Create a culture of focus with four key practices

Focus is the key to making progress on what's important. But to have the biggest impact, it needs to be part of your organization's culture.

Nov 16, 2023

What do Bill Gates and Warren Buffet have in common, besides the obvious?

An obsession with focus.

According to a story recounted by Bill Gates’s father, when his son and the Sage of Omaha first met, he asked them each to write down (separately) what they thought was the biggest contributor to their success. And without knowing what the other was thinking or having met before, they both wrote the same, single word: focus. That story has really stuck with me and informed my approach to leadership.

Everyone knows the value of vision and motivation in leading teams to success. But the ability to create a culture of focus is just as important, though less famous. At the level of a team or company, focus isn’t mere prioritization – it’s separating what really matters from what doesn’t, and then going all-in on the former and avoiding the latter like the plague. It’s trading breadth for depth; pouring all your energy into attacking a single problem. It’s what’s meant by the business cliché “more wood behind fewer arrows”. And it’s the key to executing with speed and efficiency.

Something as impactful as maintaining a tight focus shouldn’t be the province of a handful of top managers; it should be deeply embedded into an organization’s culture. At every level, in all contexts, teams and individuals should decide their priorities and approaches by asking what truly matters, and what’s absolutely necessary to achieve it. But how can a leader go from exemplifying focus to making it a habit across the whole organization?

As one of my favorite sayings goes: culture is what you do; not what you say you do. In other words: practice what you preach. A culture of focus can be created by practicing these four activities:

1. Publicly reasoning through or explaining what the top priorities are, and why. Because if your team doesn’t understand the why, they’ll be less likely to find the right path forward when they’re operating autonomously. Sure, you risk discovering that your own thinking was sloppy, but that’s a good thing, right?

2. In that vein, being genuinely open to challenges as to whether a top priority should still be a top priority. Not just nodding and saying “thanks for that feedback”. This is a great way to observe whether your people really own the reasons behind management objectives. Of course, you can’t be rehashing strategic decisions in every meeting or you won’t get anywhere, but in my experience, lots of management assumptions about what needs to be done to hit an objective turn out to be false, and it’s often the troops who see it.

3. Ruthlessly cutting things that aren’t a top priority, regardless of who’s agitating for them. Being meritocratic in this way really drives home the message to the team that focus matters; it’s not just lip service.

4. And last but not least: frequently checking in on the top priorities as a team. E.g. at a quick morning sync meeting. This one is important because we’re all memory-challenged and distraction-prone to some degree, and a hundred random things popping up every day tend to crowd out the important stuff.

The goal of these practices is to ingrain focus into the team’s culture to the point where a team member can comfortably question someone else's prioritizations (“Hey do we actually need to do that now? Because the way I understand it…”) and be thanked for doing so.

Flat was made for this

Focus is the central concept around which Flat revolves. Flat isn’t a project management app, or a wiki, or a chat app, though it shares DNA with all of those. It’s a tool for helping teams focus, and even fostering a culture of focus. Hiring great people and motivating them is on you. Exercising your judgment to find and pursue the right objectives is on you. But letting everyone see what needs to be done, and what part they play in it, and keeping that information from getting stale and gradually becoming untrusted — we’ve got that.

Now, there’s another sense of “focus” that comes into play at the individual level, and that’s the ability to simply concentrate on getting actual work done. There’s “shallow work” like emailing back and forth to set up meetings — things that can be done in short bursts and may feel productive but aren’t really. But then there’s the real work, the deep work like writing a proposal, designing a website, coding, etc. where value is actually created. That kind of work requires concentration and takes time to “get into”. But it’s also fragile and can be instantly wrecked by interruptions. And in today’s work environment, the interruptions seem to never stop — especially from emails and Slack notifications. Flat solves this problem, too.

How? By providing discussion threads that lets teams work together closely without breaking each other’s focus. Flat threads are instant and frictionless, but tracked and non-interruptive, eliminating dropped balls while maximizing the amount of real work everyone can get done.

Focus, focus, focus. Gates and Buffett think it’s the key to their success. And it’s what Flat is all about.

Seth Purcell is the co-founder and CEO of Flat. His career has ranged over genomics, finance, and for the past decade, leadership roles in web technology startups.