When Steve Jobs returned to an almost bankrupt Apple, he could have tried to maximize profits by squeezing every cent out of each of the existing product lines. Instead, he went from hundreds of products down to 10. It was a radical move. After all, he cut out profitable business lines at a time when the company appeared they could least afford it. And yet, that single move began Apple’s transformation into one of the most valuable companies in the world.
Contrast this with the CEO of another globally recognized firm who recently published his eight priorities for the year. It was no accident that there were eight product lines. In other words, everything was a priority. This represents a problem for the employees. In particular, they have multiple competing products in the market place but the CEO will not define what the real focus should be. I have worked with this organization at every level of seniority and from Silicon Valley to Singapore. I have noticed that everybody knows the tough decisions have not been made. The result is diffused effort. It is simple mathematics: if I try to do eight (or 10 or 20) things instead of two or three things then I simply cannot do them as well.
Job’s genius is hidden in plain sight. He said, “People think focus means saying yes to the thing you’ve got to focus on. But that’s not what it means at all. It means saying no to the hundred other good ideas that there are. You have to pick carefully. I’m actually as proud of the things we haven’t done as the things we have done. Innovation is saying ‘no’ to 1,000 things.”
In other words, we can either do many things reasonably well or we can do a few things really well. When we focus on more, then we simply can’t do it all as well. On the other hand, if you focus on fewer things you can go higher.
This principle applies both to the life of business and the business of life. In business, an executive who tries to focus on 8 or more priorities will make some progress in all of them but will struggle to be game-changing in any of them. In life, a person who tries to be good at too many things in their career will find it hard to distinguish themselves significantly. The distinction is made beautifully by Bruce Lee who wrote, “I fear not the man who has practiced 10,000 kicks once, but I fear the man who has practiced one kick 10,000 times.”