Musings on Strategic Investigation, Performance Improvement, and Rhetoric

The Flip-side of Focus

I’m going to talk about focus.

Here’s a typical concluding paragraph from a business article or interview about improvement in any area of performance:

“It takes commitment from the top. Every member of the top team, from the CEO downwards, needs to be a champion and role model of [fill in the gap – customer service, efficiency, health and safety, etc.]. It needs to be recognised as a top priority, measured, monitored and rewarded. Every organisation/individual that has taken this approach has improved its [customer service, efficiency, health and safety, etc.] performance by a factor of …”

You can read and hear similar advice and claims from gurus and advisors of personal development, public policy, sports and fitness, hobbies, interests and a host of other areas where people seek performance improvement. In a nutshell, if you focus on something, you get better at it.

This is a fine approach with great merits, but brings up in my mind an awkward compromising question: “What about everything else; everything you’re not focusing on?” Is there a risk that by focusing so much attention on X, then Y will get worse, or at least not improve as much as it would if it got more attention?

One UK insurance company I know spent one year putting customer service above absolutely everything else, and grew that year to market leadership. But it saw its profits turn negative and created chaotic complexity as every front line person did what was necessary to delight every individual customer. The following year saw a focus on process simplification; the next, a heavy focus on waste reduction. Each year saw improvement in that year’s particular area of focus, but standstill or decline elsewhere. After three years, the company was several places down in the market league table, and was subsequently acquired by the new market leader.

Ben Franklin established a set of thirteen personal virtues in his 20s, which he famously, and successfully, practised for the rest of his life. He would focus on one at a time, making each habitual before moving onto the next. The first and foremost of these virtues was, of all things, temperance. The reason he chose such an uninspiring virtue to lead all the others was that he needed to practise temperance in order to have the presence of mind to put the right effort into his twelve other important virtues.

The lesson from all this? Of course we need to focus our attentions. Of course we need to choose where we improve or excel: we can only do one thing at a time and we can’t be all things to all men. But we need to have the thoughtfulness and wherewithal to take things in the round, think through where we choose to focus, and we need to pay attention to the full consequences. This includes an acknowledgement that we are likely to go backwards in areas where we aren’t paying attention.

With this in mind it’s unlikely that one area of focus for performance improvement will capture everything we need. There are good precedents for multiple areas of focus. Franklin had thirteen in a carefully selected order; Jesus had a Golden Rule of two parts, the Lord’s Prayer, and a gospel full of other rules and stories; everyone I speak to from Tesco gives a different combination of reasons for its success.

People from management science backgrounds might call this approach a balanced scorecard. Life-hackers might call this priority management. To me it’s just about looking past the claims and clichés, and paying proper attention to the complete picture.

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