Focus equals progress

It started in high school. Exams were coming closer and closer and I really hadn't done any work for them at all. I had spent many hours at my desk, supposedly working, when really all I was doing was listening to the radio and doodling a little. Then eventually something inside me clicked and I was into my work. I became very focused on studying, cramming like there was no tomorrow. I know I am not alone. Most people I knew did this. Maybe that says something about my friend group, but I don’t think so. I reckon most people crammed like this. I now know that this is not the best study technique, especially if you are actually interested in learning, but it was very effective for me passing exams.

This continued at University. I used the same pattern after it had worked for me previously. Slacked around most of the time. Cruising through university doing as little as I could get away with. Don't get me wrong, I turned up to lectures, mostly. Those 8 a.m. lectures were hard to get to on a winter morning in Dunedin. I also did the assignments, mostly, but it really was an absolute minimum. Then exams would come around and I would hit the switch and become very focused with study.

Then I moved on to work. Working for one of the ‘Big 8’ accounting firms, as they were then, was more consistently busy than university was, but still the patterns repeated. Periods of relative rest and periods of intense focus. There were some legendary times as we strove to meet and exceed our clients' expectations and timelines.

Then I became a CIO. Different challenges but the pattern remained the same. We began to make progress as a team when we became very focused on meeting our organisation's needs, as described by the IT Hierarchy of Needs.

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Whether it was Gandhi toppling an empire, Steve Jobs creating great products or world class artists and sportspeople, they were or are all extremely focused.

As I looked at other aspects of my personal life I could see the same pattern. I made progress when I was focused. It didn't seem to matter what I was focused on, focus brought results. Whether it was passing an exam, getting rid of all the symptoms of diabetes or creating a world class IT team, I made progress when I was focused and really didn't make a lot of progress when I wasn't.

I then began to look outside myself at the rest of the world. The same pattern emerged. Whether it was Gandhi toppling an empire, Steve Jobs creating great products or world class artists and sportspeople, they were or are all extremely focused. Perhaps even obsessive in their focus.

As a result of this observation, now as I work with my clients and support them in their quest to become a world class IT team, I always ask myself are they focused, obsessed even? If the answer is no, then I know that they are unlikely to make much progress towards creating a world class team. How can you tell if someone is focused? You look at what they do, where they spend their time, what they talk about, how they allocate their resources.

Most teams aren't focused. Rather they try and do everything, please everyone. This never works. Trying to do everything is the exact opposite of focus. It defuses effort and undermines results.

Getting focused while it sounds easy is actually very difficult as getting focused almost always means you have to stop doing certain things. The things you need to give up are almost always valuable and perhaps even expected, but if you don't give them up you cannot get focused and you will not make progress.

So, are you focused?

Owen McCall is an experienced management consultant and CIO, and a member of the editorial advisory board of CIO New Zealand. Reach him through

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