Focus Time: How to Improve Strategic Decision Making

A wise comedian said, “10% of the world thinks, 20% thinks they think, and 70% would rather die than think.” In this age of continuous distractions, even the 10% may be decreasing! My own biggest challenge in this equation is to carve out time to think deeply about the most important questions I face in business and life planning. It’s all too easy to get absorbed in the day to day routine, and bounce from one captivating topic to another. Focused attention is different. And it’s difficult. To have true success with focus, it’s vital to have the tools, methods, and disciplines to get you there. One key tool I have incorporated into my own life is the practice of structured focus time. Below is a story of a female CEO who saved her company from loosing millions of dollars in value because she took time to incorporate this tool. Here is her story.

Stop, Think, and Change Your World

Dawn was facing a dilemma. Her company had grown from a little start-up to a thriving business in a digital media space. Revenues had peaked and were no longer increasing. Dawn needed time to think about the future. She set aside a block of time to STOP and BREAK HER ROUTINE. She went to a private setting where she knew she would be undistracted and thus open the avenues to creativity. She cut out emails and phone calls. She committed to letting these pile up until 2:00PM, so that from 8:00AM to 2:00PM she worked alone. She turned her cell phone off, knowing that if she answered even one phone call, she would leap into a completely different brain wave and derail her ability to concentrate and focus on the most important question: “What is the biggest risk we face today as a company and how do we mitigate this risk?” She took time to READ, REFLECT, AND REWRITE her assumptions about the business. She recognized that the habits and strategies that got her company to where they were today were not the habits and strategies that would get them to the next level. Something had to change.

Here is the routine I coached Dawn to use for Focus Time:

1. Start by reading something strategic, perhaps from one of the favorite classics in business, Good to Great. Take forty five minutes to an hour just to get the mind in gear.

2. After that hour of solid intake, start to jot down ideas. You can use an iPad, but there’s something about the creative act of pen to paper that puts your brain on a different path. Ask two simple questions : What is the biggest risk we face today as a company? How can we defend against this risk and survive to grow again? Write out your company’s strengths, the threats, the larger vision. Then, let yourself go, and write about what has been gnawing at you deep inside your “gut feelings.” In Dawn’s case, she scrawled that the company could no longer compete effectively against the rising behemoths in the industry. Worse, she felt she did not have the capital nor the right people to engage in the fight to get back on top.

3. Take a refresher break after writing and thinking; go for a walk or do something that will let your mind roam and reflect. Give your mind the freedom to connect loose dots together. Take 60 to 90 minutes so you’re fully refreshed. Then come back to your note pad and begin to write down more ideas; put pen to paper and let it flow - honestly. Dawn recorded three brutal facts: 1. Her company had grown swiftly. 2. New well capitalized competitors had entered her market space. 3. Her revenues were declining.

Dawn came away from her Focus Time with one key question: “Should we sell the company and prevent the destruction of further value?” She engaged two key advisors, one of whom was a venture capitalist. He encouraged her to sell, giving a very strong rationale. She then engaged the management team, and through a series of meetings, all held in a short time frame, the consensus was that it was time to sell and avoid the risk of a major loss in value. The decision was gut wrenching, and would not have been faced as directly if Dawn had not taken the necessary time to focus her own thinking, listening carefully to both her rational mind and her gut instincts. Ultimately, the company was sold and she saved the company from destroying millions of dollars of value by trying to compete in a space that would have been nearly impossible to win.

The lesson is not that focus time always produces a great decision. The lesson is that without focus time, you increase the probability of missing a key strategic question you need to be answering and acting upon. Leaders must step out of the flowing river, move to the banks, and sit thoughtfully to observe what is happening. Through focused attention, the problems have an opportunity to crystalize in your mind. So ask yourself two questions:

Do you take regular time alone to STOP and THINK about the future of your organization and the future of what you are trying to create as a leader?

What is the most important question you need to be asking yourself? Write it down and then block out time to FOCUS, REFLECT, AND DISCUSS with at least two key people. Don’t let yourself get distracted. Be part of the 10% who actually think - and change your world for the better as a result.