My favourite quote of all times is: “Simplicity is the work of genius.” With time, I have learned that simplicity is ultimately a matter of focus and that lack of focus, not lack of time, is a key obstacle to success.
When we talk to job-seeking candidates (in or out of a job), many tell us that they feel stuck. They tell stories of being in a powerless vacuum doing things they are indifferent or modestly enthusiastic about, yet they feel somehow compelled to do it. They feel frustrated and confused. Often they ask, “Am I in the right job?” or “How do I find time and energy to do what is important to me? What they should be asking is, “Am I using the time and strengths I have properly?” I often remind them that they have the same amount of time available that people like Winston Churchill and Maersk McKinney-Moeller had, perhaps more. For the record – Winston Churchill wrote more than 40 books (in addition to thousands of articles) and was awarded The Nobel Prize in Literature in 1953 for “his mastery of historical and biographical description as well as for brilliant oratory in defending exalted human values.” He took part in 4 wars – being taken prisoner of war in one of them. Serving two different parties and two separate terms as Prime Minister, Churchill was a member of the British Parliament for almost 55 years spanning the reigns of 6 British monarchs. Additionally, Churchill was an accomplished artist. He was in his 40’s before he began painting, but would go on to become a prolific artist, creating more than 500 paintings over a 48-year period – most paintings today being sold in excess of 1 Million GBP. So what is the clue here? The clue is simple: Time depends on your ability to focus and make choices that support the critical paths to your success.
I often urge candidates to view time as a focus exercise. I first ask them to split up their life into the following interdependent elements: professional life and personal life. As they are each large and complex entities, I then ask the candidates to break them down into sub-elements (i.e. sub-elements that they deem critical to their success and that are important to them—e.g. network, stakeholders, personal-, professional- and/or leadership competencies etc.). Then I ask them to sort and prioritize these sub-elements in relation to their criticality and then focus their energy on the elements at the top of the list. When they perform this exercise, I continually remind them that killing some of their babies on the way is required to ensure focus on the important things. Time is now allocated to what can truly make a difference in their lives. The results of these exercises are often that time is freed from unimportant goals, priorities and activities and directed to actionable activities that support the critical paths to their success. The positive side effect of this exercise is also, that the candidates mentioned above who felt "stuck" in their career bring new focus and energy into the equation - often discovering new pools of motivation in relation to their current or future job.
High performers are better able than average performers to differentiate between what is important and what is unimportant. They have an eye for filtering out time-eaters and accomplish more through focused thinking, and avoiding distractions by narrowing their minds and focus on what is relevant in reference to the critical path—e.g. of a company.
Most established companies know that there must be a mechanism to strategically focus the organization on what it does best and keep it from getting distracted by other opportunities in order to gain—and hopefully sustain—competitive advantage. This includes ensuring that a clear organizational raison d’etre exists e.g. purpose, vision, mission, values, goals; a narrowly defined value proposition of the business is set and a distinctive competency deployed in the organization—i.e. what the organization can be better at than any one of its competitors.
Obviously, organizations can operate without strategic focus; however, it is our experience that companies that develop and adhere to a strategic focus also have a significant competitive advantage in the long-term. The same principle applies to individuals.