Is Too Much Focus a Problem?

James Heskett, Harvard Business School Working Knowledge

What Are the Antidotes to Too Much Focus?

Individuals and organizations suffer from too much focus much of the time. That was the sense of the majority of responses to this month’s column. Respondents didn’t stop there. They described why it happens and what to do about it. In the process, they provoked a new round of questions.

David Physick teed up the discussion nicely by commenting, “The wonderful American motor racing driver, Mario Andretti, who was as focused an individual as any racer, remarked he’d stop driving when his peripheral vision reduced.” Like race cars, he continued, businesses can be ‘raced’ by drivers whose peripheral vision has failed. “They could see the clear track ahead of them as they initially led their markets but failed to notice the competitor coming up on the inside until it was too late.”

Seena Sharp added that companies “fail to consider or know how to recognize what is outside their industry that is impacting their business…(such as) customers who are buying their goods but don’t fit the target profile, or alternative (product) uses…Focus has a counterpart which is equally valuable.” Carolina Menezes wasn’t so sure. As she put it, “I am cautious (about the) … question (of) …too much focus.” As good leaders, she added, we need to be aware of the environment to develop awareness to create a spectrum of realities or possibilities. “This is a different kind of focus.”

Others viewed the challenge as one of employing focus appropriately or in proper proportion to more broadly “noticing.” Cedric Roossel said: “To put it simply, you don’t want to be focused during a strategy definition phase but you have to be focused in its execution.” Kapil Kumar Sopory agreed: “Excess of everything is bad… it always relates to … the matter in point…(for example) getting big data about our customers and focusing too deeply on it will lead to not noticing other important facets … However, while finalizing a contract document we need to focus deeply…” Referring to an article that “says that most eureka moments come when the mind is relaxed and unfocused,” Gerald Nanninga commented that “You need the initial focus to fill your brain with the raw material, but then you need unfocused time to synthesize and discover the solution. It is a balance.”

Others identified factors accounting for too much focus. Yadeed Lobo said: “I think focus in organizations might have its roots in competitive strategy, intense focus on differentiation or cost consciousness.” Edward Hare put it this way: “Let’s face it, we generally get what we incent people to do…senior managers…all want innovation and risk taking … in principle, but they don’t have ways of measuring and evaluating it in the short term. So … focus generally wins in larger, well-established organizations…”

What to do about an excess of focus? Kamal Gupta suggested: “It is called ‘Tunnel Vision’…. The solution is not difficult. Management has to take a break, like once in a quarter, to take a look at the big picture. Outsiders should be invited … to shake up comfortably held views.” Donald Shaw’s suggestion was quite lyrical: “Insight is not knowing by some magical process. It is knowing that we do not know everything that might be important. It is that insight that leads to the wisdom to look away from the subject of focus and see what there is to be seen. Marvelous discoveries are made in that way.” Is this what it takes to maintain a balance between focus and a broader vision? What are the antidotes to too much focus? What do you think?

Original Article

Focus is good, right? For years we have been admonished as managers to maintain focus: design strategies centered around focused factories that produce better goods less expensively, weed out the product line, grow a business from its core competency, develop priorities and address the first two or three, and organize our time so that we can concentrate on complex issues without interruption.

But sometimes focus can be detrimental to our health, both individually and organizationally. For example, Jerome Groopman, in his book How Doctors Think, advised us as patients to ask what might be the most important question of our lives when consulting with a doctor who has reached, and too often focused mentally on, a diagnosis and method of treatment. The question we patients should but rarely ask is, “What else could it be?” It’s a question designed to disrupt focus.

Max Bazerman, in his new book, The Power of Noticing, concludes that excessive focus, among other things, is one of the reasons leaders fail to notice important facts relevant to their decisions. To make his point, he cites the popular example of an audience of leaders asked to focus on counting the number of times that a ball is passed among a group of people being shown on film. In the middle of one version of the film, a woman with an umbrella walks through the middle of group. Invariably, far more than half of viewers focus so intensely on the ball that they fail to see the woman with the umbrella. They are better focusers than noticers.

According to Bazerman, too much focus is one of several causes of our inability to notice. Among others are the use only of information that is readily available (searching for the lost key at night under the street light where the light is better), limiting options to what’s placed in front of us, biases regarding information or its sources, undue trust in a complex system whether or not it is understood (such as trusting the financial system to detect and defuse causes of the recent Great Recession without understanding the system itself), and a tendency to discount the future (ignoring long-term effects on global warming in making short-term decisions).

Possible antidotes start with a realization that noticing is something that can be learned, both individually and organizationally, something that Bazerman believes strongly (or he wouldn’t be teaching and writing about it). It requires leaders who, among other things suggested by Bazerman, develop a habit of asking the equivalent of Groopman’s “What else could it be?” and then listening carefully for the answers.

Is this an argument for leaders to disrupt focus from time to time? If so, how? Are individual and organizational focusing and noticing antithetical to one another, or can they be achieved concurrently? How do we avoid the downside of focus? What do you think?


This article was written by James Heskett from Harvard Business School Working Knowledge and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.

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