Strategic planning, and often the execution of your strategy, is about choice – there is a constant tug-of-war between a seemingly endless list of priorities. Strategy is about choosing what to do and what not to do. It’s about choosing what to focus on. Most importantly, it’s about focusing on the most important. The urgent will always be there, like a faithful partner vying for your attention. The important needs to be surfaced consciously. This is the guiding light used to allocate scarce resources. It’s how you get down to frying the big fish and avoid the “I’ve got bigger fish to fry” excuse.

Why a ‘focus’ competency is more important than ever before

We would argue that growing a ‘focus’ competency is more important today than ever before. (Yes, we believe focus is a competency, it’s a skill that can be developed. Cal Newport wrote a book on this, called Deep Work.) It’s not a new requirement by any means – one of the reasons why Apple grew to be the most valuable company in the world is because of their management team’s ability to focus. Nokia’s decline during the same period could be attributed to the same factor – the management’s inability to create focus. (In 2009, they ran 57 incompatible versions of their Symbian operating system.)

There are a few reasons why creating a ‘focus’ competency has become increasingly more important.

Attention spans are short

In a study done in 2015, it was found that people generally lose concentration after 8 seconds (and it’s unlikely that this has increased significantly over the past 6 years). Where are the days of a 30-second elevator pitch? If our attention spans typically stop at 8 seconds, it’s possibly time to consider creating an incredibly focused strategy that can be summarised in 8 seconds.

Distractions are everywhere

Social media and on-demand everything has contributed to the decline of our attention spans. Netflix today counts a show as having been “watched” when a viewer has seen two minutes or more. Several studies are proving that multitasking hurts productivity (in some cases reducing productivity by as much as 40%). Focus and multitasking don’t coexist.

Information abounds

A few years ago, data in the digital universe doubled every two years. Currently, predictions on this data doubling rate are sketchy, but it’s unarguably high. With more information comes more opportunities. And with more opportunities, our ability to focus on the most important ones becomes increasingly important.

Ideas are cheap

Peter Drucker said, “ideas are cheap and abundant”. They are becoming cheaper as information becomes more accessible. The result of “cheap ideas” is that unfinished projects abound, but unfinished projects can’t compound. Creating a ‘focus’ competency will result in doing a few things incredibly well (and finishing them), as opposed to doing a lot of things moderately (whilst remaining unfinished).

Ideas are cheap and abundant; what is of value is the effective placement of those ideas into situations that develop into action.

Peter Drucker

Urgency is real

Recall the days when we weren’t constantly connected – it’s almost unthinkable. Today, Twitter users expect a reply within 30 minutes. To make matters worse, consumers interacting with a company’s chat functionality expects a reply in 48 seconds. These expectations bring about a sense of urgency, which in turn creates a focus on short-term priorities that comes at the cost of long-term, often more important, priorities.

Reporting is required

This is more about a focus on the right metrics, rather than focus in and of itself. More metrics are available to managers through real-time reporting, MI, BI and AI. It’s possible to report on everything happening in an organisation, but impossible to consume this. Hence, it’s critical to focus on the right metrics, and then to track and report on those.  Too many metrics slow down decision making; the wrong metrics lead to wrong decisions.

What it means to focus during strategic planning

It’s useful to distinguish between health metrics and change metrics. When we talk about strategic planning, we refer to change metrics – the elements that will progress the strategy. This is the important stuff, that requires deliberate focus and attention. It’s not the urgent fires that need to be put out – these will create a call on your attention by themselves. What we’re after is how to create attention on the important things that will change your business over the long term.

We can complicate this into a convoluted and obscure technique that paints the picture of a utopian Nirvana-like state of focus that will be reached with enough practice. Or, we can keep it straight and simple.

You need to choose

As we’ve now seen, there is a bigger call on our attention, and more opportunities available, than ever before. As a business leader, you need to create the space to dream, for some of these opportunities to be considered. It’s a space of psychological safety and without the fear of failure.

But then at some stage, a decision is required. Prioritisation is arguably the most important role of the business leader – prioritisation creates a level of certainty and contributes to psychological safety. Perceive widely, but then execute narrowly.

The secret here is in the numbers. Research shows that most people can recall lists of 3 and 5 meaningful items with reasonable certainty. Interesting when you think about a credit card PIN, or how phone numbers are typically displayed in groups of 3 or 4 numbers. Even memory champions like Yanjaa Wintersoul recall lists of hundreds of numbers by breaking them up into groups of three. Now it’s clear why Objectives and Key Results argues for no more than 5 Objectives.

Less truly is more. Settle for three to five themes to focus on, but only if you can’t choose less.

You need to commit

Strategic ventures are ventures into the unknown. Which makes it incredibly hard to choose what to focus on, because it’s an educated guess at best. The “educated” part of it is obtained through committing – make a decision, walk the road and then reflect on the experience. This combination will lead to more accurate predictions over time.

Firstly, commit time. We’ve seen many companies, large and small, take half a day a year to work on and plan their strategy. We’re not clear on how this is even possible. Our recommendation is 2 full days at least, plus regular reviews during the year. Taking a few days out of the office will feel like it’s slowing down, which it might well be. You don’t have to slow down to choose, but you have to slow down to focus.

Secondly, commit over time. What we mean here is that there needs to be a level of consistency over time. There is an increasing funnel of doubt the further we look into the future. This means that the ability to focus will decrease as you look out further. So the solution? Christina Wodtke (author of Radical Focus) recommends this approach: Plan out the next quarter, with one Objective and its Key Results. (Note: Christina, with her extensive experience, recommends ONE objective, not three to five. That’s aradical focus.) Then for the three quarters after that, plan an Objective, without thinking about the Key Results yet. It’s just a plan, based on a hypothesis, that can be confirmed or disproved.

Conclusion

During your strategic planning process, keep yourself honest. Better yet, get someone else to keep you honest. We always overestimate what we can do in the short term (and usually underestimate what we can do in the long term). Stick to three OKRs. Make the choice and commit. Then measure performance against them. And repeat.

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