Focus your agenda at the speed of light

It takes a photon of light a little over 8 minutes to reach the earth after it leaves the sun’s surface, but over 10,000 years to travel from the core of the sun to its surface. The density of the sun simply means that the photon cannot escape quickly.

Many business leaders highlight need for pace when they mean they want the organisation to do more. Yet driving pace without focus and prioritisation creates an organisation that is like the photon unable to escape the sun. As one strategic initiative hits all the other initiatives they inevitably lose momentum and slow down. An unfocused agenda typically has three negative consequences:

  1. Leaders can’t lead. As the adage goes, ‘if everything is a priority, then nothing is a priority.’ Even the best leaders in the biggest organisations can only focus on a few priorities at any one time. If they try to focus on too many simultaneous objectives not only will they confuse themselves, but they will also confuse the rest of the organisation (see below).
  2. Managers can’t manage. Strategic initiatives follow the law of organisational complexity; as the number of initiatives grows the effort required to deliver them increases geometrically, not arithmetically. Managers are faced with excessive demands on their time and resource, multiple inter-project linkages and dependencies, and unclear connections to their own performance objectives. In response to the many initiative leaders who tell them that their initiative is a ‘strategic priority’, the bewildered line manager’s response tends to be, “Yes, but I have a day job to do as well you know!”
  3. Front-line teams become confused. In 2004 when Stuart Rose became CEO of UK retailer, M&S, he quickly became aware of the problems created by the company’s 31 strategic projects. As he wrote in the Harvard Business Review earlier this year, “There was constant change. The company was lurching from one strategy to another. If a strategy didn’t work by Friday, a new one was initiated on Monday. The staff became demoralised by the onslaught of ever-shifting, unclear messages and strategies. It was a rapid downward spiral.”

So how do you drive focus into your business and enable it to travel at the speed of light? There are three levels of focus and prioritisation that need to be worked on in order to generate a successful agenda for action. By critically reviewing what’s important at each level will allow you and your team to create focus and alignment, and really drive pace into your organisation. The three levels are:

  1. Identify key strategic themes. Distilling your strategy into three to six strategic themes enables you to communicate your future objectives succinctly to the organisation. The key here is to be specific and distinctive, and you should ensure that the key themes would not make sense if applied to your competitors. For example, confectionary and soft drinks brand leader, Cadbury Schweppes, is focused on delivering its goal of superior shareholder returns through the following key objectives:
    • Be the biggest and best global confectionary company
    • Be the best regional beverages business
    • Ensure our capabilities are best in class
    • Nurture the trust of colleagues and communities
  2. Sequencing. Phasing activity provides a clear message to your business and allows your people to focus effectively on the current priorities in the knowledge that they are part of a longer strategic journey. For example, UK bank Lloyds-TSB has set out three key phases to deliver its vision of being the best financial services organisation in the UK:
    • Phase 1: Focus on core markets (delivered through improved earnings quality and exiting non-core businesses)
    • Phase 2: Build customer franchises (focused on extending the depth of customer relationships and enhancing product range)
    • Phase 3: Expanding from strength (using new capabilities to expand customer, market and geographical reach)
  3. Focus on the highest value initiatives. The final stage of prioritisation is, within each strategic priority, to focus on those 20% of initiatives that will drive 80% of the value. Delivering these brilliantly will provide significantly better results than trying to do everything. At M&S Rose reduced the 31 projects to 10 priorities that he believed would make the biggest difference. The simplification of the strategic agenda sent out a message to everyone in the company about what was truly important.

The bottom line

Prioritising effectively and creating real focus enables your strategic initiatives to travel at the speed of light, and avoid being trapped in a dense cloud of projects. How can you prioritise your strategic agenda to drive greater pace into your organisation?


To find out more contact Stuart by clicking here or call +44-(0)1636-526111.