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Startup Leadership: The Principle of Primary Focus

There are a lot of reasons new startups don’t work out: interpersonal bickering among founders, undercapitalization, lack of validation in product market fit, unbridled optimism (a friend of mine calls it “Hopium”), not enough optimism, poor execution, bad decisions due to group think, and the list goes on.

But what do successful startups do that most don’t? Execution. Traction. Progress. In a word, successful startups master the art and discipline of what I call Primary Focus.  It’s mostly discipline, but it takes art to tactfully implement Primary Focus.

What is Primary Focus? It is understanding what is the most important thing right now and choosing to spend unnatural amounts of time and energy on it.

This is harder than it sounds. Why? First, because in a startup everything seems important. Second, because time and energy get spread so thin, that it’s hard to imagine that focus is even possible.

Understanding What is Most Important

How do you choose what is most important when everything seems important? As Stephen Covey so wisely pointed out years ago in the 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, urgent and important are two different things. Sometimes we mistake the two for synonyms. In a startup, there are always going to be urgent needs that tempt us away from what is important.  But startups that succeed understand that important has to take priority—quite often at the expense of things that are urgent.

In Gary Keller’s book, The One Thing, he argues that to move towards bigger goals, we have to learn to embrace chaos.

“When you strive for greatness, [chaos] is guaranteed to show up. Other areas of your life may experience chaos in direct proportion to the time you put in on your one thing.”

What does this mean? It means that many things that seem urgent have to be sacrificed to work on the things that are most important. The big mistake that we too often make is to spend all of our time reacting to urgent demands. It gives us the illusory sense that we’ve accomplished the most important things. But they are usually someone else’s idea of what is most important. We got back to that customer. We worked out the feud between two staff members. We got through our emails and achieve “Inbox Zero” (have you ever thought about how all inbound emails are requests to fulfill someone else’s idea of what is most important?). Whatever those urgent things seem, they are sideshow distraction from the main event.

And yet, if we let them slip, we struggle to feel like everything is okay. It seems as if the whole world is spinning out of control. It is chaos.

Another way we could rephrase Gary’s second sentence: “Other areas of your startup may experience chaos in direct proportion to the time you put in on your one thing.”

So how do you decide what is important?

Determining Your “ONE THING”

In Gary Keller’s book, “The One Thing”, he argues that when we know the answer to a specific question we’ll know what we need to focus on. Here it is:

primary focus in startup consensus“What can I do that will make everything else easier or unnecessary?”

He calls this the focusing question and it’s a powerful way to determine your true priority. (Note the singular.) At Consensus we’ve accelerated quickly—more quickly than most startups, and it can largely be traced to the fact that as a company, and individually, we ask ourselves this question frequently and then make time to actually make progress on whatever the answer to the question is.

Another way to think about this is the 80/20 rule. What few tasks/projects will drive you towards your goals faster than the others? Now take that smaller list and ask, which out of all of these highly important projects will move the needle more quickly than the others? Eventually one will stand out.

One more way to think about it is: what is the thing that we can use to leverage everything else? As an example, instead of hiring another customer support person, maybe it is building a knowledge base that customers can access 24/7.

Now you know what is most important. You now know what should receive you Primary Focus. But that’s just the beginning. Knowing what to do and actually doing it are completely different things. As Adam Slovik, a mentor and advisor at Consensus, often points out the main thing we work against in growing a business is “human nature”.

Working With Primary Focus

“Primary” because there can only be one thing at a time that will make the biggest difference. “Focus” because unless we learn to manage distraction we will always let our time and energy be used up by other things that by default are NOT the most important (remember, urgent and important aren’t the same thing).

So how do you make sure you make the time necessary? First, you have to get comfortable with a little chaos. Whenever you choose to work with Primary Focus, you will automatically be choosing to let some other things receive less of your attention. This means it will feel messy. As an example, there are times when I have let emails pile up for weeks, cherry picking only the most critical and leaving the rest to languish in the wilderness of neglect. That sounds bad at first glance, doesn’t it? But so what if I’m a few weeks late getting back to some people if I’m accomplishing the most important thing in my business? While I was closing $3M in seed funding on a timeline some people didn’t hear from me. But I got the funding closed. Did that make everything else easier or unnecessary? Absolutely! No, I don’t like having emails pile up, but messiness is a byproduct of Primary Focus. And Primary focus is the only way to achieve something truly great.

Second, you need to commit blocks of time to Primary Focus. Eliminate all distractions and get down to the hard job of making real measurable progress towards that “one thing”.

Tim Paulson, a friend and great motivational speaker, often says, “What you focus on expands”—meaning that if you need something to grow, to progress, just focus on it. The big challenge is that most of us know what we should be doing, but we just don’t do it. Here’s the list of the most common excuses I hear:

  • I just don’t have enough time
  • Too many urgent things came up and I couldn’t get to it
  • I need more resources to be able to accomplish this
  • I’m planning on how to approach this so that I can start making progress [some future date]
  • I’m not sure where to start
  • I have a family and personal life; I just can’t fit it all in

The list goes on and on. I’ve made each of these excuses at one time or another and they are all bogus. If you want to focus and make progress you can. Each of these excuses amounts to us being willing to settle for something less than what we know we really need to get done. It’s all a matter of choice. In essence, each of these excuses is saying, “I just don’t believe that by sacrificing and focusing on the most important thing it will really make that big of a difference.” Or, “I guess I just don’t want the outcome that focusing would give me.” What we do can all be tied back to belief. If we believe it will truly make the biggest difference, let’s stop talking about it, complaining about it, making excuses about it; let’s DO IT!

In summary, Primary Focus is at the core of all excellent business execution. So determine what is the most important (not urgent) thing, get ready for some chaos as a byproduct, commit to blocks of time to work on it, eliminate all distractions, and go to work on it. Teach these same principles to your team and you’ll be amazed at how quickly your whole organization moves forward.


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