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STRATEGY

How to Capitalize on Your Lack of Focus

Lack of focus can be a core competency. Here are six principles to encourage innovative thinking, lots of experimentation, and an entrepreneurial spirit.
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Like many of you, we are trying to build a fast-growing company, which requires us to respond quickly to new market opportunities and changing customer demands.  Conventional wisdom tells us that a focused organization is a nimble organization. As a team, however, we’re fairly unfocused–and yet we’ve built an Inc. 500 growth company.  How is this possible?

We’ve actually embraced our lack of focus as critical to our success. The fact that we routinely have five to 10 business initiatives going at once, and we often have trouble describing to outsiders what we “do,” is a core competency.

There are six underlying principles that we’ve tried to instill in our organization to support this philosophy, which we believe is critical to achieving growth:

  1. Build a Team of Entrepreneurs

    If you are going to be unfocused as a company, you’d better build a team that can thrive in an uncertain environment. The team must have the freedom to make bets, explore new possibilities, and most importantly, fail without negative career consequences.

  2. Break Up Into Smaller Teams

    Build a culture and organization that allows people to define their own priorities and take action without a lot of oversight and approvals. In our experience, this means working in teams of five or less. Once you create teams that are larger than five people, you inherently create multiple levels of hierarchy and decision-making authority. Getting approval from your boss’s boss is exponentially more difficult than getting two people aligned and discourages experimentation.

  3. Explore Areas of Customer and Market Demand

    Think of all the things a customer, investor, colleague, or advisor has asked you over the last month. These all represent potential areas of customer demand.  They may or may not represent a potential business, but these simple requests could signal a broader customer need that’s worth exploring further.

  4. Build a Capability to Evaluate Quickly

    This can be as complex as building a standardized investment model for your company or as simple as a few rules of thumb. The important thing is to have a regular process, possibly a biweekly meeting, to discuss the results of your business experiments. Which ones are going well and which ones need to be reconsidered?

  5. Be Fact-based

    Emotion and gut instinct are critical elements of an entrepreneurial and proactive culture. In order to evaluate new ideas, however, you must be dispassionate and fact-based. Our team tries to drop personal biases and swing into a fact-based evaluation mode when choosing whether to continue business initiatives.

  6. Pivot or Kill Under-performing Initiatives Quickly

    The risk in making a bet is defined purely by the potential downside. If your team can change course, or cut off investment in a poor-performing business initiative within a few weeks or months, the risk is minimal. You’ve only invested a few weeks of the team’s time, and you’ve been able to explore an ideal that could be big for your business. We find that even when we don’t find an attractive business, we learn enough in the process to set up our next experiment.

So, you can create consistent growth by being unfocused. We’ve even found a way to profit from our lack of focus. Is this growth sustainable? Time will tell.

What are your thoughts on focus or the lack thereof? Share your experiences with us in the comments below or at karlandbill@avondalestrategicpartners.com.

IMAGE: Shutterstock
Last updated: Mar 26, 2012

KARL STARK AND BILL STEWART | Columnist | Co-founders, Avondale

Karl Stark and Bill Stewart are managing directors and co-founders of Avondale, a strategic advisory firm focused on growing companies. Avondale, based in Chicago, is a high-growth company itself and is a two-time Inc. 500 honoree.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.



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