Zooming in and out of focus

Posted by Dermot Crowley on 10th November 2021

Zooming in and out of focus 

I am currently researching the content and topics for my next book, which will focus on what the most effective senior leaders do differently to the rest of us to maintain productivity in such busy roles. 

One of the things I notice effective leaders doing differently is managing their focus and attention. Much like rubbing their stomach and patting their head at the same time (a challenge I attempted unsuccessfully many times as a child), they seem to be able to focus on many things at once, whilst at the same time being able to zoom into fine detail on certain issues or topics.  

I recently read a story about Elon Musk at the launch of his first rocket, Falcon One. After a couple of years of blood, sweat and tears, he and his team were in the final 10-minute countdown to the first launch. You can imagine that he was focused on many things that were happening in the room and out on the launchpad. But at this moment he also chose to interrupt the flight director to badger him about a design detail for one of their future rockets.  

Understandably, the flight director was incredulous that he was being interrupted about such a detail at this critical point in time, but this is just the nature of Elon Musk’s brain. He is both able to zoom in on what is happening right now as well as able to zoom out to a more strategic horizon. He can hold both of those perspectives in his head at the same time.  

Now, the work we do is probably less dramatic, but building this skill would be useful for any of us, especially emerging leaders. The ability to zoom in and zoom out, and to consider multiple issues as well as focus in on the topic at hand is so useful, and impressive to those that will decide on your leadership journey. I believe the ability to hold the big picture in your head (or in a system), and then deep dive quickly to the heart of the matter is one of the great leadership skills. This skill is like a broad-spectrum antibiotic that can deal with a number of different infections but can also act as a highly targeted treatment for a specific illness. Very useful indeed. 

So, how do we work on this ability to zoom in and out with our focus? There is no doubt that a part of what makes some senior leaders good at this is practice and experience. But this skill is like a muscle that can be worked on and built up. Here are a few ideas to help you zoom: 

To be better at zooming out to focus on multiple issues or topics 

  • Stop at regular times to think and plan. This should be at least a weekly practice 
  • Look up at the big picture regularly and think about the people, priorities and projects that require your attention 
  • Look ahead in your schedule and anticipate upcoming deadlines, and possible issues that may need your attention 

To be better at zooming in with your full attention on one issue or topic 

  • Know what is on the critical path of the work you are involved in – what activities are crucial to success? 
  • Prioritise ruthlessly, and avoid giving your time away to low value work that stops you from focusing on what is important 
  • Protect time to think, and give yourself the time to focus on the things that deserve your attention 

If you are a manager or a leader in your organisation, it can be very easy to get caught doing too much of the work, and not spending enough time thinking about the work. Your ability to guide the team in the right direction, to empower them to get the work done, and to navigate the issues and obstacles that come along is directly tied to how you manage your focus and attention.  

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