To Increase Your Chances Of Success, Maybe You Should Be Less Focused

Apr 12 2014, 9:46am CDT | by

Saying you should be less focused sounds strange, I know.

We praise focus to the skies.

We criticize people when they are not.

Heck, even the Harvard Business Review had a cover story back in December with the tag line: “Focused Leaders: How Effective Executives direct their own–and their organization’s attention.”

Given all this, how could you possibly be too focused?

It’s easy.

Here’s where you could be going wrong

The problem with focus has two inter-related parts.

1. You can be so focused on your goals that you miss other (potentially) better opportunities around you.

2. It assumes the path you are on will always be the best way one to achieve your goals.

Let’s take the problems one at a time.

Suppose it is the early 1990s and you are in the media business, a very good place to be back then.  You wake up every single morning focused on one goal: Creating the best newspaper, magazine, long playing record, etc. that you can.  You are creative and relentless in your pursuit.

In fact, you are so focused that you fail to pay enough attention to the changing world around you, and so you and your company are surprised—perhaps fatally so—when the Internet and delivery systems like iTunes make what you have for sale increasingly irrelevant.

(And, ironically, that is true even though you were ideally positioned to take advantage of the change and probably had institutional memory to do so.  One of the reasons old time print communication companies became media giants was that they were quick to jump on newfangled inventions like radio, television and cable when they came along.  Those same companies missed the proverbial boat this time around.)

The second problem is, as I said, related to the first. It looks like this: When you lay out the path to achieve your goal you tend to assume that tomorrow is going to be pretty much like today.

If you do that—and continue to assume your plan is right—when you encounter an obstacle on the way to achieving success, your first, second and third reaction is overcome it. That isn’t surprisingly, most time when we encounter a problem we are told, “Don’t be a wimp. You had a good plan. Redouble your efforts and power on through.”

In other words, focus even harder. Once the goal is set, you are supposed to constantly correct to stay on plan.

And yet as we saw when we were discussing media companies—and we could have been talking about the people who made cameras or pay phones or dozens of other industries you can think of that are now in trouble—that is not always the best way to go.

An alternative path

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Instead of focusing on your plan, focus on your goal.

If you do, you become open to new and potentially better ideas.

Let’s use the world’s most clichéd example to hammer home the point.

Suppose you really do want to open a lemonade stand.

You could draw up a detailed plan showing what your stand will look like, how you will present and price your product and, of course, coming up with the world’s best recipe. If the market seems indifferent, you “just” put in longer hours, create more aggressive marketing, and focus even harder on making the plan a reality.

Or, instead of concentrating on the plan,  you could shift your attention to your goal of selling as much lemonade as possible.

While it seems no one is really interested in yet another lemonade stand, people keep telling you they would love to have good tasting lemonade available to them in the break room at work, something that could be an alternative to soft drinks and water.

All of a sudden you are distributing your product through all those companies that service office coffee and tea machines.

The takeway: If you are committed to the goal—whether it be creating a wonderful media company or selling a lot of lemonade—and not your plan, you become more flexible.

Some would call it becoming less focused.

I would call increasing your chances for success.


Paul B. Brown is the author of How to Think Like an Entrepreneur and Thrive in an Unpredictable Economy.


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