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You cannot eliminate all distractions, so make sure they do the least damage.
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The most common piece of business advice is “focus”. It’s good advice! Most companies do too much and in losing their focus they start to fail. Every business can and should focus more.
However, focusing implies avoiding distractions and that is not always possible. There are many kinds of distractions that are not the normal course of business but are unavoidable. Those include fundraising, acquisitions, and hiring executives. They are related to, but not part, of how your business operates and as such they are distractions.
Another way to think about distractions is that they occupy the time of the leadership team in ways that do not grow the business. There are only so many hours in the day, and if the leadership team is focusing on these distractions there is something they aren’t focused on. That is why focus is so important, distractions mean you’re investing energy elsewhere.
So, if distractions are bad but some are unavoidable, what do we do?
We do what we can to minimize their impact.
Let’s say we have a startup company that is about to launch our product. We also need to raise more venture funding, and that fundraising process will be a huge distraction. We have a few options:
Run our fundraising process before we launch.
Run our fundraising process in parallel to our launch.
Run our fundraising process after our launch.
Hopefully, #2 is an obviously bad option as it’s unlikely we can do two important things at once. Let’s scratch that off the list.
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Of the remaining options we have a choice. Do we distract ourselves from planning the launch, and risk the launch not going well? Or, do we distract ourselves after the launch when we should be focusing on making customers happy and learning from the market?
The risk of a bad launch sounds bad, but the risk of a great launch followed by poor customer experience is likely worse. If we leave a lot of disappointed users lying around after our big launch, it might be hard to grow in the future. On the other hand, we control when the launch happens. We could run the fundraising process and push back the launch into the future to make sure they don’t overlap. Even better, we can shift things around as we learn exactly how long the fundraising distraction might last.
This is just an example, and not advice because every situation is different. However, you can see how deciding when to take the distraction changes our risk profile and influences our paths to success.
As your company grows, you can start to do more things at the same time simply because you have more people. However, as your company grows the scale of distractions grows with it. As a result, the scale of your business doesn’t protect you from these considerations, if anything it makes them even more important.
The good news is that these kinds of massive distractions are easy to see coming. You know when you will need to fundraise, just like you know when you need to make a senior executive hire. You can plan in advance, and ensure that you take the distraction on your terms, at a time when it does the least amount of damage.
Here are some more examples:
Don’t distract your team with interviewing a new VP of Sales at the end of your fiscal year, when they should be focused on closing deals.
Don’t engage with a potential acquirer if you’re in the middle of a major product launch, if they really are interested they will wait until you are ready to focus.
Don’t buy another company if you’re getting ready to do layoffs.
At the core of all of this is accepting that we cannot just work more hours to get more done. Focus is a limited resource, and how we spend it is the foundation of any strategy we pursue. If a distraction is going to steal some of our focus, we need to ensure it doesn’t shake that foundation.
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