Is Too Much Focus a Problem?

 
 
Summing Up—In a lively debate, Jim Heskett's readers see a downside to the too-focused manager. What do YOU think?
 
 
by James Heskett

Summing Up


What Are the Antidotes to Too Much Focus?

Individuals and organizations suffer from too much focus much of the time. That was the sense of the majority of responses to this month's column. Respondents didn't stop there. They described why it happens and what to do about it. In the process, they provoked a new round of questions.

David Physick teed up the discussion nicely by commenting, "The wonderful American motor racing driver, Mario Andretti, who was as focused an individual as any racer, remarked he'd stop driving when his peripheral vision reduced." Like race cars, he continued, businesses can be 'raced' by drivers whose peripheral vision has failed. "They could see the clear track ahead of them as they initially led their markets but failed to notice the competitor coming up on the inside until it was too late."

Seena Sharp added that companies "fail to consider or know how to recognize what is outside their industry that is impacting their business…(such as) customers who are buying their goods but don't fit the target profile, or alternative (product) uses…Focus has a counterpart which is equally valuable." Carolina Menezes wasn't so sure. As she put it, "I am cautious (about the) … question (of) …too much focus." As good leaders, she added, we need to be aware of the environment to develop awareness to create a spectrum of realities or possibilities. "This is a different kind of focus."

Others viewed the challenge as one of employing focus appropriately or in proper proportion to more broadly "noticing." Cedric Roossel said: "To put it simply, you don't want to be focused during a strategy definition phase but you have to be focused in its execution." Kapil Kumar Sopory agreed: "Excess of everything is bad… it always relates to … the matter in point…(for example) getting big data about our customers and focusing too deeply on it will lead to not noticing other important facets … However, while finalizing a contract document we need to focus deeply…" Referring to an article that "says that most eureka moments come when the mind is relaxed and unfocused," Gerald Nanninga commented that "You need the initial focus to fill your brain with the raw material, but then you need unfocused time to synthesize and discover the solution. It is a balance."

Others identified factors accounting for too much focus. Yadeed Lobo said: "I think focus in organizations might have its roots in competitive strategy, intense focus on differentiation or cost consciousness." Edward Hare put it this way: "Let's face it, we generally get what we incent people to do…senior managers…all want innovation and risk taking … in principle, but they don't have ways of measuring and evaluating it in the short term. So … focus generally wins in larger, well-established organizations…"

What to do about an excess of focus? Kamal Gupta suggested: "It is called 'Tunnel Vision'…. The solution is not difficult. Management has to take a break, like once in a quarter, to take a look at the big picture. Outsiders should be invited … to shake up comfortably held views." Donald Shaw's suggestion was quite lyrical: "Insight is not knowing by some magical process. It is knowing that we do not know everything that might be important. It is that insight that leads to the wisdom to look away from the subject of focus and see what there is to be seen. Marvelous discoveries are made in that way." Is this what it takes to maintain a balance between focus and a broader vision? What are the antidotes to too much focus? What do you think?

Original Article

Focus is good, right? For years we have been admonished as managers to maintain focus: design strategies centered around focused factories that produce better goods less expensively, weed out the product line, grow a business from its core competency, develop priorities and address the first two or three, and organize our time so that we can concentrate on complex issues without interruption.

But sometimes focus can be detrimental to our health, both individually and organizationally. For example, Jerome Groopman, in his book How Doctors Think, advised us as patients to ask what might be the most important question of our lives when consulting with a doctor who has reached, and too often focused mentally on, a diagnosis and method of treatment. The question we patients should but rarely ask is, "What else could it be?" It's a question designed to disrupt focus.

Max Bazerman, in his new book, The Power of Noticing, concludes that excessive focus, among other things, is one of the reasons leaders fail to notice important facts relevant to their decisions. To make his point, he cites the popular example of an audience of leaders asked to focus on counting the number of times that a ball is passed among a group of people being shown on film. In the middle of one version of the film, a woman with an umbrella walks through the middle of group. Invariably, far more than half of viewers focus so intensely on the ball that they fail to see the woman with the umbrella. They are better focusers than noticers.

According to Bazerman, too much focus is one of several causes of our inability to notice. Among others are the use only of information that is readily available (searching for the lost key at night under the street light where the light is better), limiting options to what's placed in front of us, biases regarding information or its sources, undue trust in a complex system whether or not it is understood (such as trusting the financial system to detect and defuse causes of the recent Great Recession without understanding the system itself), and a tendency to discount the future (ignoring long-term effects on global warming in making short-term decisions).

Possible antidotes start with a realization that noticing is something that can be learned, both individually and organizationally, something that Bazerman believes strongly (or he wouldn't be teaching and writing about it). It requires leaders who, among other things suggested by Bazerman, develop a habit of asking the equivalent of Groopman's "What else could it be?" and then listening carefully for the answers.

Is this an argument for leaders to disrupt focus from time to time? If so, how? Are individual and organizational focusing and noticing antithetical to one another, or can they be achieved concurrently? How do we avoid the downside of focus? What do you think?

    • Zufi Deo
    • Founder, www.bizstuff.co
    I agree that too much of anything can be a problem. Standard diminishing returns click in at some point.

    However, I feel there is bigger concern being highlighted here, i.e. the kind of variables that a decision maker focuses on and what moment in time.

    For example, if someone has spent half their working lives in a technical position or part of the business. Their focus will naturally generate a technical mental model and the variables that are important for the related activities.

    However, as they progress up the value chain the kind of variables they need to focus on changes. This means their mind set and need to re configure their mental models goes up.

    This I feel is why there is a perception there is too much focus. I would say its not that focus is the concern, but the variables focused and the need to change the variables as you progress up the value chain.

    Look forward to your thoughts.
    • Gerald Nanninga
    • Principal Consultant, Planninga from Nanninga
    There has been much written on this. My favorite is an article in the July 28, 2008 edition of the New Yorker, called "the Eureka Hunt." The article says that most eureka moments come when the mind is relaxed and unfocused, such as when taking a shower.

    You need the initial focus to fill your brain with the raw material, but then you need unfocused time to synthesize and discover the solution. It is a balance.

    At one company I worked at, whenever someone was struggling to solve a difficult problem, I would ask them to take a walk with me in the wooded area behind the office. I would talk with them about all sorts of things. My intent was to relax their brain so that the eureka moment could occur.
    • Arie Goldshlager
    • Consultant, The Fine Balance Consulting Group
    James and Max,

    This questions remind me of the Yale Insight article on "What was Polaroid thinking?".

    http://insights.som.yale.edu/insights/what-was-polaroid-thinking

    Please note particularly that Polaroid did notice the emerging digital competition, but was unable to respond effectively for the reasons outlined.

    Arie.
    • Max Corling
    • Manager, Blue Mountain Consultancy
    I agree with Zufo. I work for an organisation that is run by technical specialists in their field. They struggle to focus on the big picture and are constantly micro-managing. One brave attempt by a senior manager has been subsumed by an overwhelming movement of technocrats.
    As a result, the organisation is scattered, structurally confused and there are a lot of people working hard but achieving nothing.
    Add to this a lack of meaningful goals and the future is looking grim.
    • Donald Shaw
    • President, Donald E. Shaw, P.E.
    The too much focus phenomenon is very similar to the decision making technique known loosely as anchor and adjust. A set of symptoms and the frequency at which those symptoms lead to a correct diagnosis form a psychological anchor that is stored in memory. When seeming similar symptoms arise the anchor serves as a basis for making some slight adjustments. The benefit of this is mostly speed in making a decision and the fact that it works enough times for the anchor to be created. But what about the time when it doesn't work. What about the time when the similar symptoms are not indicative of the anchor with a slight adjustment? In short we are then guessing.

    In a recent article out of Japan it seems that the Japanese have decided that people may be more useful than computer controlled machines. A reason cited was that machines lack peripheral vision--in other words to me that means they are great at focusing but cannot see what is outside of their normal field of vision. Apparently they think that people are better than computers at looking outside a tight focus and hence computers miss a lot of important information.

    At issue here is how do you know what you do not know. There is nothing new in that. But while a computer can consider anything it is told to do probably better than a person, how does it know what it does not know. How does it know what peripheral vision might reveal when it has no instructions where to look or for what?

    Insight is not knowing by some magical process. It is knowing that we do not know everything that might be important. It is that insight that leads to the wisdom to look away from the subject of focus and see what there is to be seen. Marvelous discoveries are made in that way.
    • Kamal Gupta
    • Co-Founder, Energized Solutions India Pltd
    It is called "Tunnel Vision". That is what too much focus causes, in organizations as well as in individuals. Ohmae has described it articulately in his book "The Mind of the Strategist".

    Polaroid is a well known case. There was a similar one in India. Metal Box, a blue chip company was fiercely focussed on maintaining its monopoly in the business of, well, metal boxes, that it failed to see the challenge from plastic containers which wiped it out in a jiffy.

    The solution is not difficult. Management has to take a break, like once in a quarter, to take a look at the big picture. Outsiders should be invited for it to shake up comfortably held views.

    Else the situation will be like that of a driver who is so focussed on the road that she or he does not see the squirrel prancing toward the car from the trees.
    • boudhik garg
    • student, nh goel world school
    It's not about a problem of focus but rather about the capability, motivation, and dedication to focus.
    • Cedric Roussel
    • Managing Director, KTI Consulting
    Beyond the semantic aspect (in my view micro-managing doesn't mean being focused), maybe there is a question of purpose hidden behind the notion of "being focused". To put it simple, you don't want to be focused during a strategy definition phase but you have to be focused in its execution. In both aspects it is a constraint of resource and time available for the decision-making process.

    So it should be quite easy to decide whether to be focused or not... Except for the fact execution usually doesn't work as good as expected! Do we fail to execute properly or is there change in our environment that makes the strategy obsolete? Depending on the answer, we need to be focused or not... That's the tricky part because the concept of bounded rationality tells us there is no right answer to the question.
    • Kapil Kumar Sopory
    • Company Secretary, SMEC(India) Private Limited
    Excess of everything is bad. This, to an extent, applies to 'focus' also. But it always relates to what is the matter in point. If we are taking a business decision such as marketing our product, getting big data about our customers and focusing too deeply on it will lead to not noticing other important facets where our gut feeling matters a lot. However, while finalising a contract document, we need to focus deeply in order not miss any legal and other aspects.
    We cannot, therefore, generalise that too much focus is counter productive. It will depend on what is before us.
    • Ashok Jain
    • Founder Adviser and Consultant, Hope Learning Solutions, New Delhi, India
    Ability to focus and to take notice are not mutually exclusive. Both spring from a common resource - awareness. As psychological blockades get removed, area of awareness increases or in other words area of perceptual blindness reduces. Awareness applied vertically is focus and applied horizontally is ability to take notice.
    As expanse of awareness increases, focus and noticing can be concomitant. A driver with enhanced awareness while focusing on the traffic ahead can take notice of a stray animal about to cross the road.
    Enhanced awareness enables to focus on the intricacies of a subject without depriving us from savoring a cup of coffee, fragrance of a flower or beauty of rising or setting sun. Awareness can be enhanced through such non-cognitive measures as developing love for the task at hand, compassion, self-respect and ability to listen.
    • mike flanagan
    • purchasing manager
    Paralysis by analysis ---- believe it is just that simple.
    • Steve Percoco
    • Analyst, Lark Research
    I think that focus is extremely important; but the key is having the right focus: applying the proper amount of focus in the proper places to achieve the task at hand.
    • David Physick
    • Consultant
    The wonderful American motor racing driver, Mario Andretti, who was as focused an individual as any racer, remarked he'd stop driving when his peripheral vision reduced. The examples cited of Polaroid or Metal Box suggest businesses being "raced" by drivers whose peripheral vision has failed. They could see the clear track ahead of them as they initially led their markets but failed to notice the competitor coming up on the inside until it was too late. They were in the slip-stream and zoomed past!
    • Murali Parnandi
    • CEO, Omega Smart Solutions
    As people rise higher up the organizational ladder- their horizon and focus needs to widen dramatically.
    I had the opportunity to work for a large organization with various departments. One department had a team of 2 persons working full-time to manually prepare and deliver Reports. There was another department which delivering the same reports, by taking only 30 min per week. The second department had automated most of the data collection by using simple tools.
    Ironically- the managers of both the departments would meet regularly, during various organizational reviews, but could not discuss their data collection mechanisms, because they did not have time and were busy focusing on deliverables and efficiency.
    The first department hired a consultant to help them with their data collection- and it required an outsider to tell them that a simple solution was already available, that too- within their own organization.
    • Dr. Chuck Morrissey
    • Professor Emeritus, Pepperdine University
    One of the most effective exercises I used in my exec ed mgt classes was to have the students try to buy their firm's 'product. This usually led to revelations their current reports could never reveal. Their biggest discovery was to find their resellers pushing the competitors product.
    • Dan Wallace (HBS '86)
    • Partner, Tailwind Discovery Group
    Follow-up to my earlier comment. I recommend reading Greg McKeown on Focus. He appears frequently on LinkedIn and articulates the importance and proper role of focus better than anyone else I've come across.

    In one recent article, he offered up a great phrase: "Explore More, Commit Less.

    See: https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/article/20140519161715-8353952-six-ways-to-supercharge-your-career-by-simplifying-it?_mSplash=1
    • Karen Caswelch
    • Board Member, Indianapolis Airport Authority
    I think there are two ways of learning and absorbing information - detailed and big picture. The real question you are asking is whether the detailed learners make the best leaders? I think it can go both ways - the metal box maker could have focused on trends in the market place (plastic) and seen the competition coming. Bottom line, it seems to me that the more important issue is to ask the disruptive question and then "learn" using your detailed focus or intuitive capability.
    • Charalambos Vlachoutsicos
    • Adjunct Professor, Athens University of Economics and Business
    "Too much" of anything of what managers do is bad for business. Striving for balance is the name of the game.

    Too much focus acts like a funnel leading managers to overlook important issues that they need to address.

    Too much focus isolates managers from the overall reality of their companies and therefore invariably leads to failure.
    • Edward Hare
    • Retired Director, Strategy and Planning, Fortune 250 company
    Let's face it, we generally get what we incent people to do. I've worked with business unit managers who said they're "paid to deliver profits....this month, this quarter, this year". And that's what they're incentivized to do. Far too many can't see the forest for the trees because we pay them to thoroughly describe the square foot of bark we press their noses against.
    The problem is that more senior managers really don't have, or know of metrics regarding a different dynamic. They all want innovation and risk taking....in principle, but they don't have ways of measuring and evaluating it in the short term. So....focus generally wins in larger, well-established organizations anyway.
    • Hong Y. Park
    • Professor of Economics, Saginaw Valley State University
    It is an interesting idea and very important.
    You focus on a tree and lose sight of the forest. The leader should be able to see both. Integration of micro and macro or a tree and the forest is important to see the reality as is.
    Kodak focused on its film business, but did not see the emerging industry in digitization. The company developed digital technology, but failed to commercialize it.
    There are numerous examples of this kind and the author is raising a good point.
    • Seena Sharp
    • Principal, Sharp Market Intelligence
    Focus is important and necessary. Similarly, so is random wandering and awareness. Working with thousands of companies, Fortune 500 and smaller, and globally, we've learned that almost all have this in common: they fail to consider or know how to recognize what is outside their industry that is impacting their business.

    They're so focused on their competitors or product that they don't see societal changes that present an opportunity, or customers who are buying their goods but don't fit the target profile, or alternative uses, or emerging or substitute competitors (who are important for why they're attracting customers.)

    Focus has a counterpart which is equally valuable.
    • Yadeed Lobo
    I think focus in organizations might have its roots in competitive strategy, intense focus on differentiation or cost consciousness. However, most people forget one other aspect alluded to in the prescription of being competitive, flexibility.

    For large behemoths this would be unthinkable if not impossible. The good doctor's prescription is relevant and sounds similar to the one prescribed by Daniel Kahneman about when to think fast and when to think and process more slowly.

    Maybe going for a walk to remove oneself completely out of context prior to making a big decision would be pertinent. It gets some exercise done , clears the head and maybe you might notice something else. Perhaps an addition to a new case study on the ability of macro pauses rather than micro pauses to reinvigorate the decision making process.
    • Gamaliel C. Pascual, Jr.
    • Principal, Smetrix, Inc.
    Prof. Bazerman's research strikes me as complementary to Prof. Christensen's work on disruptive technology.

    The management challenge will always be outracing everybody else to gain core competencies when disruptive technology gains traction (e.g. Apple - the digitization of music and secure downloads = iPod).

    But when do you make the call that the earth underneath you has changed?

    Technology, social, economic, and even political shifts create pressures on each other. Collectively, these pressures seem to have a way of crating gaps and enabling a "game-changer" to appear every few decades or so.

    It is the peripheral players who are outsiders to the main game (be it in finance, information technology, etc.) who exploit the gaps. These players may not even be the first to notice a gap but have the least reluctance to exploit it.
    • Don Powell
    • Retired (Business)
    Dr. Heskett's article is both timely and exactly on target. The power of the computer / computer systems to produce data has intoxicated today's work force. The result is that leaders get trapped in the weeds, where vision is limited.
    • Joe White
    • Mgr Business Continuity & Emergency Planning, Alliant Energy
    A touch stone for me in modulating focus in my role with business continuity and emergency planning is when I'm riding a motorcycle. I need to focus on what I'm doing which is riding a motorcyle; the key is deciding what part of my activity I need to focus on. So, Ok I'm riding a motorcycle on public roads, the key being public roads. That being said it would appear the focus is simple - I need to focus on "the road". My definition of "the road" is not is a what is a few feet or yards in front of me on my motorcycle but consists of that view plus looking ahead blocks or miles or as far ahead as I can see while not losing focus on what's directly ahead of me. I also need to be looking to the side of "the road" for intersections, drive ways, farm lanes, animals, bicycles, pedestrians, and utility vehicles. I also need to understand surface condition of "the road", it's camber, the ambient temperatur
    e so I can relate tire adhesion to road surface, general weather conditions, is there gravel in the corners, is this a high traffic area, and so on. So while I'm intently focused on "the road" the definition of "the road" is far beyond what I'm physically travelling on. If I focus for too long on anyone aspect that I have listed I put myself at risk.
    To avoid putting myself at risk my focus stays intently on "the road" without any one part of the definition of "the road" taking too much of my attention within my focus. So I have a narrow focus of a concept "the road" within which I have many activities to focus on to successfully ride a motorcycle on the road. Taking that idea into business continuity and emergency planning keeps my focus narrow but my activities, what I'm paying attention to, are many.
    • Carolina Menezes
    • Executive Coach, Clustform
    I am cautious when I suggest that the question is not around too much focus. Your pertinent question: 'What else could it be? is what we may ask about the statement closing the counting passed balls experiment: "Invariably, far more than half of viewers focus so intensely on the ball that they fail to see the woman with the umbrella. They are better focusers than noticers".
    Some answers to that question may be: It could be that we (western civilizations) are used to follow instructions rather than be attentive to the situation, and as good leaders tend to be also good followers, this is why; it could be that we have difficulty with multitasking, this is why, etc.
    We need focus to progress in any course of action. Athletes focus on getting better and better and focus on every detail that may create the difference to achieve outstanding performance.
    We need to be aware of the environment to sense freely; to develop awareness to create a spectrum of realities or possibilities, which have not been thought or are not clearly visible. This is a different kind of focus. It is about the large and deep attention to what surround us. And it may be developed by mindfulness practices, among others. Inability to notice is not a signal of too much focus. If so most of us would be great doers! Instead it is more likely narrow awareness, narrow view. I am sorry to comment just when I am not attuned with the idea, as I follow your posts and get great input from them. Thanks.