Failures of Focus

July 12, 2011

11:30 am

We learn more from our failures than we do from our successes.  As a turnaround executive, I had the opportunity to get hyper-experienced in failure at hyper speed.  All those good-companies-gone-bad passed on scars, wisdom, and greatly enhanced the level of crankiness.

My experience with corporate tragedy has taught me that the number one reason companies crash and burn points right  to the top.  And the number one reason that leaders fail is a lack of focus.  Lack-of-focus failures manifest themselves in many ways.  Here is my  guide to the top five failures of focus:

  1. What’s Critical – When everything is critical, nothing is critical.   When what was critical 15 minutes ago is unsolved and is no longer critical, then nothing is critical.  The optimum number of items on your critical care list is situational, and yet my rule of thumb is simply “Less is more.” Separate your list of criticals into near-term and long-term, and attempt to keep the items on each list down to 3. Don’t have more than 5.  When are done reading this article, get the #1 item done today!
  2. Market Focus – You can’t be all things to all people.  Pick a niche, a narrow niche where you have a competitive advantage. Go where a small company can compete on even ground with a large competitor that is fighting a multi-front war.  Pick a niche where you have a snowball’s chance in hell of dominating and not a niche where a snow ball’s chance in hell would be your definition of heaven.  It is tempting for small companies to chase the money, a one-off customer that shifts your focus to chase the money.  Money and short-term greed often blur focus.  If you’re going to deviate, if your going to pivot, don’t do so without counsel and thoughtful discussion.
  3. Accountability – Make someone responsible for executing your company’s critical  items of focus. Hold them accountable for performance and meeting deadlines.  Don’t let the people who are most responsible for the most critical items, including yourself, have the ability to hide behind other lesser tasks. If you’re delegating, follow-up, verify, and create a culture of accountability.
  4. Crappy Presentations – A classic symptom that a management team suffers from lack-of-focusitis is the 50 page PowerPoint, with 20 bullets per slide and 18 words per bullet.  Creating great presentations is an exercise in focus.  Learn how to create short concise presentations and learn how to focus.
  5. Start With The End – Imagine getting into a sailboat and just going with the wind.  How will you know when you get there? Heck, you don’t even know where there is.  Where is this company going? What does it want to be when it grows up? What is its purpose? Create, communicate, get buy-in on a vision, and get the entire team rowing your Viking Ship in the same direction (because sailboats with oars are Viking Ships). Focus on executing that vision, and use your end-game vision as a lens in which to evaluate strategic shifts.  Ask yourself periodically: Are we getting closer? Are we proceeding to plan? Should I make a course change? Having a destination is critical to executing, tracking progress, and managing the crew.  You can’t focus on a goal and the progress you’ve made towards achieving that goal if you don’t have a goal.

Advice is worth what you pay for it, and while this advice from Mr. Cranky is free, these lessons I’ve learned came at the cost to company founders of blood, sweat, and tears, and, to their investors, hundreds of millions of dollars.

Image courtesy of The Viking Ship Museum.

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Glen Hellman (@glehel), is an angel investor, serial entrepreneur, and works for venture capitalists as a turn-around specialist. He is the Chief Entrepreneureator at Driven Forward LLC, frequently muses on his blog, Forward Thinking, and works with entrepreneurs to help them figure out what to do and get them to do it.

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