Musings on Strategic Investigation, Performance Improvement, and Rhetoric

Want To Be Excellent? Then Stop Doing So Much

Miss Melbury's view of the doctor as a merciless, unwavering, irresistible scientist was not quite in accordance with fact.  The real Dr. Fitzpiers was a man of too many hobbies to show likelihood of rising to any great eminence in the profession he had chosen, or even to acquire any wide practice in the rural district he had marked out for the present.
The Woodlanders, Thomas Hardy
One critical characteristic of individuals and companies who excel in their fields is their ability to focus every bit of their attention on what they yearn to do extremely well.  Part of this deal is that they do less of everything else.  This is the decisive step for many of us: not doing more of this or that, but removing the innocent-looking things that rob our attention.
In my investigations into this, I’ve noticed two reasons for our inability to shut out the non-essential.  First, we find it hard to say no to additional things that seem valuable or interesting.  Second, we don't understand the massive hidden damage that the distractions and dissipation ultimately cause to our potential.

Damage Caused by Distraction
Evidence abounds of this damage caused by distraction.
At a high “where should I focus my business/career/talent” level, spreading talent across a wide range of activities is shown time and again to result in lower performance.  Examples range from the excellent Billy Beane’s disdain of under-performing baseball all-rounders, through to regular academic reviews showing the negative effects of business diversification.
Distraction is damaging at a day-to-day level too.  Studies of multi-tasking individuals reveal consistent reductions in performance, versus control groups who are forced to focus.  This is true even where the multi-tasking is intended to help performance.  One study of students showed that those allowed to look up recommended online information during lectures fared considerably worse than those only allowed to listen to the lecturer.
The distraction doesn’t even need to be present in the room to hurt performance.  Damage to performance by life stress is well-reported, with evidence even extending to performance deterioration in teenage ice-skaters caused by issues at home.
But the most worrying result I have found from research into distraction is this - people don’t realise how much it damages them.  In one study of medical students, participants were distracted with questions during simulated surgery, and had a consistently higher miss rate than a control group that worked in silence.  The frightening insight from this study is that only 9.5% of these under-performing students thought the distraction had affected them!

An Everyman Path of Focusing
There is a well-trodden path for achieving this ability to focus, and free ourselves from distraction.  This is to transport the person or team to an environment where everything is already set up for single-minded focus.  These environments can be permanent, for example elite academies and institutions, or temporary, like training camps and business war rooms.
Most of us can’t practically transport ourselves from our families to these tailor made centres of excellence, other than the odd trip to La Santa or business off-site.  A more realistic option is to do the hard work of transforming our own environment, company or working day.
“How-to”s aren’t to everyone’s taste, but if you’re interested in a basic exercise as a starter-for-ten in deliberating what to cut out, here are some simple questions:

What is the minimum I need to do, to be as good as I want to be at (...)? 
This minimum includes not just today’s work and output, but the development needed for tomorrow’s capability.
If you don’t know what this minimum amount is, then it’s a critical and sobering step to understand just how much this is.  Even if you think you know how much attention you need to commit as a minimum, it’s worth reviewing anyway, because you’ve probably under-estimated it.  One way to do this assessment is to identify a person, company or team whose performance sets the benchmark for you.  Then investigate how much accumulated time, effort and resource they have put in over days, months and years to get down the experience curve to where they are.
If you’re ambitious about how good you want to be, and investigate thoroughly what it takes, the minimum you need to do will be a very great deal indeed.  It will possibly be more than your entire available time or budget.  You’ll likely realise that your initial target was too broad or too soon; and you will need to focus further, to cut your minimum down to something feasible.

What are the distractions to my time and attention, which stop me getting down to this and doing it consistently?  How much of this could I take away if I really needed to?
I’m asking this question at both a high level and a day-to-day one.  High level distractions include non-core lines of business, passing interests, peripheral talents to practise, and major obligations.  Day-to-day distractions include everything that takes away your attention, time or hunger to perform, from the task at hand – elite performance academies are spartan places with clear tables and no pop-up email alerts!

What do I need to add, so that I can focus my attention properly?
The critical things to add in here, from which high performers really benefit, are relaxation and support systems.  I’m not aware of any real-life high performers who aren’t also great at making time to relax and reflect.  I’m not aware of any high-performing individuals or management teams that don’t also have great support systems.  As with many important and non-urgent things, we need to set aside time to invest in these, so they don’t get lost in the melee.  If we ignore them as peripheral, we can count on their consequences to come back to bite us very hard later.

Have I got plenty of slack left for the inevitable changes, delays, surprises, crises and over-runs?
If not, return to “1”.  If you think you’ve got too much slack, see how things go for a week.

If you try the exercise and have a look at what you’re giving up as a result, my guess is that it will consist of a lot of things that previously seemed useful, or at least harmless, but ate away silently at your potential by stealing your attention:
·         Interesting projects that have genuine potential, but are peripheral to where you’ve chosen to focus
·         Profitable projects or sidelines that aren’t critical to your core business
·         “Ought-to-dos” and “nice-to-dos”, which if you’re honest are more about being polite or following form than providing or receiving something of value
·         Other people’s priorities that you have just reacted to, without working through whether or how they fit in your plans
·         Tasks that any number of people could do just as well as you could, or services that any number of companies could provide
·         A plethora of regular day-to-day background distractions
Now look at what you’re adding to replace it, which will be more of this:
·         Much more time and resource to devote to the small number of things you want to be extremely good at
·         Activities that build your future capability
·         Time to reflect and even relax
·         Investment in your support systems
·         Slack time, so that inevitable sidewinders can be accommodated without chaotic triage
In summary, we now have a lot more time and attention spent in and around what’s really important, and a lot less to distract us from it.
Here’s a couple of tests I use with clients and observe in others, to see if this chosen focus is sustainable.  First, the prospect of focusing so much of attention on one or two things needs to be exciting, so exciting that it can fuel countless hours of relentless commitment.  Second, other people – customers, sponsors, backers and supporters – need to value it sufficiently to pay more than enough for the performance we’re providing in return.
How other people have got to this sort of exciting focus, one that is also productive and sustainable, is part of a whole new subject.  But I’ll cover that another time.  I want to stop this article from doing too much.

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