Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Focus - yes. But on what?

Katya Andresen's blog over on is recommended reading. Katya is VP of marketing at Network for Good and author of Robin Hood Marketing: Stealing Corporate Savvy to Sell Just Causes.

Here is an excerpt from a recent blog of hers and my own thoughts on the art of focusing:
I am convinced each of the Echoing Green organizations is needed, because the fellows have followed a verison of the hedgehog concept. They focus like a laser beam on the intersection between three key areas: what they are best at, what makes them different from all others working on their issue, and what their stakeholders care about. BBMG says that intersection is your brand sweet spot -- Collins says it's your raison d'etre. I agree with both ideas and encourage you to find your intersection and stick to it. If we all restricted ourselves to that intersection -- even when board members or funders tempted us to set out in other directions -- we'd all be more effective. If we stray too far, we may wake up one day to find ourselves saying, "We save the manatees. Oh, and we have a program for the elderly... And have I told you about our North Korean initiative?" (Credit to Lara Galinsky on that question!) If it's the manatees, stick to the manatees. And if someone else is saving the manatees, make sure what you're doing is different, needed and supported.

And here are some comments I made on her blog:


I could not agree more on Echoing Green. Most of the fellows I have met or know are absolutely outstanding.

I am wary about the usefulness of advice from business writers, gurus, and business school professors. Most of them study success stories and try to infer lessons from them. These lessons are often not tested in any rigorous way, and though they sound good, in practice they are descriptive rather than helpful to others. Often, they observe that successful people did A and B, but it is far from clear that A and B were the primary factors behind the success. Sometimes A and B may be necessary but not sufficient. So people go out and do A and B and wonder why they don't succeed! And sometimes A and B are irrelevant.

While Collins is by far one of the most rigorous and thoughtful - and hence most useful - writers, readers need to think carefully for themselves about what he is saying. How many times have we heard the bromide "To succeed, you must focus"? The question is what to focus on.

I have been reading a number of business books lately, and one of the better ones ("Pour Your Heart Into It") was by Howard Schultz, co-founder and CEO of Starbucks. He describes how his idea of what Starbucks was good at evolved over time. The original founders were furious at Schultz for putting tables in the stores and allowing customers to sit down! And Schultz himself absolutely hated the idea of introducing low-fat lattes, which he thought was a travesty. Similar story about frappucinnos. In each case, the founders were trying to remain true to their visions. And in each case, being flexible, and adapting those visions to the market was key to growth and success.

Gradually, Schultz realized that Starbucks' focus should not be on the perfect cup of non-adulterated espresso. Rather it should be on the creation of a customer experience which he began referring to as the creation of a "third place" in society for people to escape to. The refinement of the third place concept has really been the key to Starbucks remarkable growth.

As we build organizations and businesses, we all face a similar set of issues. How flexible should we be? Is it the COFFEE we are passionate about or is it the EXPERIENCE of DRINKING coffee in a comfortable "third place" away from both the home and office that we are passionate about?

For us at GlobalGiving, we constantly ask ourselves questions such as "Is it PROJECT-SPECIFIC giving that we are passionate about - and good at - or is our passion and expertise really around giving directly to INTERNATIONAL projects?" There are ususally no easy answers, only answers that evolve with experience over time.

This is not to negate or rebuff the good advice to focus. But it is to reinforce the importance of understanding - and refining - what to focus on is as important as the act of focusing itself.

That is the hard part.