We really don’t lack opportunities and choices. There are always more ideas than can actually be implemented. This is true at the level of the individual as well as for teams and organizations. The fact that technology makes our world turning ever faster and that our world is becoming ever more volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous, i.e. tending more and more towards VUCA, leads to an unprecedented wealth of opportunities and ideas. This makes it all the more important to focus which is the responsibility of leadership. And focus begins with the apparently forgotten art of saying no.
In difficult situations it is easier to say no. Steve Jobs impressively demonstrated the power of focus when he returned to Apple in 1996. Apple was lost in a confusing product portfolio with dozens of models and was 90 days away from bankruptcy. Steve Jobs reduced the 15 desktop models to exactly two, the iMac for consumers and the Power Macintosh G3 for professionals. He did the same for the mobile devices with the iBook and the PowerBook G3, leaving exactly four products focused on the respective customer groups and a slimmed-down organization. A very painful process that enabled Apple to survive (already in 1998 Apple was back in the black after just over a billion dollars in losses in 1997) and ultimately marked the beginning of its rise to become the most valuable company in the world.
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.
Choosing between a bad idea and a good idea is not hard. It is much more difficult to choose between many more or less equally good or incomparable ideas. Focusing means saying no much more often than saying yes and consciously accepting the opportunity cost that come with every no. At the individual level, this is called FOMO (fear of missing out) and is massively reinforced by social media.
As Apple’s example clearly shows, however, the FOMO mechanism also and especially works at the organizational level. There it is stated more elegantly: “Do one without letting the other.” But the result is the same as at the level of the individual: dancing at too many weddings, starting too much without having completed anything else first. What this leads to and why work-in-progress must also and especially be limited at higher levels in the organization is shown by Klaus Leopold in the following interesting talk. It shows that agility at team level is suboptimal if the teams nevertheless work on too many projects. Despite all the agility at team level, such an organization remains sluggish because it lacks the focus on the essential projects at the higher level of the organization. That is why I consider focusing to be one of the most important leadership tasks today: Stop starting, start finishing!