Over the last few weeks, a few members of our Event 360 team have shared their advice on how to start the New Year right. As we come to the close of the first month of 2012, I wanted to add a bit of perspective on strategy.

Unlike the subjects of some of our other columns, strategy in my mind doesn’t really lend itself to to-do lists. In fact, this is the very aspect of strategy that I want to emphasize. Strategy, more than anything, is about focus.

In his article “What Is Strategy,” Michael Porter, one of the foremost experts on business strategy, argues that focus is at the heart of strategy. He describes strategy as picking a unique, differentiated position; choosing which activities to emphasize and which to discard; and ensuring that the organization’s activities fit together. In Porter’s framework, trade-offs are at the heart of strategy. An organization that tries to do everything is an organization without any direction at all.

My experience has made me a strong proponent of Porter’s view. I have found that strategy is as much about choosing what you will not do as it is choosing what you will do. And further than that, I believe that a strong commitment to focus – to deliberately choosing to emphasize some activities over others – is what separates the good organizations from the great ones.

Focus can be difficult for lots of reasons – not the least of which is that most of us in this space think big. We want to see change on a massive scale. But the paradox of focus is that choosing to spend time on fewer things actually increases the amount of impact you can have.

If you don’t believe me, think back to the grade-school science class when you first learned that with nothing but a magnifying glass you could make the sun powerful enough to burn a piece of paper. Wow! Nothing changed except that you added a lens to focus the power of a ball of gas millions of miles away. Focus works within our organizations in the same way.

In my mind, there are four organizational levels of focus:

Strategic. Strategy is focus operating at the organizational level. Strategic focus answers questions about the purpose and position of your organization: What are you about? Where will you try to compete? What is your end goal? What is the scope of your reach?

Strategic focus involves asking questions about the big picture issues:

  • Geography. Is your organization really international? Or should you choose to stay in your home country? Is your organization really nationwide, or are you better off operating in only one state (or city)? A big geography can sound impressive – it can also be hard to serve and put you in competition with many other organizations. Small geographies bring smaller constituencies, but also allow you to develop a tailored, local approach.
  • Span of services. Can you really impact every part of your issue area, or are you better off picking one area to focus on? For example, as a veterans’ organization you might want to help constituents improve their health, employment, and education. But can you do all of that successfully, or should you pick one component – say, providing job placement to those just finishing their tour of duty? Charity: water is approaching global problems of poverty, malnourishment, and economic inequality – but they are doing it entirely through water projects.
  • Market.Should you serve everyone or should you cater to one demographic first? Many organizations will describe their market as something like “women” or “men over 50.” Those aren’t markets – those are populations! It seems like a good idea to have a large market – but the larger the market, the harder it is to communicate with them. Bright Pink, a Chicago-based breast cancer organization I volunteer for, has limited its focus to women in their late teens through late twenties. This focus allows them to partner rather than compete with other breast cancer organizations, while helping them create an overall brand that appeals directly to their market.

Operational. Whereas strategic focus involves your entire organization and the world it operates in, operational focus describes the internal workings of the organization and the choices you make to follow your strategy.  What services and programs do you offer? Do they relate back to your strategy? If your strategy is to reduce hunger in the greater Portland area, do you do that through shelters? School lunches? Food subsidies? Should you get involved in education? Or should you help clients navigate social services?

The reality is, a tight strategy can still go off track from unfocused operations. Ask yourself:

  • First, does this operational area help us achieve our strategy?  If we started the organization today with our current mission, would we undertake this effort?
  • Do we have the organizational resources to support this operational area? Sometimes there are initiatives that really don’t need anything more than a bit of time. But those are few and far between. Can you support ten different new initiatives with the same number of staff? Probably not.
  • Do we offer something that is markedly better, or unique? Or is someone else doing it better? Would the bulk of our clients know if we stopped providing this service?

Tactical. Whereas operational focus is about picking a few key objectives to accomplish, tactical focus involves deciding on a few key ways to accomplish those objectives. Tactical questions involve tools – programs, communication channels, software choices, personnel decisions. If we want to get the word out about the school lunch subsidies we’re going to provide to low-income families in the Portland area, do we want to use our blog, our website, Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest, and Google+? Can we really support all of those tools? Or will we get better results if we really learn how to use one or two? If we want to provide job placement to Bethesda-area veterans, do we need online tutorials or should we continue with our investment in personal counselors?

Tools can be shiny and fun. Tools also have a way of quickly proliferating. Once you invest in tools – whether they are programs, people, software, or something else, it is usually better to invest further in making those tools better than it is investing in new tools. It is always cheaper and easier to fill up your car with gas than to by a new car every time it runs out!

Personal. This is where it all comes home to roost. What are you working on? What do you respond to? Does your daily task list support your strategic priorities or is the strategy something you pursue “when you have time”? It is at this level that we make or break our pursuit of mission.

This is also the level that seems hardest to get a handle on. We can be pulled in so many directions, and every one of us want to be as accommodating as possible to our clients, donors, and constituents. But the magnifying glass doesn’t work unless it is held up to the light.

I don’t have an easy answer for how to focus each day towards the right priorities, but I have found that some of the oft-repeated pieces of advice work for me:

  • Create a short one-page strategic plan, and start each day by reading it.
  • Block out at least two to three hours a day to work on projects that you know directly support the strategy.
  • Limit the time you spend in meetings. It is pretty amazing what happens when you switch the Microsoft Outlook default meeting time from one hour to 30 minutes.
  • Don’t be afraid to ask yourself, your team, and your managers: “How does this support our strategy?”

In an increasingly busy world, I’m convinced that the next competitive advantage isn’t being able to do more – it is being able to focus on those things that make a difference. Trying to be the megaphone or the billboard is tiring and ineffective.  We need to be the lens.

I wish you the best in 2012 as you take the world around us and focus it into powerful change.

“Jeff’s POV” blog posts will be featured monthly. For the past eight years, President and CEO Jeff Shuck has led our team in producing more than 200 fundraising events involving hundreds of thousands of participants, and collectively raising more than $600 million for charity. You can follow Jeff on Twitter @jeffshuck or read his blog, Your Part Matters.

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