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Focus Until It Hurts

Published: February 06, 2016

To startup founders and early team members, focus can be extremely uncomfortable. It defies many of our intuitions about customer-centricity, risk mitigation, “working hard”, and seizing opportunities. We are by definition opportunists and risk-takers and the list of good ideas is endless.

It’s easy to talk about focus. But much harder to BE focused.

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When the lights go up …. think of all the great things we could do!It occurred to me the other day that what we call “focus” is often way too comfortable. It’s a bandaid on the fleshwound. We resort to familiar thought patterns and fixes:

  • Our meetings need to be more efficient! No meetings!
  • We need better tools!
  • We need to improve our ability to communicate!
  • We need better processes! We need more accountability!
  • We need rules around emailing, chatting, and documentation!
  • We need more resources!
  • We need to be more efficient!
  • We need to protect people from distractions!
  • We need to do more planning upfront! This is not real focus. These things address the symptoms of poor focus, not focus itself.

Enter the dichotomy. For the doers and those on the front-lines, real focus feels amazing. You’re in the zone, making quick decisions, and building and selling things customers love.

For managers, leaders, and other anointed decision-makers real focus can feel extremely painful and counterintuitive. You have to push yourself far beyond the point of comfort just to defeat your tendencies to chase waterfalls. It should feel very uncomfortable and awkward.

So what does real focus feel like? How do we know? My suggestion is to look carefully at the team and look for evidence. A focused team …

  • Is Safe. Their experiments are safe to fail and individuals are free from intimidation, harassment, and discrimination. The environment supports a growth mindset and is supportive of different learning and communication styles. (See Anzeneering by Joshua Kerievsky)
  • **Has Congruency. **There are no backchannels and scuttlebutt. Bad behavior is not tolerated for political reasons. The team shares a common reality — not by force or command, but because they share a common mission and narrow focus. When a conversation involves three people … then those three people are present and involved.
  • Says No Often: no to meetings, no to prospects, no to partnerships, no to new tools, no to process, no to feature requests, no to customers, and no to second choice candidates. They say no so often that they end up saying it less. This isn’t a top-down No — the manager playing wackamole in a desperate attempt at control — but rather a whole-team habit.
  • Says Yes Quickly. Yes means Yes, not Maybe. Individual team members can make consistently good decisions without asking for permission, navigating politics, or needing “buy-in”. No one person owns the Yes, because with crisp focus anyone can say Yes confidently.
  • Communicates Openly and Respectfully. They’re able to “get real” and speak candidly. When it doubt they meet in person and resolve differences. Focused teams also spend a lot more time talking about what they’re actually DOING — the work and what it takes to get it done — than about wishy washy future plans and ideas.
  • **Has Fewer Constraints. **Humans are terrible at juggling “yeah but”s and “but we have to consider”s. When you add constraints you increase complexity and in turn decrease the chance of getting anything meaningful done.
  • **Works Less But Deliver Better Outcomes. **They exhibit an almost boring level of productivity. Stuff just “gets done” without a lot of heat and drama. But output isn’t the end goal. That output results in better outcomes for customers, co-workers, partners, etc.
  • Feels Flow. Distractions fade without command-and-control or efforts to promote “efficiency, accountability, and velocity”. They exude focus and a calm energy. Work is challenging, engaging, and energizing. Instead of trying to control culture, look for these characteristics to nudge things in the right direction. Challenge your own intuitions about what focus looks/feels like, and regularly engage the team in assessing the current level of focus. Push yourself to the limit — far beyond being “a little uncomfortable” to the point of being ruthlessly focused — and stay the course.