There is a word that is universally loved among those who aspire to grow their companies. It is whispered with great urgency in the hallways of venture capital firms, emphasized in countless articles and blog posts, and shouted from the rooftops all across the land. While it is hard to find anything that virtually 100% of the people vigorously agree with, this word might qualify. The word is “focus”.
Investors preach the importance of focus to start-ups because they (the investors) know that creative, energetic people (the sorts of people who usually start companies) are prone to what I call the “dogs chasing trucks” problem, where every business opportunity that drives by looks shiny and worthy of a chase.
But of course, start-ups are not sitting upon huge legions of employees, unlimited funding, and long planning horizons. So investors emphasize the importance of business focus to their portfolio companies, and say things like “the three most important things for a business are focus, focus, and focus”.
The degree to which people agree with the word “focus” stands in stark contrast to another word. Very few people like this word. They get upset when they hear it. It is uttered infrequently, but is secretly linked to focus. That word is “no”.
When a decision has to be made, our ability to avoid saying “no” is, frankly, pretty impressive. We tell ourselves that we’re being flexible by not eliminating work streams, or that we’re keeping ourselves open to a huge deal that could happen with a little extra effort. “It’s not that much harder to do this in addition to that” we tell ourselves. “The customer is funding the effort, so why not?”, we think.
But let’s not kid ourselves. “Focus” means saying “no”. If you’re not saying “no” from time to time, you may not be practicing as much business focus as you think. And I’m not talking about the sort of “no’s” that are easy. I’m talking about the “no’s” that are hard, that will disappoint someone important – usually an employee, sometimes a customer.
As Michael Porter said, “the essence of strategy is choosing what not to do”. This is easier said than done. Just remember that “focus” is what’s usually said, and “no” is what’s actually done.
Also published on Medium.