Stop Starting, Start Finishing!

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.
Steve Jobs

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!

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