When I started my first company in the late 1990s, many people advised me on the importance of focus.
“Focus”, I’d repeat and nod sagely, not really knowing what they meant.
“Focus” seemed like an inherently Good Thing™ on the face of it – like happiness and democracy – but a pretty vague concept.
Since then, personal experience has shown me the critical importance of understanding what focus means when building a company.
Focus is absolutely essential when building a startup but it’s also important for companies at any stage so I hope this is useful and relevant to all.
Focus – a definition
So, how do we define “focus” in the context of building a company? I would define it like this:
Focus is maximizing the time spent on the essential complexity of the problem your company is trying to solve and minimizing the time spent on incidental complexity.
Every company and every product is trying to create some value for its customers and users. Without that, the company and product by definition has no value. Typically, creating that value can be thought of in terms of solving some problem for your customer.
The more time you can spend on understanding the value you are creating for your customer – i.e. understanding the problem you are solving for them and solving it – the more you are increasing the value of your company.
Working out what the value is you are creating – the problem you are solving for your customer and how to solve it in the best possible way – is the essential complexity of your company.
In contrast, time spent on incidental complexity does not increase the value of your company and product. It simply takes away time and energy from working on the essential complexity.
In summary, you don’t build value by solving problems that others have already solved – you create value by solving problems not yet solved and, to a lesser extent, by solving problems in significantly better ways.
So, what are incidental complexities?
Here are some examples of the most common ones I’ve seen (in no particular order). I bet many readers will have seen all or most of these:
- infighting between colleagues
- “busy work” that could be automated easily
- reinventing the wheel
- failure to make decisions / trying to keep too many options open
- early stages of recruitment – finding candidates, reviewing resumes
- meetings with ill-defined agendas
- waiting because of colleagues’ poor time-management
- attending conferences without pre-scheduled meetings and clear objectives
- over-analysis of vendor/technology selection
- doing your own IT support
- obsessing over your competition
- pitching investors
- trying to make money from things that are not part of the problem you’re solving for your Customer
- frequently switching between multiple tasks
- rewriting things that are good enough (see my post on Why You Should (Almost) Never Rewrite here)
Let’s look at some of these examples in more detail and try to identify some general sources of incidental complexity.
“We would rather suffer the visible costs of a few bad decisions than incur the many invisible costs that come from decisions made too slowly – or not at all – because of a stifling bureaucracy.” – Warren Buffett
“Commit to making decisions. Don’t wait for the perfect solution. Decide and move forward.” – 37signals
“A good decision is a made decision.” – Clayton Christensen
Many people have written about the art and importance of decision making. I will not attempt to cover this topic in depth.
My view is simply that you don’t learn anything from a decision you don’t make. Whereas, you learn from all decisions, especially bad ones. Fail fast, move on.
Startups, in particular, are all about making high-risk, low-data decisions. If you don’t have the stomach for those, you shouldn’t be running a startup. Deferring hard decisions just creates ambiguity and saps time, morale and energy.
Choice is Bad
When it comes to moving quickly and focusing as much time and energy as possible on the essential complexity of your business, choices are a Bad Thing™.
This seems counterintuitive to many people, especially in the West where our culture is built on the importance of individualism and choice, and denial of such freedom is tantamount to treason. However, choice in areas outside of your essential complexity just slows you down.
In software development, one of the reasons that Ruby-on-Rails is so popular, and one of the reasons why we currently use it, is that it is built on the principle of “Convention over Configuration“. This principle is about reducing the number of decisions a developer has to make – gaining simplicity without necessarily losing flexibility.
Think about every aspect of your business in these same terms. Everyone likes to think that their business is special and unique but the reality is that, outside of the essential complexity of your business, the other challenges you face are common to 90-100% of businesses of a similar size and stage of growth. They are solved problems and therefore textbook incidental complexity.
Analyzing choices that don’t really have impact on the value you’re building isn’t time well spent. In a typical Silicon Valley startup, these are decisions like which accounting system to use, which CRM system to use, which web development framework to use.
Of course, I’m not advocating making completely blind choices with no thought whatsoever. However, what I’ve seen is that people often err on the side of overanalysis. The return on this time diminishes very rapidly.
If it’s not core to your competitiveness or differentiation, why spend another hour or day or week analyzing to make a 5% better decision?
Outsource Everything You Can – Use Specialists and Don’t Reinvent the Wheel
Money spent taking away incidental complexity is money, time and energy saved to focus on essential complexity.
A classic case in point is recruitment – people hate recruiters. With a few notable exceptions, I hate them too. But, they are a necessary evil. At the time of writing, hiring in Silicon Valley is as hard as it ever has been in my memory.
To be clear; recruitment is one of the most important things that you can do as a founder, manager or executive – controlling the quality of the people that you let in is one of the best controls you have over the quality of your company and its output. Therefore, I would never advocate for outsourcing the process of choosing the best people.
But, that doesn’t mean you have to burn lots of hours of your own time on the front-end of the recruitment process – finding people, contacting them, reviewing resumes, screening candidates, etc is not a good use of your time – outsource it. That’s what recruiters do. Their fees may seem outrageous but they’re not when you consider the real cost of the time you’d spend doing it yourself – not only the direct cost of your time, but the much bigger opportunity cost of not spending that time addressing your essential complexity.
Another big mistake I’ve seen is startups taking non-core parts of their customers’ business process and incorporating them into their own product – invoicing, online payments, backup, logging and monitoring, reporting, hosting, etc, etc, etc. These aspects are peripheral to your essential complexity so they should be peripheral to your product. They are solved problems.
Usually, what superficially seems like a simple problem to solve inevitably turns out to be more complex. By implementing the functionality in your own product, not only have you lost that time you could be spending on essential complexity but you’ve also taken on the burden of supporting and maintaining a feature that doesn’t return anything for you in value and differentiation. You’ve basically re-invented the wheel.
Don’t forget that the vendors of these systems understand their overall domain pretty well (it’s their essential complexity) and they are building products that cover 70%-100% of the most common requirements. At the same time, you likely understand your own problem domain better than almost anyone so, if you happen to have unusual or unique requirements on invoicing, data backup, etc, you’ll know about it. If there is some aspect of these systems that you are differentiating on, that validly falls into your essential complexity.
These days, with SaaS companies proliferating and APIs available for more and more business systems and processes, it’s very simple to incorporate all of these important but non-core aspects into your overall offering with minimal effort.
Today, most companies wouldn’t imagine building their own data centers – most companies just use the Cloud (Amazon EC2 or similar).
Take that to it’s natural conclusion – what other aspects of your business can you out-source?
Beware False Economies
In a startup, money is always tight, and managing your cashflow is critical to success. However, it’s easy to let this drive you into false economies.
In every business there is “busy work” that is no fun but just has to get done. In startups, this is a bigger problem because people have to wear many hats so this busy work has to be done by someone who has many other things to do. Some of those things are likely to be part of your essential complexity.
Every case is unique but always think through the true cost of having internal resources spend their time on busy work that could be easily automated and/or outsourced. Again, there is a direct cost but a bigger opportunity cost.
Don’t Sweat the “Competition”
Another mistake I have seen is for early stage startups to waste time and energy worrying about their “competition”.
The reality is that, early on, most startups are in an ill-defined space and still in the Customer Discovery phase. This means your “competition” is hard or impossible to define. Your true competition will emerge over time, once you’re out of Customer Discovery and better understand your positioning.
In the meantime, just focus on creating value. You’ll likely beat your “competition” simply by focusing more of your energy on the essential complexity of the problem you’re solving than others. The faster you understand and solve the problem for your customer, the faster you create value.
Death by Meeting
So many people have written about meetings, that I will only give it a cursory discussion.
In my view, meetings are another necessary evil but are overused. Here are my guidelines:
- meetings should be schedule to 30 minutes by default, not 1 hour
- only invite those people who need to be there. The productivity of a meeting decreases with the square of the number of people in the meeting. Those people that need to be in the loop can be updated by one of the people in the meeting afterwards.
- every meeting has a clear objective – not a detailed agenda, necessarily – a clear objective of what is expected to have got done by the end of the meeting
- every meeting starts on time
Beware the Cost of Context Switches
Another hidden cost of having insufficient focus, is the cost of continually having to switch between tasks. This switching cost is often underestimated or ignored.
Paul Graham wrote a great post on the big impact of context switching to “makers” (software engineers, etc) versus managers, who are generally more used to scheduling their time in blocks.
Actually, the cost of context switch is there for everyone, even the most adept executive with the most fastidiously managed calendar. Research shows that human brains are very poor at multi-tasking and, ironically, those that think they are best at multitasking are actually the worst.
Don’t Underestimate the Importance of Motivation and Energy
If you’re only looking at the time spent, you’re only seeing part of the picture. You need to understand the importance of motivation, energy and morale on your own output and the output of the company as a whole.
Incidental Complexity not only takes time away from Essential Complexity but it also demotivates and saps energy and goodwill, especially when the people doing the work know they are working on Incidental Complexity.
Essential Complexity – What Should You Be Spending Your Time On?
So, what should you actually be spending your time on? What is essential complexity?
It’s tough to give a simple, single answer to this question.
Firstly, it depends on the stage of your business. At this point, I will pause to plug Steve Blank’s book “Four Steps to the Epiphany“. I dont’ know Steve but if there is just one book you should read on how to build a startup, you should read this one.
Early on in a startup, the essential complexity is working out who your customer is, the problem you are solving for them, the value of that problem, what your product is and how you’re going to solve it.
Once you’ve solved that (and only once you’ve solved that), your essential complexity becomes understanding your customers’ problem in even more detail and making sure you are designing, building and deploying a product that best satisfies those customer needs.
Further down the line, the essential complexity will be to make sure you stay ahead of your competition, increase efficiency, etc.
Of course, you can’t also ignore the #1 rule of any business; don’t run out of money. So, raising money is also essential complexity for most startups.
It also depends on your individual role in the business but this is easy to overstate. In a startup, people always have to wear multiple hats. The right things for you to do are the right things to do, whether or not they are strictly speaking part of your “job description”. People who have rigid ideas about job descriptions probably shouldn’t be working in startups.
Some Focused Suggestions
In a smaller company (i.e. a typical startup), the first step is to make sure that everyone – from the CEO down to the intern – knows what the critical success factors of the business are – i.e. what are the things that the business needs to get done in order to be successful. This list will change over time but needs to be regularly communicated and repeated. Achieving these critical success factors is the essential complexity for your business.
With that list in mind, every person in the company needs to get into the habit of asking the following question:
Of the things I could be doing, am I currently doing that task which most contributes towards the business achieving its critical success factors?
Of course, people won’t always get the answer right. Also, very often, and particularly for those people lower in the organization, they may be several degrees of separation away from the overall success factor for the business.
However, don’t underestimate people too much – I think most people will answer this question correctly more often than not. The trick is to get and keep the list of critical success factors at the front of everyone’s minds and to get people into the habit of asking the question of themselves, and of others.
The next part is about communication. People need to communicate what they think their priorities are and why. This helps flush out people’s dependencies on each other.
In a very small organization this can be done verbally. Once you’re beyond about 10 people, it makes sense to write these down and communicate them – I’d recommend weekly, by email.
As the organization grows, you’ll have to get more formalized. In a bigger organization I’ve seen large SIPOC exercises run at whole-company off-sites work very effectively.
Whatever the size of the organization, the most important thing is that you and everyone else understand the difference between essential complexity and incidental complexity and what the specific critical success factors are for your business.
Focus, focus, focus.
Agree, disagree? Please leave a comment (link at top of article).
5 thoughts on “Focus – what it really means and why it’s important”
this was a clearly written piece which makes good points.
Great read, so often we tend to procrastinate with incidentals.
I like the definition of “Focus.” It applies to lots of things we do as entrepreneurs, including but not limited to product issues. Salespeople get bogged down too in non-essential tasks with non-essential people. They feel good about themselves because they are busy, but they are not tackling the hardest / most essential problems, so they are not *actually* making progress.
Love how thought-provoking and topical this is–we can all use it!
Very good article. Could all these be applied to an exporting company in the PHilippines that deals mostly with very impartIal customers (mainly importers and wholesales)? Also, we here compete with …. China, VIetnam & Indonesia. Our products are basically handcrafted like baskets, shellcraft,etc. Would appreciate your inputs. Thanks…