In the great 1991 movie City Slickers, Jack Palance plays Curly Washburn, the weathered and wise old cowboy trying to teach the folks from the city how to drive cattle across the American west.  In one of the more memorable scenes, Curly asks the main character Mitch Robbins, played by Billy Crystal, if he’d like to know the secret of life.

“One thing, just one thing”, says Curly, “stick to that and everything else don’t mean shit” (Editor:  You decide ?

This scene drives home the moral of the entire film.  Namely, that success comes when we get really clear on the ‘one thing’ or the few priorities that are most important, and stay focused on those at the expense of other, less important priorities and distractions.

The Power of Focus

The same can apply to organizations and their employees.  A colleague of mine for many years in the corporate training industry used to open every one of his business seminars with the phrase, “In today’s environment it’s not opportunity that we lack, there is an abundant and constantly growing number of opportunities at our fingertips.  What we really lack is focus, the ability to choose the handful of high priorities and stay focused on those.”

For individuals this principle can be implemented in a number of ways including the concept of the “Not to do list”.  This phrase, credited to Timothy Ferris in his book The Four-hour Work Week, implies that if we are going to be truly productive we need to pay as much attention and apply as much disciple to what we take off our tasks lists, as what we put on them.  This is truly the art of prioritization, and is fundamental skill for all employees and leaders today.

Another tactic is to make priorities and performance visible through the use of business execution software and dashboards.  When there is visibility, especially between peers, there is a higher level of focus.

The concept of focus goes well beyond personal productivity for individuals.  Focus is a fundamental characteristic of successful companies and brands.  In his 1996 book Focus: The Future of Your Company Depends on It, author and branding guru Al Ries insists that firms must find their focus in order to survive and thrive into the future.  He argues that the strength of a brand is inversely proportional to its breadth, and firms that narrow their focus position themselves more strongly in a world deluged with marketing messages and communications.

A great example of this is Vancouver based 1800GotJunk.  This firm grew exponentially over the past 15 years by focusing entirely on one service and making that service the single brand message visible in all their marketing communication: “Remove your junk without lifting a finger”.

Clarifying your “One thing”

As leaders how do we clarify our “One thing”?  It’s not easy, and may take time, but one tool that can help is Jim Collin’s Hedgehog Concept.

In his book Good to Great, Collins identifies that great companies are like hedgehogs.  Based on the parable, the hedgehog always outsmarts the fox by doing one thing over and over again, and doing it really well.  According to Collins, great companies do the same and this feature is a key characteristic that separates good companies from great ones.

Further, Collin’s prescribes that leaders can discover their hedgehog by exploring the intersection of these three questions:

  1. What is your organization and culture passionate about?
  2. What can you be best in the world at?
  3. What will drive your economic engine?  What will customers pay for?

In working with many clients using this concept, we’ve found it extremely powerful in identifying brand focus, and making strategic decisions around core and non-core activities.

Untangling your rope

It can be easy to lose focus, and generally it is not intentional.  Leaders and employees are constantly faced with new information, ideas, opportunities, challenges and problems, all of which can contribute to “taking the eye off the ball”.   But with the right process and accountability to the task, companies can determine their “one thing” and use that to drive higher levels of performance.


Caption: Business dashboards that provide information about both operational and strategic priorities are key.