The Focus Paradox

Category: Strategy

I remember running a management seminar 14 years ago when I first started my business. The first session covered time management because my belief is that we cannot make lasting changes in how we manage people, or anything in our lives, unless and until we find the time to be aware of our actions. It is a hard fact that it takes more time and energy to do things differently than it does to keep doing them the way we’ve always done them.

Anyway, on this day several participants were late arriving because of a traffic jam on a local highway. Because my first topic was time management, the seminar coordinator was hesitant to ask me to delay starting by 10 minutes so that we could accommodate an unusual situation. She was pleasantly surprised when I responded: “Not a problem. Effective time management is not only about maximizing our time but also in being flexible when we encounter unexpected events.” This is because no matter how well we plan out our time there will always be unexpected events. In the long run, we are most productive when we learn how to handle them.

This same concept applies to running a successful business. It’s important to know what you desire to achieve and to be focused in getting there; it’s equally important to be flexible when you encounter challenges and possible new opportunities. Like many things in our lives, these two concepts are on a continuum. At one end of the line is the ability to focus on achieving our goals to the exclusion of all else. At the other end is the decision to not plan and instead be open to all new opportunities. In the center is the ability to balance between control and letting go. First let’s look at each of these extremes.

For many people, and I believe I fall into this group myself, control is comforting because of its perceived predictability. When focus is extreme you are able to accomplish many things in a short period of time. Unfortunately, at this end of the continuum it’s almost like having blinders on. You could continue to pursue a goal that has become irrelevant. In other words, you may become so focused on how to get there, that you fail to realize that you are no longer interested in going.

Another side effect of extreme control is that when the unexpected occurs, and it always does sooner or later, it catches you completely off guard and has the potential to knock you off your feet. So while control is excellent for maintaining focus and moving forward at a quick pace, it is not an ideal situation.

At the other end of the continuum is the idea of flexibility or letting go. Individuals who live their lives at this end enjoy having no plans and being ready to go at the drop of a hat to explore new possibilities. They fully understand that the future is a moving target and therefore believe that having a plan is frustrating at best and futile at its worst. Unfortunately, when we have no destination in mind, we may never arrive. Good things may happen, and yet frequently had there been some focus and pre-planning it may have happened sooner or bigger.

So, while the unexpected does not disturb these individuals because they actually enjoy unexpected events, they are not as productive as they have the potential to be. Therefore, while flexibility is great for taking advantage of unexpected opportunities, it is not an ideal situation either.

Around the center of the line is the ability to balance control and letting go. In other words, it’s the ability to be both focused and flexible. In some ways this is a paradox. It seems contradictory to be able to focused and flexible at the same time. And yet it is necessary.  I believe that being able to maintain this paradox is at the root of thinking and acting strategically.

First, let me clarify that this is not about being both at the exact same moment. Instead, it’s more about the ability to move rapidly back and forth between the two approaches. It’s the ability to focus and work diligently on a goal and to periodically check the environment to make sure that the goal is still relevant. During the check you will get some feedback. For example:

·         Not only is this goal relevant, it’s even more important

·         New technology or opportunities have arisen that will make it easier to reach my goal

·         While the goal is still a good one, a related opportunity has come up that will build on this goal and make it even better

·         There is a need to tweak the goal slightly

·         This goal is no longer relevant and it’s time to stop spending time, money and energy on it.

To be a successful business owner, it is critical to define your desired destination clearly, act in alignment with your internal brand while pursuing it, and locate the time to focus and work diligently to achieve it. At the same time, you must be prepared for the unexpected. In fact, you must raise your head periodically and look for change, and then you must be ready to quickly decide to continue on, change course, or abandon it entirely.