Businessman jugglingMany businesses fail to focus effectively. The reason is that managers are swept along by events and have an innate desire to fix everything at once. It takes discipline, and quite a bit of courage, not to respond to every problem or opportunity that comes your way, but as Steve Jobs once said, “It’s only by saying no that you concentrate on the things that are really important.

With that in mind, here are five specific actions you can take to increase your ability to say no, to increase your focus on your most important priorities and to accelerate the future growth of your business:

  1. Reduce the number of ‘special projects’ in your business – now! In my experience most companies have at least twice as many ‘strategic projects’ as they can reasonably handle, even at normal pace. When Stuart Rose became CEO of M&S, for instance, he immediately reduced the number of ‘strategic projects’ from 31 to 10. If you want to put some more dramatic acceleration behind your true priorities, then it’s likely you’ll need to reduce the number of big initiatives by two-thirds or more. Here’s how you can do it: (1) Remove and stop any strategic projects that do not massively and directly contribute to your #1 strategic goal; (2) If you still have a long list – say, more than 5 – determine if there is any logical sequence to the remaining projects, and defer those that are dependent on the outcomes of earlier, ‘foundation’ projects; and (3) For the remaining projects, review them in detail and break them down into sub-projects. Repeat the two steps above so that your initial focus is on only those actions that will both massively deliver against your #1 strategic goal and build a platform for further initiatives in the future.
  2. Establish ‘hidden’ priorities within your priorities – but only if you have to. You may have political reasons why you don’t want to immediately kill all the strategic initiatives you are pursuing. But even in this situation you can still ensure that your focus – and relevant resource allocation decisions – favours your real priorities. At one client, I spoke with the CEO about the fact that he had 15 strategic priorities and challenged him that this was far too many for him to pursue successfully pace. “I know,” he replied, “but I’m only really interested in three of them. Having the others makes sure that all our senior managers feel responsible for a key strategic project, but I have ensured that my very best people are on my top three.” I wouldn’t recommend this approach if you don’t need to do it, but it can be a relatively effective alternative if some projects are at a critical stage and it would do more harm than good to fully halt them.
  3. Ensure that your critical priorities have the resources and capabilities they need to succeed. If you reduce the number of projects you should be better able to ensure that each remaining priority is fully and properly resourced. Financial resources are central to this proritisation, but effective resource management is not just a financial question. Critically, this includes having a project leader who has the necessary technical, organisational and leadership capabilities to drive the initiative and deliver rapid results. It also means that you and your senior team give the project the attention it deserves, ensuring that it has the best possible chance of internal support and ultimate success.
  4. Establish ‘phases’ to the delivery of your strategic agenda. Just because you have chosen not to undertake a specific project now does not mean that you will never do it. Your organisation needs to understand that you recognise all the initiatives that need to be done, even if they’re not currently in progress. An effective way to signal your intent is to establish phases to the delivery of your strategic agenda. Stuart Rose, for example, set out three phases – Refocus The Business, Drive The Business and Expand The Business – each with its own set of priorities to show the business the future direction of M&S.
  5. Ensure the performance goal and delivery milestones of your priorities are well known across the organisation. When I worked with Masco UK Window Group, one of the critical elements of our success  was that the management team agreed specific KPIs that would determine when Phase 1 was complete and when Phase 2 could begin. By sharing the strategy, the priorities and these KPIs with the wider business – through line manager discussions, set piece events and internal newsletters – the entire management team understood what was important and why. This shared understanding enabled the executive team to gain the support of the entire company to accelerate progress and drive for rapid success. In fact, Phase 1 was delivered in a little over one year, finally enabling managers who had been impatient for new product and service development, to begin to share their new solutions with customers.

© Stuart Cross 2014. All rights reserved.