Saturday, 15 August 2009

The Power of Focus

First Published by CIO New Zealand -

The technology industry, indeed business in general, is enamoured with innovation. Any business oriented magazine you pick up talks about innovation and how to be more innovative. Innovate or die is our mantra and we are constantly on the look out for new bright ideas. If you judge us by our actions it seems we all believe that the person with the most ideas will win and all others are doomed. The result is we are constantly looking for and implementing new initiatives. If something is wrong then start a project to fix it. If your competition seems to be better at something than you are then start a project to fix it. If there is a hot new technology out there you better have an innovation fund available to be able to explore it and get ahead. Change is constant and if you can’t change faster than your competition then you will loose.

I am a big believer in the need for innovation in order to be successful but is it true that the person with the most ideas wins?

While I am no expert I have spent a fair bit of time reviewing the “success literature” and trying to understand what it takes to be successful. One of the common themes within the literature is that all successful people are incredibly focused and they practice constantly. It doesn’t matter if you look at sports stars, musicians’, authors, or business people constant focus and practice wins the day. Being a Kiwi bloke, who grew up in the deep south of the South Island one of my favourite examples is Jeff Wilson. Jeff was an incredible sporting talent who represented New Zealand in both cricket and rugby. As a teenager he also represented the south Island in age group basketball. For all his talent however it wasn’t until he decided to focus solely on rugby that he became a true superstar and one of the world’s elite.

Another great Kiwi example is Dan Carter. Maybe the best first five we have ever had. Dan Carter (and Jeff Wilson in his day) practices constantly. As the greatest first five in our history what does Dan Carter spend most of his time doing at practice? I mean he is already brilliant!! My guess is Dan Carter spends most of his time working on the basics, his fitness, his kicking, his passing and his tackling, over and over again trying to get a little better each and every time. I could go on and on with many examples. There are after all enough examples from any walk of life you wish to name to fill libraries.

When I get to work do I see this pattern of practice in the IT industry? Do we focus on the basics and look to get a little bit better at the basics every day? Often the answer is no. Rather we look for that one killer initiative, the emerging technology that will change the world or the silver bullet that will solve all our problems. Some times we even have big initiatives for continuous improvement. ITIL, maybe Six Sigma or Lean IT. Better yet what about Lean Six Sigma (maybe there’s a marketing opportunity for Lean ITIL)! We work hard on these initiatives and we spend a lot of money on them. And when they don’t work what do we do? Do we look to practice and improve a little day by day like the most successful people do or do we look to the next initiative. Usually we look to the next initiative. Indeed, I suggest that if you look back through our history as an industry it is full of silver bullets that didn’t quite fulfil their promise.

I suggest it’s time we stop looking for silver bullets. We stop defining and implementing initiative after initiative, innovation after innovation. Instead let’s look at and understand the basics of what it means to be world class in IT and work hard to implement these basics and get a little bit better at them everyday. Not very glamorous I know, but then how glamorous is it for Dan Carter to take dozens of kicks at goal every day? While it might not be glamorous practice and continuous improvement is the key to success.

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