The Burgeoning Need for Focus

How increasing resources can decrease effectiveness.

December 1, 2021 • 5 min read

One of the core building blocks of effectiveness is focus.

Much of leadership training, business strategy, executive coaching, and personal development comes down to focus: how do we choose what to focus on, and how do we stay focused on it?

One of the reasons startups and small indie teams are often capable of accomplishing a surprising amount is that they are pushed, by necessity, to focus. Specifically, they’re driven to focus on the couple core things that might keep them from going bankrupt.

Meanwhile, big companies can put resources into countless initiatives at once. They have the option of spending money on distractions, doomed efforts, politicking, and just generally faffing about. Scale and success make problems harder to see, and distractions have a tendency to accumulate, sapping focus further. All else being equal, focusing an organization becomes more difficult as it obtains more resources.

While a lack of focus is less of an existential threat for better-resourced companies, it is even more important for them intentionally foster focus, absent the constraints that force it. This is why you end up with companies that seem like they could afford to solve any problem imaginable, but instead are keen on having “a thousand no’s for every yes”. As your organization scales and your resource constraints fall away, your ability to focus becomes a bigger and bigger factor in your success.

Getting personal

At the individual scale, of course, focus is also very important. Often you’ll find that effective people have honed habits for directing their time and attention to the most important things.

A common model to help with this is the “Circle of Control” framework.

This is the idea that there are a lot of things we care about, but within that there are:

  • A relatively small circle of things we can directly control. These would be your actions, your words, how you decide to respond to situations, and the like.
  • A somewhat larger set of things that you can’t control, but can indirectly influence with your actions – your reputation, the success of your product, or your team members’ actions.
  • A rather large set of things we care about but cannot influence – the past, the global supply chain, people being wrong on the internet, Joe Manchin, etc. You know, the kinds of things that drive us to doomscroll.

So the idea is that you focus on what’s in your control, to impact what you can influence, and take your focus off of the vast world of things you can’t affect. It’s a really useful framework for managing our attention and state of mind. But.

Scaling, writ small

An interesting thing happens over your career, as your skills and capabilities grow: your circles of control and influence expand. You get more options, more problems you could solve, and more frustrations you could potentially fix instead of just staying zen to.

Of course, getting new capabilities is 99% great!

For example, ten years ago I had to interface with a team that was rather dysfunctional. I had to acknowledge that the team’s dynamics were outside my circle of influence, stay focused on doing my own job well, and not worry too much about the kind of fucked up way this team was communicating – or, it seemed, not communicating. Their priority levels were 1, 1+, 1++, and 1+++. Those were the priorities. It was a whole thing.

Nowadays, I have a lot more tools in my toolbox for trying to help a team prioritize, communicate, and get good outcomes. In that same situation today, I could be a force for positive change.

Armed with the idea that I should try to help improve things where I can, I could start doing my part to improve the team’s dynamics and help them succeed. And maybe that would be effective! Or maybe it would turn out to be a deep gnarly problem, one that is not worth me investing in for this possibly-doomed team that is three layers removed from anything I need to be doing day to day and leading to me being backlogged on other work and my stress levels are rising for some reason and what is going on I thought I was good at focusing?

So while you may start with this helpful mental framework – focusing only on what you can control – that hueristic gets less and less useful as your circle of control grows. Through your career, you accumulate more skills, capabilities, experience, and resources. Over time, you’re less constrained by what you can accomplish, and more constrained by the few things you in practice focus on.

Of course, this is the same dynamic as we see at the corporate scale: focusing your attention becomes more difficult as you obtain more capabilities.

Scaling your own focus

As an example, the global eradication of polio is not something I can personally influence. While it’s interesting and important, I try not to worry too much about it. But if you’re Melinda French Gates, you kind of should be worried about it – along with basically every other human problem – since you could potentially resolve it. You could let the scale of that overwhelm you, or you could build up a big foundation with process and heuristics to decide which species-scale problems you should focus on, and which global ills to, for now, put out of your mind.

In the same way, I am well aware that I do not have the skills or influence required to be an effective CEO of both Twitter and Square at the same time. That is not a thing I need to decide whether I should do. Meanwhile, Jack Dorsey had activist investors descending on him, demanding he focus on being the CEO of just one multi-billion-dollar public company, and for years he was like, “Eh, I don’t know… I just, I don’t want to just focus on one company, I would rather do both, it’s fine.” And maybe he was right! Focusing is hard when you could be doing a lot of things.

This is a lot of why, I believe, so much of leadership revolves around building focus skills. Of course delegation is a critical tool here, as is prioritizing putting time into high-leverage activities. Whether we’re talking people or companies though, the oldest and simplest tool in the focus toolbox remains the most important: saying “No. We’re not going to do this right now.”

So yeah. Focus. You might as well get practicing it now. It’s only going to get harder from here.

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