Illustration: Oscar Ramos Orozco

Be Unapologetically Focused: Why Having a Great Strategy Matters

We will never have enough time or resources to solve all the problems we want to solve. To be successful, we need to focus, and that’s why great organizations have strategies.

Strategy is a chronically overused word, thrown around with such regularity that its meaning is nearly lost.  (When you are told you should do something because it is “strategic,” be skeptical: it is too often code for “just do what I say.”)

Yet a strategy, when properly understood and implemented, focuses the team on a core problem and gives you a framework to prioritize limited resources.

Think of when you’re hammering a nail: when you hit the nail on its head, you focus all the force of the hammer’s swing onto a single point – the sharp end of the nail. This small surface area between the sharp end and the wood results in a great deal of pressure, driving in the nail.

By focusing on fewer things, you reduce the surface area where your forces (time, money, people) are applied, creating greater pressure without needing more resources. That’s how nimble teams compete with the Goliaths of their industry, having an outsized impact in a resource-constrained world.

The origin story of most great companies clearly shows this power of focus. Think of how Amazon mastered the business of selling books before selling nearly everything, Google mastered search before driverless cars, and Apple mastered the personal computer long before the iPhone.

Yet what seems obvious in theory — that a strategy that focuses is helpful — is hard to implement in practice. We constantly hear the siren song of preserving optionality, of the multitude of areas where we could apply our talents, of the revenue streams available to us if we only entered that new market.

Apple mastered the personal computer long before the iPhone.

Developing and implementing a strategy means battling our natural tendencies to say “yes” to everything, denying the very real appeal of being a generalist. It requires constant iteration and willpower, tying ourselves to the mast to keep us focused on the goals at the horizon. As you develop your own strategy to focus your resources, a few questions to keep in mind:

1. What problem are you solving?

Richard Rumelt, author of Good Strategy/Bad Strategy, recommends that a strategy has three parts: a specific problem to solve, a coordinated approach to solve that problem, and action steps to implement it. All good strategies start with a specific problem and an actual obstacle you help to remove for your clients or customers. What’s yours?

2. Once you’ve set your strategy, are you prioritizing your forces (time, money, people) accordingly?

Every decision you make and every resource you allocate should be pushing the strategy forward. If not, you’re missing the key benefit of focus that strategies yield. (And you just might be wasting the most precious resource of all: your time). Take an honest look at where you and your team is focusing. Is it aligned with the strategy?

3. Are you saying “No” enough?

Prioritizing the actions that push your strategy forward means saying “no” to a multitude of other opportunities. Implementing a strategy is a contact sport. You will hurt feelings and be told that you are missing great opportunities. Be firm in saying no, but when you do so, explain to your teams why focus is so important to your shared success.

4. When was the last time you reassessed your strategy?

No matter how fast you run, you’ll never win the race if you’re running in the wrong direction. The world changes around us, and our strategies should, too. Be open to new information and circumstances. If a competitor enters your market, all of your customers start asking for a similar new service, or some groundbreaking tech is introduced to the world, take the time to re-evaluate.

How about you?

How do you keep your company on track and focused?

More insights on: Leadership

William Allen

more posts →
William Allen is the Director of Strategy and Operations at Behance. Prior to Behance, William created strategic partnerships with global brands at TED and was co-founder of the consultancy Industry Digital Media. He is a graduate of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
load comments (7)
  • Chip Dizard

    Great post William. I stay focused by doing the right things instead of doing everything. And as an entrepreneur I have to outsource things that fit into what I do and say no to some good opportunities, because it will take me off course.

    Author and Speaker John Maxwell said it well, “Learn to say ‘no’ to the good so you can say ‘yes’ to the best.”

  • Aaron Morton

    Feedback, that is how I keep myself focussed and on track. Im glad you mentioned Richard Rumelt in the article as his book is one of the few that has highlighted strategy as a concrete concept rather than an abstract.

    Too often i see people confusing their mission statement with their strategy — ‘get more clients’ can be part of the strategy but it is not *the* strategy!

    Great article thanks

    Aaron morton
    The Confidence Lounge

  • Fire

    So true! In my experience, many bosses use the word ‘strategic’ as code for ‘we think this sounds important’!
    And I’m very pleased to have found another Richard Rumelt appreciater…such a fantastic book that helps make good strategy much easier to understand. An absolute must read.
    I’ve written a post on strategy for entrepreneurs largely dedicated to his book here:

  • MYS

    As a graduate student, I’m finding this post VERY, VERY helpful. There is so much to be interested in, and sometimes it feels like unwise “tunnel vision” to hone in on the one project I am actually responsible for! Or it feels SELFISH (mm! smh!). This post helps me to have a long term PURPOSE for strategically FOCUSING and telling myself (and others) “NO” when I want to veer off all over the place. VERY HELPFUL! Thank you for posting!

  • Peggy Lee

    Very true. As a consultant, I hear it way too often. And why is “strategy” more important, and often worth more to the client than “execution”. Kind of interesting that often if I do strategy I get paid more than execution by itself. Which makes little sense since a great plan is meaningless without excellent execution.

  • Lynn Ruby

    Was just having a conversation with a future client about this yesterday. I think this statement: “You will hurt feelings and be told that you are missing great opportunities.” is one of the biggest stumbling blocks for us And often the one who is telling us tht we are missing great opportunities is our own selves!

  • James K Yamungu

    Yes! focus focus focus! #strategy

blog comments powered by Disqus

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 1,140 other followers