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Soften Your Focus:
Find Opportunity @ the Periphery

by Bob Ferchat and Tony Carlson


Business schools and management texts are famous for creating the mythology that rules the boardroom. The sacred trinity of strategy goes like this:

Sharpen the Focus.

Stick to your Core Competency.

Drive Teamwork into the corporate culture.

Who could argue with such motherhood? Well, we could. Because business, like life itself, is often stranger than fiction.

Complex webs of personality, culture and coincidence lead people and their companies down unintended paths. Complex interactions drive surprising decisions, some for better, many for worse.

It is not simple. There are no easy answers. No "10 Steps to Success".

We suggest that the thinking person -- and the successful executive -- must look beyond the conventional mantra and develop a soft focus on the possibilities. Neither business nor life can be enjoyed to the fullest if we walk around with our eyes cast down.

There is a long list of companies whose narrow focus, devotion to a core competency and limited definition of teamwork have at least handicapped their efforts to be in the mainstream of what is clearly emerging as the future. At worst, they've been shut out entirely.

For instance, IBM - the world's leading computer company at the time -- and AT&T - the Rolls Royce of telecommunications -- were asked to participate in the development of packet transport and switching of data. They were even offered research funds. But they declined and missed the birth of the Internet. Why? They were too focused on their core competency. Even three years after the nascent Internet technology had proven out, AT&T refused to take up the Pentagon's offer to take over the operation of the fledgling network, their vision tightly focused on what they'd always done - voice telephony.

Same for the typewriter and word processing companies that missed both fax and the email revolutions. But they were not alone.

The Bell Labs invented the transistor to solve a vacuum tube problem in telephone switches. Not only did they not commercialize it - leaving that to then-unknown firms like Sony - they did not, as a corporate entity, anticipate the natural follow-on invention: the integrated circuit and the microprocessor which are at the heart of the information-besotted world we now inhabit.

Similarly, the ground-breaking work of the Bell Labs in the invention of the world's second fastest growing technology - cellular telephony - was also left to enrich the coffers of other companies. Same with color television, also first demonstrated in the Bell Labs.

Then again, why did Xerox miss developing the Ethernet, the GUI man-machine interface and the personal computer, all of which first saw the light of day in the justly-famous Xerox Palo Alto Research Center.

On the other side of the opportunity scale are companies like Nokia and Sony who took carpe diem literally and built huge empires on inventions that were viewed too narrowly by others. Nokia came from wood chips, to rubber goods, to wire and cable to arrive as the number one player in the wireless revolution of telecommunications. All in a tiny country that is located entirely north of any major North American city. Sony took the transistor as its jumping off point. Starting as a producer of cheap radios, it turned into a global electronics giant.

What did they have that others didn't? Soft Focus.

Soft Focus is about seeing the larger picture, avoiding the snacks of improvement and searching for the feast of creativity.

We are told so often to focus, understand core competencies and work in teams. Like all teachings, this litany is a logical set of rules that does contribute to a sense of stability and order for individuals, companies and even countries. But applied too rigorously, these rules ignore the reality of progress by concentrating on the narrow path of incremental improvements to past practices.

Focus, in every sense of the word, narrows the field of view. Core competency admits no possibility of broader talents, new opportunity. Teamwork too often gets translated into 'my way or the highway'.

Change does not happen serially but chaotically, with innovation leaping in unintended and unexpected bursts from one place to another, often lying dormant until society catches up, or happenstance brings a fresh perspective.

Volta invented the ignition system as a test for air purity. The carburetor was originally a device to spray heating oil. The piston and cylinder came from Newcomen's efforts to pump water out of mines. When Maybach and Daimler put these things together, they had a sorry looking car, but it created a mobility and freedom that changed the world.

Similarly, John Gorrie invented refrigeration with the narrow objective of curing malaria. But what he really did was open up the Tropics for productive development - as well as enabling us to live comfortably in Manhattan, Atlanta and Los Angeles in August.

If you're too tightly focused, you'll miss the opportunities created by innovations such as these. The trick is for individuals and companies to cultivate the soft focus that enables them to see what's coming beyond today's bottom line, to see the opportunity at the periphery.

Contrary to the bureaucratic penchant for order, soft focus means learning to live with a little chaos, a lack of order and an understanding that patterns do emerge from a kaleidoscopic view of the world. It's also about the fact that sometimes, as individuals and as corporations, we must abandon common sense to follow our passions, our beliefs and our possibilities.


The Authors


Bob Ferchat - former chief executive of companies such as Bell Mobility and Northern Telecom Canada - and Tony Carlson are principals of I-Magin-ation Inc., a Mississauga-based company that creates innovative content for the Internet. Their first book, Tangled Up In The Past is an analysis of why big companies miss technology opportunities that are staring them in the face.

Many more articles in Insight & Commentary in The CEO Refresher Archives
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Copyright 2002 by Bob Ferchat and Tony Carlson. All rights reserved.

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