Focus: The ingredient that most companies and many employees miss

Look around. Think back to your organizational experience. I have done the same. Over three decades, working in organizations and carrying out research into organizations, I have concluded that very few companies succeed in implementing their strategy.

Of course, some execute their strategies successfully. My research suggests that what differentiates these companies from the others is that they have a great leader and a high maturity level in the key elements of their organization.

And there is another ingredient common to companies which execute strategy successfully: their ability to focus.

The reality is that most companies and many employees are highly unfocused. As a result, top management has difficulty setting and communicating a ranked list of priorities; and most staff members end up deciding on their own where to put their efforts, which will probably be on easy and irrelevant tasks. This lack of focus creates a huge amount of wasted money and resources, the inability to execute the strategy, project failures, and unhappy and uncommitted employees. Successful individuals are highly focused, and the same applies to organizations. While every business is focused when it is starting, only those that manage to stay focused will succeed and stay in business.

So, what are the characteristics of a focused organization? To explain, I use FOCUSED as an acronym standing for:

F — Fewer projects, rather than many. A focused organization that can effectively select and prioritize its projects and invest in just a few good initiatives outperforms organizations that take on too many projects and products. Some of the greatest business leaders, like Steve Jobs, rightly comment that saying “No” is one of the most difficult tasks of a leader. Nevertheless, the leaders of an organization that wants to become focused will need to learn to say “No” to many initiatives.

O — Organized staff. In a focused enterprise, the staff is organized in such a way that all personnel know what is expected of them and how their work contributes to the achievement of the strategy. They do not waste time on activities that are not part of their core skill set; rather, they focus on their key strengths and exploit the core competencies of the company.

 C — Competitive mindset. The focused company competes with the outside world rather than internally. Internal competition is minimized because all of the organization’s effort is placed on doing what it does best.

 U — Urgency. In business, time flies—even more so with the current level of globalization. Organizations need to launch their initiatives quickly. The time-to-market for new products must become shorter and shorter. Creating a sense of “urgency” is a competitive advantage, and the focused organization is always aware of this fact.

 S — Strategic alignment. Every initiative at a focused organization is linked to a strategic objective. Any project that is not so linked is immediately cancelled (the book explains how to identify these projects and how to stop them).

E — Excellence. A focused organization applies the highest standards, and the key initiatives are managed by the best people. Employees understand the importance of quality and continuous improvement. With this approach, there is little room for internal politics.

D — Discipline. Companies today need the discipline to execute their key initiatives; without it, consistent performance becomes very difficult. Of course, there is a need for creativity and flexibility as well. The challenge for the CEO and the company’s entire management team is to find the right balance between discipline and creativity/flexibility.

An organization has to go through a large transformation project to become truly focused. It isn’t easy. It demands time and resources, but the pay-offs are considerable. The most important benefits are:

  • Achievement of strategic goals. Everybody in the focused organization, from the CEO to the accounts payable employee, knows the direction in which the organization is going, which two to three initiatives are the most important, and the business case for these few critical initiatives. All employees are extremely committed to helping the organization to become the best.
  • Become more agile and highly responsive to market changes. Identifying an optimal balance between the run-the-business and the change-the-business dimensions will bring lots of benefits to the organization. The result is that one plus one will be three. The organization will become agile and more responsive to market changes and competition. Eventually, the organization can become a trendsetter and market leader.
  • Happier and fully engaged employees. Focus brings happiness to staff members: they know how to contribute to the company’s success, they are proud to belong to it, and they are ready to work harder. The fact that the company will be focused will create less tension and more harmony, and work will change from stressful and pressured to positive and rewarding. A healthy spirit will develop throughout the organization.
  • Positive financial results. This is probably the most important benefit of becoming a focused organization since organizations need to have good financial results to survive and to please their shareholders. The focused organization reduces costs by cancelling those projects that are not relevant, a step that can result in huge savings. Also, the focused organization chooses only those initiatives that will bring significant added value to the group.
  • Develop into a high performing organization. Project teams are identified with the project objectives/goals and are willing to work hard because they enjoy what they are doing.
  • Attain a culture of getting things done. Today, many organizations love to discuss new business initiatives, but they stop at the discussion stage. A focused organization selects just a few initiatives and gets them done.

Like all of the great business concepts, the case for focus is simple, irresistible and highly demanding to pull off. But that does not mean it can’t be done. Indeed, to succeed in the long term, it must be done by any organization – or individual.

About the author

Antonio Nieto-Rodriguez is a professor of strategic change and project management at several business schools (Duke CE, Instituto de Empresa, Solvay, Vlerick). He is also an author of the book The Focused Organization, have been featured in several magazines, including Singapore Management Institute, Business Strategy Review and The Economist.

Antonio loves to speak to large audiences – he is a regular keynote speaker at international events, where he speaks on strategic transformation and focus. In the past months he has been keynote speaker in conferences with thoughleaders Bob Kaplan, Rita McGrath, as well as politicians Didier Reynders and Donald Tusk, President of the European Council.

Antonio specializes in running workshops with senior executives to increase their focus and improve their strategy execution dexterity. He has an MBA from London Business School and his education spanned Germany, Mexico, Italy, USA, Spain and the UK.

He is currently a Director Head of PMO at GlaxoSmithKline Vaccines.

Previously he worked in the banking sector, for BNP Paribas Fortis, where he implemented Project Portfolio Management practices to help the Executive Committee select, prioritize and execute 150+ projects and a budget of +100m euro yearly. Prior to that he was a Head of Post Merger Integration, leading the largest takeover in the financial service history: the acquisition of ABN AMRO.