Keeping eye on the target: The focus imperative in the world of business

Focus is important for business leaders. Solving hard problems requires discipline and perseverance.

Keeping eye on the target: The focus imperative in the world of business

Sunday February 04, 2024,

5 min Read

As with many children growing up in the eighties, reading Amar Chitra Katha was a cherished pastime for me. Each book, from Panchatantra stories to accounts of famous battles and brave kings, offered inspiration and valuable life lessons. Among the stories that left a lasting impact on me was the tale of Arjuna from the Indian epic Mahabharata. Renowned as the most skilled archer and warrior in all of India, Arjuna's unwavering focus on his target set him apart from other warriors of his time.

Arjuna’s ability to concentrate on his target was vividly showcased during an archery competition. The challenge was to hit the eye of a rotating fish suspended from the ceiling while looking at the reflection of the fish in a water-filled basin below. He was the only archer to hit the target accurately.

Arjuna's focus on a singular goal amid distractions clearly demonstrated that focus involved not only identifying what to work on but also what to ignore.

Focusing single-mindedly on a mission is easier said than done, especially when you have multiple priorities and limited time on hand. In my nearly 25 years of corporate experience, I have had the opportunity to build several businesses from scratch, including Amazon’s India Mobile and Consumer Electronics business and the now-defunct Amazon’s online wholesale business in India. In each of these roles, the struggle to focus on the most important problem at the moment was real—how can you dedicate time to one or two problems when there are several urgent problems to deal with?

I can see even the smartest business leaders struggle with focusing on the most important problem at hand. On reflection, I see a few psychological patterns driving their behaviour: 

Cherry Picker Syndrome

What can potentially be wrong with fixing problems that give immediate results? Well, by constantly opting for easy wins or the proverbial low-hanging fruit, there's a risk of overlooking systemic problems or fundamental changes needed for future growth and stability.

When I started Amazon’s wholesale business in India, my target customer segment was the small mom-and-pop stores. However, in the absence of a seamless financing solution, I was struggling to get their business. Meanwhile, several large enterprise customers were knocking on the door and asking that we become a wholesaler to them. It was quite tempting to start serving these large customers as it seemed like a quick and easy way to drive sales. However, each of the large enterprise customers had slightly unique fulfilment requirements. If we had started serving all of those unique requirements, we would not have been able to solve the problems of our target customers, which was much more important for long-term business growth and stability.

Land Rush Syndrome

It is quite understandable that a business leader would fear being outwitted by competition, and, therefore, would want to expand their business footprint quickly. It is, however, essential to prove the business model before scaling it rapidly.

This reminds me of the famous basilica, La Sagrada Familia, in Barcelona, Spain. The construction of this magnificent basilica started in 1882 and continues to date. Antoni Gaudi, the famous architect who designed the basilica, realised that his grand vision for the basilica couldn’t be completed during his lifetime. Therefore, instead of working on all three proposed facades of the basilica and leaving all of them half-built, he decided to focus and complete only one during his lifetime. Through this focused approach, he managed to clearly demonstrate the grandeur of his vision and win the trust of his investors who continue to fund the construction of the basilica to this day. 

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Safety Net Syndrome

It’s common to hear, “Let’s launch our product simultaneously in Market A and Market B. If Market A doesn’t work, at least Market B will work.”

Unfortunately, having multiple backups in a plan makes the plan weaker not stronger. Working on the primary and the secondary plan simultaneously takes away the resources (time, energy, attention) that could be better utilised in improving the primary plan or developing skills to handle unforeseen challenges with the primary plan. 

Chasing Shadows Syndrome

Given the strong interplay between various business inputs, it can sometimes become hard to distinguish cause from effect, leading business leaders to attempt to fix everything at the same time.

As an example, one of the companies that I worked with was struggling with declining sales, high unsold inventory, and poor profitability. Each of those factors had an impact on the other. However, solving all three together was not the answer because each problem required dedicated attention, and fragmenting the limited resources and management bandwidth across the three would mean not solving any of the problems.

In such situations, it is always better to take one problem and rally the entire company to solve that problem. In The Power of Habit, Charles Duhigg describes how a ‘keystone metric’ and the habits it formed enabled Paul O’Neill Sr to transform one of the largest, most divisive, and unwieldy corporations in America.

Being focused doesn’t mean being married to one problem or solution approach forever. Depending on the situation, business leaders need to be opportunistic, shift course, and even completely pivot if necessary. They, however, should still have only one plan of record at a time.

(Kaveesh Chawla is a Partner on the Private Equity team at Premji Invest.)

Edited by Kanishk Singh

(Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of YourStory.)

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