A business strategy that’s everywhere is actually nowhere

If you define your strategic focus too broadly, you don’t have a strategic focus.

Geoff Wilson

Remember when Steve Jobs returned to Apple in the late 1990s—more than a decade after being fired from the company he co-founded? Apple lore says one of the first things he did was cut through all the diverse initiatives and products to establish four focus areas with a very simple matrix. On one axis was “Pro vs. Consumer” and on the other was “Portable vs. Desktop.” By doing this, Jobs created a relentless focus for a relatively large organization around only four possible core products.

What are you relentlessly focused on?

That question is a good test of your strategy. If you can answer it honestly, you probably find that “focus” can be a hard thing to pin down. Many business strategies start with goal-based focus areas: grow revenue, reduce cost, improve delivery time, etc. The problem with goal-based focus areas is they rarely constrain the scope of activity enough to create real focus. You end up “focusing” on something that actually can drive a lack of focus.

Focusing on sales growth is a great example. If you’re focused on sales growth, any sale might seem like a good sale. You might take that really complex deal that promises a lot of revenue at the expense of working to develop a customer base that is both simpler and more profitable over the long term. Your sales “focus” creates strategic diffusion.

And there’s the rub. Your relentless focus shouldn’t necessarily be on a goal, but rather on an outcome that creates sustainable advantage. Who cares if you grew sales 20 percent last year when the way you did it isn’t profitably replicable over time? The Steve Jobs example above is actually pretty vague: We are going to focus on four product types. But it created focus on being great in four areas, and four areas only, on the way to broader success on the metrics. The rest is history with Apple.

This post is not to denigrate tactical wins. If you have the capacity and can afford the distraction, by all means, take the money or invest in the new thing. Apple certainly has. But all too often a distraction breeds more distraction. It also creates confusion for those who don’t know the difference between a tactical decision (“Sure, we’ll take that complex project.”) and a strategic aim (“We aren’t strategically focused on complex projects.”).

The takeaway from this one is simple: If you define your strategic focus too broadly, you don’t have a strategic focus.

What do you think? Share your thoughts in the comments section below.

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