Focus, Simplify, and Execute

If the pace of business has made it impossible to deliver quality service, then perhaps now is a good time to refocus on what matters most.

It’s remarkable how much about business we can learn by studying nature. For example, scientists can look at the rings of trees and make educated guesses about climate and growing conditions hundreds and even thousands of years ago.


One of the things we learn from studying the growth of trees is that during seasons when conditions are ideal, trees grow at a normal rate. However, during seasons when growing conditions are not ideal, trees slow down their growth and devote their energy to the basic elements necessary for survival.

Or consider this: airplane turbulence. The most common cause of turbulence is a sudden change in air movement causing the aircraft to bounce (or, from what I understand, the technical terms are “pitch,” “yaw,” and “roll”). While planes are built to withstand far greater turbulence than anything you would encounter on a regular flight, and I prefer a flight that has a healthy amount of it, it still may be disconcerting to some passengers.

What do you suppose pilots do when they encounter turbulence? A student pilot may think that increasing speed is a good strategy because it will get them through the turbulence faster. But that may be the wrong thing to do. Professional pilots understand that there is an optimum turbulence penetration speed that will minimize the negative effects of turbulence. And most of the time that would mean to reduce your speed. The same principle applies also to speed bumps on a road.

Therefore, it is good advice to slow down a little, steady the course, and focus on the essentials when experiencing adverse conditions.

The Pace We’re Trying to Run

This is a simple but critical lesson to learn. It may seem logical when put in terms of trees or turbulence, but it’s surprising how easy it is to ignore this lesson when it comes to applying these principles to our operational business practices. When stress levels rise, when distress appears, when we have to cut or at best not backfill lost full time employees, too often we attempt to keep up the same frantic pace or even accelerate, thinking somehow that the more rushed our pace, the better off we will be.

One of the characteristics of modern business life seems to be that we are moving at an ever-increasing rate, regardless of turbulence or obstacles.

Let’s be honest; it’s rather easy to be busy. We all can think up a list of tasks that will overwhelm our schedules. Some might even think that the worth of their role, or the role of their team, depends on the length of their to-do list. They flood the open spaces in their time with lists of meetings, superfluous projects, and minutia – even during times of reduced head count, confusion, and criticism. Because they unnecessarily complicate their practices, they often feel increased frustration, diminished performance, and too little sense of accomplishment.

It is said that any virtue when taken to an extreme can become a vice. Over-extending our resources would certainly qualify for this. There comes a point where milestones can become millstones and ambitions, albatrosses around our necks.

What is the Solution?

The wise understand and apply the lessons of tree rings and air turbulence. They resist the temptation to get caught up in the frantic rush of everyday life. They follow the advice of Ghandi that there is more to business than increasing its speed. (Ghandi was actually talking about life — not business — but the analogy still works.)

We have to forego some good things in order to choose others that are better or best because they develop our strength to truly meet the needs of our client now and in the future. This search for the best things invariable leads to the foundation of what we are able to do – not what we wish we could do. There is a clarity that comes from simplicity that we sometimes do not appreciate in our thirst for intricate solutions.

For example, it wasn’t long after astronauts and cosmonauts orbited the earth that they realized ballpoint pens would not work in space. And so some very smart people went to work solving the problem. It took thousands of hours and millions of dollars, but in the end, they developed a pen that could write anywhere, in any temperature, and on nearly any surface. But how did the astronauts and cosmonauts get along until the problem was solved? They simply used a pencil.

Leonardo da Vinci is quoted as saying that “simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.” When we look at the foundation on which many training departments sit – basic new hire training and consultative skills and opportunities – we see a powerful platform to which we should return and strengthen in times of limited resources.

The Power of Basics

The story is told that the legendary football coach Vince Lombardi had a ritual he performed on the first day of training. He would hold up a football, show it to the athletes who had been playing the sport for many years, and say, “Gentlemen, … this is a football!” He talked about its size and shape, how it can be kicked, carried, or passed. He took the team out onto the empty field and said, “This is a football field.” He walked them around, describing the dimensions, the shape, the rules, and how the game is played . This coach knew that even these experienced players, and indeed the team, could become great only by mastering the fundamentals. They could spend their time practicing intricate trick plays, but until they mastered the fundamentals of the game, they would never become a championship team.

I think most of us intuitively understand how important the fundamentals are. It is just that we sometimes get distracted by so many things that seem more enticing or vital to our perceived success.

Unfounded decisions, quick and easy small impacts with large exposure – all helpful if used properly – can become damaging diversions to the long-term success of our training group. Shallow results are soon understood for what they are. Eventually our client comes to understand either we or our solutions are not poised to support their needs long-term.

We would do well to slow down a little, proceed at the optimum speed for our circumstances, focus on the significant, and truly see the things that matter most. We need to be mindful of the skills that exist on the team and the time required to effectively leverage those skills. We’re not running a hundred yard dash – we’re running a marathon.

So What are the Basics?

The rubber meets the road when we can have impact on the performance of individuals across operations. We need to first focus on what we already do well and make sure we can continue to perform as well or better in that area into the forseeable future. Second, we need to identify the most important areas in which our training expertise may increase the profitability of operations and commit our remaining resources to that end. We must clearly communicate our situation, goals, objectives, and plans to our stake holders and then execute with focus.

Strength comes not from frantic activity but from focused effort that plays to the strengths of the team. It comes from paying attention to those things that matter most.