Over the years, the success of a business enterprise at all stages has been linked to capabilities in leadership, innovation, customer service, supply chain management etc. These are definitely extremely important issues which must be properly handled by an entrepreneur setting himself to succeed. However, except for a book here, a casual mention there, a very important issue has been neglected, or at least not given the prominence that it deserves. Focus.
Your ability as an entrepreneur to focus on your routine and strategic tasks is key to your success. You are very unlikely to be an effective leader if you are unable to empathise with your staff. And you can only empathise with your staff if you can attentively listen to, and observe them, to be able to detect signals from them. You can not innovate and deliver first rate customer service if you were distracted during a critical meeting with your customers. You can not design an efficient supply chain if you were busy taking phone calls and responding to mails on your BlackBerry during a meeting with your suppliers. In fact, if you keep loosing opportunities to be efficient and effective on a daily basis, and on various issues critical to your business, you will definitely end up without the business sooner than later.
In what areas is focus required? Some business writers identify areas such as ‘Customers’, ‘Resources’, ‘Money’ etc. as those needing continous focus by an entrepreneur. But I think the bigger point is to first develop and sustain the ability to focus on any task at all. It is after this ability is achieved that the entrepreneur will actually be able to establish those issues considered as important to the success of his enterprise in the first instance. In other words, it is only after you have established a disciplined and focussed approach to analysing your business that you can understand which business areas and functions are key to the success of your enterprise. Specifically therefore, my objective today is to help you identify how you can improve your capacity to eliminate distractions any time and anywhere you are handling an issue either alone or with others. We will, in subsequent posts, discuss what you will have to focus on to enhance the chances of your entrepreneurial success.
What is focus? Focus is the ability to create and maintain undivided attention on any one issue at hand whilst at the same time avoiding distractions in any shape or form. There are two dimension to focus: thoughts and actions. When reviewing a strategy proposal alone, you need all the intellectual focus you can muster. This is necessary to enable you understand what is being proposed, and for you to be able to ask the hard questions and/or make intelligent assessment one way or the other. Similarly, whilst meeting with your suppliers, or any business partner for that matter, the only way you can make the most of the meeting is by being completely focused on it. That will enable you fully understand what is being said by everyone; you will understand the implications of all suggestions being made, and be able to intelligently propose and negotiate alternative options. Your mental attention is required in both scenarios. On the other hand, when the gun fires off, Usain Bolt becomes completely focussed on his actions in the next ten seconds or so. The slightest loss of focus will cost him a few milli seconds and possibly the race. That is physical attention. A word of caution though: our thoughts and actions are complexly interlinked. It is therefore a little simplistic to view one as happening without the other. The three examples above are just so we understand the two dimensions.
“If you chase two rabbits, both will escape”
Why is focus necessary for your success as an entrepreneur: Focus facilitates deep perception, reasoning, problem solving, memory and retention. If you can not focus sufficiently, your decision making ability will be highly weakened because your understanding will not be deep. Without sufficient focus, you ability to get things done will be highly undermined. You will end up taking much longer than is ordinarily possible in handling basic tasks. The quality of your output will also be poor because you have been unable to thoroughly analyse the issue at hand as your mind keeps wandering into other issues. Compound this over time and the costs and consequences will kill your business.
What do you want to achieve by being focussed? The benefits of being able to focus on tasks are multifold. It enables you save time on any issue under consideration. Being able to focus also saves you money as you are able to understand the implications of any fine prints to a contract brought to you to review. As you are able to ask the hard questions, your team and you are very likely to be more thorough in your analyses, thereby coming up with the best possible courses of action to be taken on any issue. Focus also sharpens your business instincts as it reveals opportunities to you that are not clear to the unfocussed mind. Focussed entrepreneurs have the ability to think long-term as they are able to clear out the ‘noise’ of the present. This helps them create a vision and a sense of mission that motivates everyone in the organisation.
How do you improve your ability to focus? Once you are able to appreciate the importance of being able to focus on issues and tasks, the next challenge is for you to deliberately create ways you can develop and enhance this ability. Below, I suggest a few ways. However, you have to find out what works out best for you.
- Understand what you want to achieve: I have mentioned elsewhere that the right and best place to start any major undertaking is to understand and clearly define what you want to achieve from the undertaking. If you have set for yourself the objective of setting up the largest pharmaceuticals manufacturing company in Africa, you must understand that it will take a lot of effort. Part of this effort is your ability to create solutions around issues that will constantly crop up. To be able to create solutions, you must first be able understand the issues and tasks. This will require continuous focus on both strategic and routine issues as they arise. Therefore, you must be ready to discipline yourself to give any and all issues the necessary attention (in other word, focus) they require.
- Understand yourself and prioritise your activities: To be able to focus, you must first understand yourself. Selfawreness is the key to self-regulation. It is important that you understand at which timings of the day you operate best, mentally and physically. Whilst most people tend to be at their best in the mornings, some others are at their best in the evenings. You should allocate the most important strategic tasks to the periods of the day during which you are most alert and the routine tasks to other times of the day. Understand when you do what you do best and plan your routine around that.
- Understand that multi-tasking should not be at the cost of focus: It is agreed that the typical entrepreneur must be able to multi-task. But that is not to say that you must do all things at all times and at the cost of necessary depth of analysis and thoroughness required. This is where your sense of prioritisation (discussed earlier) must come to bear. Multi-tasking is not about doing a hundred things poorly at the same time. It is about doing the few important things that must be done, and be done with the highest quality. Your inclination to multi-task must stop at the point thoroughness of understanding is required. Strategic issues in particular, must be given the thorough understanding that they typically deserve. This can not be done in a rush or parallel to several other activities.
- Clear your mind: Attempting to work with a cluttered mind is stressful and does not yield the best possible results. It is important that you de-clutter your mind whenever you have to work on critical issues. De-cluttering sometimes simply involves clearing out some minor routines issues. Other times it is to delegate some assignment to a sub-ordinate who can get it done. For instance simply asking your secretary to take your calls for an hour will let you focus on some strategic issues that need immediate sorting out. You can thereafter return your calls. Sometimes, simply working at a free conference room, rather than your office, can bring freshness and further clear your mind. Just let those that should, know your whereabouts.
- Delegate whatever you can: In this part of the world, many executives think doing everything themselves is an evidence of how ‘brilliant’ and ‘important’ they are to their organisations. This is not only a warped opinion, but it is a highly destructive behaviour to the executive and the organisation. It is your responsibility to sufficiently train your subordinates to do whatever their job definition states efficiently and timely. Functional executives must also be competent to discharge their responsibilities fully. With everyone proficient at his job, everyone else can do their jobs with less distractions. Do not carry anyone’s monkey.
- Maintain a clear work station: Your office or workspace should be clean, clear and simple. Family photos and mementos can make it welcoming and even motivating. Other than that however, keeping a cluttered work station is the easiest way to be distracted. Commendation and promotion should go to your people whose desk are always clean and tidy as a result of their ability to clear their tasks proficiently and timely. Unfortunately, some people associate the number of unattended files and documents on their desks as an evidence of how busy they are! This is not only preposterous but evidence of lack of self confidence. Any of your staff who feels and works this way needs urgent training on why they should get things done on time and how to get things done. Keep the television off, unless you want to watch the news. Minimize all distractions and you will enhance your ability to focus on what is right in front of you.
- Make use of technology: As important as our technology tools, such as our computers, our smartphones, and tablets are, they can be a sources of big distractions. We must use them to enhance our efficiency whilst at the same time disallowing them to reduce our effectiveness. The way to do this is to establish times of the day when you ignore them for the period you need to focus on certain critical tasks. If you have a secretary you can hand your phone to him to take calls and messages with an instruction on when you will return back the calls. Otherwise, you can put your phone on silent mode (avoid the vibration, it is distractive!) so that you focus on any mental issues that needs your full attention. Just ensure that you return any missed calls at the earliest opportunity. With time, you will find out that nothing goes wrong simply because you are away from your phone for 90 minutes whilst you handle very important issues. Set times of the day when you will check your mails and respond to them as well as return any missed calls. Do not create the habit of checking mails erratically and fiddling with the phone as if looking for what is not there! These tools are meant to serve us, not the other way around.
- Create your rules and publicise them: I have an uncle who was among the second generation of northern Nigerians trained by the British. Everyone who relates with him knows his routine. He never gets tired telling everyone what time of the day he does what. As you rightly guess, no one interrupts his schedule, and any attempt by anyone will be vehemently resisted by him! He was a very successful ‘Manager’ in his working days, raising to become a federal commissioner. He is still highly effective in what he does. Create and communicate your routine to your colleagues and partners, and life will be easier for everyone. This will help you do the things you need to do at the time you need to do them. Obviously, the life of the entrepreneur is highly unpredictable. But this is exactly the reason why you must enforce a good level of control and order. Otherwise, you will be tossed around like a leaf in the wind.
To succeed in business and in life in general, we must develop the discipline to focus on issues and tasks as they arise. Our personal and professional relationships are deepened by our ability to focus on our day to day tasks and interactions. Similarly, our efficiency and effectiveness as business managers are highly enhanced by our ability to create robust solutions to business issues and challenges. Our abilities to do all these is made possible if we can focus on issues with minimal distractions. This is a discipline that can be conscioulsy developed and sustained.
I will conclude by telling you this legendary story on focus:
An ancient Indian sage was teaching his disciples the art of archery. He put a wooden bird as the target and asked them to aim at the eye of the bird. The first disciple was asked to describe what he saw. He said, “I see the trees, the branches, the leaves, the sky, the bird and its eye..” The sage asked this disciple to wait. Then he asked the second disciple the same question and he replied, “I only see the eye of the bird.” The sage said, “Very good, then shoot.” The arrow went straight and hit the eye of the bird.
What is the moral of the story?
Unless we focus, we cannot achieve our goal. It is hard to focus and concentrate, but it is a skill that can be learned.
The next post will be on Being the Boss.