You need to focus on your business to be successful, correct? Of course you do, but usually, these aphorisms have the benefit of brevity but beg the question. Focus on what? Most people think that’s obvious – your existing business, surely?

Know your objectives

I’m reminded of the famous Peter Drucker quote: “Management by objective works – if you know the objectives. 90% of the time you don’t”. And that’s the problem. We are not always sure what we need to focus on and not sure if what we need to focus on today is going to be the same as what we need to focus on tomorrow. If we focus on our existing business and do the best we can with it – understanding our customers, knowing their names, producing a good product, being efficient in its delivery – that’s all well and good but where does innovation come? And what if you are focussing on the wrong things? Doing the wrong thing very well – that is going to hurt.

You can innovate on your existing products and services, and that is the obvious place to start. So focus is fine here because it shows you which bits you need to improve. But how about new products and services? How do you focus on something that you’re not yet doing? You know you need to do it because that is how your market is moving. But you have never done it before, so focus gets you nowhere.

And how do you know if your objectives are suitable, achievable and effective in driving the business where you want it to go?

Back to the future

All or most of the language of business is male dominated. Back in the day when men went out to hunt, and women gathered, men had to focus. Binocular vision with a clear focus was needed to bring down and kill their food source. Women, on the other hand, looking for edible plants and roots, tended to use more peripheral vision. They had a more innovation mindset, in a sense, that they were looking around the problem rather than directly at it. Or, describing it differently, perhaps their objectives were flexible depending on what they found, which, after all, determined what you ate that night.

Perhaps that’s the issue with focus. It can get too narrow, and you can avoid innovation opportunities because it takes you away from what you’re doing now. But you know what you are doing now will not last forever. It’s another dilemma that business people face every day. How much time to concentrate on doing today’s work to get today’s income, how much do you take away from that to build for the future?

Focus works, sometimes

Ed Hess, at Darden Business School, has some great case studies. In one, a very successful supplier of home security equipment talks about focus – “Our focus is one mile deep but one yard wide”. Later, he describes how they have the same 25 pieces of stock on their shelves that they had when the company was formed, 20 years ago. Sounds wonderful, but you have to wonder – how long can you sustain selling the same things? In the USA, they just expanded their market countrywide. We usually don’t have that luxury. We have to find better ways of selling to existing customers or geographical area. Focus won’t get you there by itself.

Always question

Perhaps you need to take some of the innovation methods with you at all times – have a questioning mindset, wonder why things happen or don’t happen – is any relevance for your business.  You need focus, of course, on what you are doing now, to do it as best you can, but a softer view is needed for what you will be doing later. As usual, entrepreneurs need to be all things at once.

And as for objectives, you need to regularly test them against what you really want and is achievable. We make sure we do this with our clients. We have plenty of ways and techniques to sense check where you are and where you want to be.

But just blindly focusing on what you’re doing now? To me that’s hocus-pocus.