-and-outs of this critical piece of our mission. We allocated our resources, made clear-cut choices about how to compete, and came back with a legislative victory that proved transformative. In other words, we focused.
I knew the importance of focus, but needed to grow in turning that knowledge into lifelong practice. My mentor helped me see how one inculcates these short-term bursts of sharpness into a way of life.
The work of staying focused never ends
Peter Drucker said that “People in any organization are always attached to the obsolete — the things that should have worked but did not, the things that once were productive and no longer are.”
Staying focused is hard work. People and organizations go through periods of focus and then quickly forget what it was that brought success. Too soon they have faced a crisis; taken on more work that they have the capacity to complete; seen leadership changes; grappled with personal challenges; or — no surprise here — get caught in trends and cross-winds that are difficult for even the best to navigate. The long-term performance of the businesses Tom Peters and Jim Collins highlighted in their management bibles is a cautionary tale.
Saying no is just as important — perhaps more important — than saying yes
“People think focus means saying yes to the thing you’ve got to focus on,” said Apple founder Steve Jobs. “But that’s not what it means at all. It means saying no to the 100 other good ideas that there are.” Organizations and people fail far more often from trying to do too much, than trying to do too little. One has to choose carefully. Ryan Holiday, in distilling the wisdom of the Stoics, suggests we “say no (a lot).”
The unpredictable nature of life must include clarity about the right resources needed to focus
Focus in an unpredictable world requires working with real people, not burying your head in technology and data. Technologies try to “force fit a predictable model onto a world that is infinitely surprising.” Instead of relying solely on technology, try to associate with the smart, strategic, and nimble people who make you better. Being focused on what matters isn’t always the most efficient way forward, but it does require relentless preparation, the ability to attempt new things, and the ability to discard those things that don’t work.
Margaret Heffernan notes that,
“Preparedness, coalition building, imagination, experiments, bravery. In an unpredictable age, these are tremendous sources of resilience and strength. They aren’t efficient. But they give us limitless capacity for adaptation, variation, and invention.”
Finally, it takes bravery to be focused
My mentor showed me time and again how hard it is to stay focused, and the bravery that is required to succeed. It is actually much easier to be unfocused. If you can stand the clutter, you can give the appearance of being busy. But clutter is costly.
Sometimes I think we chose not to focus because we fear making choices. Rich Harwood makes this point in his upcoming book Unleashed: A Proven Way Communities Can Spread Change and Make Hope Real for All. As human beings, he notes, we fear the ambiguity and uncertainty.
“There is concern about being blamed for something going wrong or awry…But here’s what I know, more than anything: change only happens when we make intentional choices.”
Focus is all about intentionality. Building a daily practice of intentionality that leads to a focus in your life is satisfying. You can still be imaginative and creative as you live a life of focus. But without committing to focus on what really matters, the work you imagine and create will fall short of its true potential.
Have a good week.
More to come…