Escaping the Tyranny of the Day-to-Day

How to achieve focus in life and in business.

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The average American spends nearly six hours a day on digital media, mostly on mobile. We’re lucky if we sleep as much as we type, text, and tweet.

These seductive distractions of the here and now commandeer our attention, control our thinking, and scatter our efforts. We harbor a fantasy that when we finish these “urgent” tasks, we will have the time to tackle the important ones. But our “to-do” lists never end as the additions outrun our accomplishments. The more we switch tasks, the less we are able to do because we slowly lose our ability to focus deeply enough to learn.

This is not just a problem, it’s a crisis — in life and in business. Immediacy has overtaken purpose. Yet it is purpose that gives our lives meaning. We need to make a major adjustment to the way we focus our energy.

The distraction epidemic spans both the personal and organizational domains. According to a recent survey, more than half of all executives feel that being consumed by day-to-day activities is the main barrier to organizational success; some 45 percent believe that this lack of strategic thinking is the biggest obstacle to achieving individual leadership potential.

Leadership experts stress that, just as a surgeon’s intense and single-minded focus during a procedure is integral for a successful operation, a firm’s single-minded commitment to a common purpose is an essential factor for organizational success. This is the realm of strategy, whose job is to define a firm’s purpose in terms that everyone can relate to and act upon. Its aim is to create an intense focus on the right things.

Developing a Strategy

The starting point is to develop a shared understanding of what strategy is and what it must deliver for an organization. Strategy is about making choices on how an organization will concentrate its scarce resources in order to achieve competitive advantage. It requires answers to three fundamental questions:

  • Where will we compete and what is our aim?

  • How will we win the competition for value creation in our chosen arenas?

  • What will be our key priorities for success?

To achieve unity of action, the sum of a company’s actions must cascade from these choices so that all of its constituent parts are acting in concert.

It is crucial to understand that, in a competitive world, strategy is about winning. The heart of a company’s strategy is its winning proposition — the unique difference in its offering that provides a compelling reason for customers to choose it over its competitors. Its winning proposition is the central animating idea — the rallying cry — that unifies a company’s priorities, decisions, and activities.

Google’s winning proposition for its search business provides a good example: “We organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.” Google’s key priorities are centered around three action verbs: organizing information, creating access, and making the result useful. All its resources and the energies of its people are concentrated on providing and constantly improving those three interrelated outcomes.

How can organizations craft a shared framework for creating unity of action behind their strategic purpose? The graphic below offers such a framework that I have found works well in practice.

achieving unity of action

As shown in the above graphic, each sub-unit of a firm needs to develop a clear line of sight to the enterprise’s strategic goals (what the military calls “commander’s intent”) and translate these down into a set of aligned priorities within each function, business unit, and geography. By doing so, they relate all their efforts mindfully to the organization’s core purpose.

A parable about three workmen illustrates the point. A passer-by comes across a construction site, and asks each worker, “What are you doing?” The first worker answers: “I am digging a hole.” The second worker says, “I’m laying bricks.” The third worker stands proudly erect and replies, “I’m building a cathedral.”

It is the role of leaders to remind their employees that they are dedicated to a cause larger than themselves, with the opportunity to make a difference to the outcome. The first worker is not simply digging a hole but creating strong foundations so that the cathedral will stand for a thousand years. The second worker is not simply laying bricks but creating a beautiful façade so that travelers will come from the ends of the earth to admire the handiwork.

The same principles should guide our personal lives. To quote Seneca, “Our plans miscarry because they have no aim. When a man does not know what harbor he is making for, no wind is the right wind.” A modern-day anecdote from Verizon chief executive Hans Vestberg illustrates the point.

When he was still chief of telecoms giant Ericsson, Vestberg regularly gave a talk at Columbia Business School in which he explained a simple yet effective method for ensuring that his daily activities aligned with his organization’s strategic purpose. He said he kept two “to-do” lists. On his left were his tasks for the day. On his right he kept his list of the company’s strategic priorities. Each morning he studied both lists. Then he identified the items on his daily list that most strongly supported the strategic priorities and tackled those first.

Vestberg’s practical example provides a powerful way for us all to mobilize the urgent in service of the important.

Willie Pietersen is the faculty director of Columbia Business School’s Executive Education program Implementing Winning Strategies: The Breakthrough Strategic Learning Process.

About the researcher

William Pietersen

Willie Pietersen was raised in South Africa, and received a Rhodes Scholarship to Oxford University. After practicing law, he embarked on an international business...

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