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STRATEGY: Focus – Using the 20-Mile March to Maintain Focus in Your Organization

mattjan13It seems in this day and age with an app for everything, or a new leadership book that tells you how to be great in under 100 pages, or a pithy, quick, 10 step blog (yes we’re guilty of all them too) – we still struggle to move the needle on actually getting anything done.  We strain to make real progress in our committees, work teams, departmental strategy sessions or as an organization. What’s our issue?  In America specifically, don’t we have the most capital, the biggest ideas, the greatest talent and the resolve to create and innovate? And yet, so many times “the best laid plans” crumble.

When we pondered this question at New Directions the word we kept coming back to was “focus.” Focus means making an adjustment for distinct vision, a state or condition permitting clear perception or understanding, direction, a point of concentration.

HikersThere’s a quote that goes something like, “Success depends not on flashes of brilliance, but on just plugging away.”  The idea being that if you have the biggest, hairiest, most audacious goal or dream (launch a restaurant, create the next great app, build an empire like Apple), it doesn’t really mean much unless you’re willing to put in the time, discipline and methodical use of resources to accomplish that goal day after day after day after day. It’s not overly sexy; it doesn’t create a great ad.  But, it does get the job done. Ask any 28 year-old business and I’d bet they’d say the same thing.  Rarely did it rely on flashes of brilliance, but on creating a great, quality product or service day after day.

In Great by Choice, Jim Collins calls this the 20-Mile March.  The 20-Mile March cites examples of the differences in strategy between two explorers – successful Roald Amundsen and unsuccessful Robert Falcon Scott – in their efforts to lead their teams to be the first to the South Pole in October 1911.  To keep a long story short (however I do suggest reading it as it provides a great analogy), Collins concludes that the glaring difference between the preparations of the two men was the focus of Amundsen to press forward in bad weather, and constructively hold back his team in good weather – to keep a steady, unyielding, unrelenting pace to get to the South Pole. So often in bad weather we only do a couple miles at a time, and in great weather we have a tendency to blast forward haphazardly.  The brilliance of Amundsen was that he set a marker of 20 miles a day, stuck to it and incrementally managed his way to success.

Imagine you are about to embark on a 3,000 mile walk from San Diego to the tip of Maine.  On the first day, you march 20 miles, making it out of town.  On the second day you march 20 miles.  And again, on the third day you march 20 miles, heading into the hot desert.  It’s hot, more than 100 degrees, and you want to rest in the cool of your tent.  But you don’t.  You get up and march 20 miles.  You keep the pace, 20 miles a day. Then the weather cools and you are in comfortable conditions, with the wind at your back, and you could go much further.  But you hold back, modulating your effort.  You stick with your 20 miles.  Then your reach the Colorado high mountains and get hit by snow, wind, and temperatures below zero – and all you want to do is stay in your tent.  But you get up.  You get dressed, and you march your 20 miles.

You keep up the effort – 20 miles, 20 miles, 20 miles – and then you cross into the plains and it’s glorious springtime, and you can go 40 of 50 miles in a day.  But you don’t.  You sustain your pace, marching 20 miles over and over and over finally hitting your goal with adequate resources, having survived and sustained hot and cold weather.

So often we let conditions and situations dictate the terms, attitude, and output of our work.  This year we challenge you to focus in – building not only your 40,000 foot strategy, but your 10,000 foot marching orders for your team and organization (or maybe just for yourself).  Find a goal, short-or long-term, and focus on what your 20-mile march might be.  Set check points and milestones – focus on the task at hand.  Don’t get distracted about what the world is doing around you.  This will not be easy, fun, or joyous, but it will help you move the ball forward.  It will provide a distinct vision, a state of clear perception and understanding, direction, a point of concentration. Focus on the discipline, the perseverance, the attitude needed for you to cross the finish line successfully. Focus.


Help you and your organization focus and build disciplined skill by downloading our Innovative Leadership Guide Vol. 2 today!


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An innovative training and employee development firm located in southern Vermont since 1984, we specialize in helping organizations get the most out of their people by raising the bar, inspiring potential and partnering with organizations to build a people-centered, high-engagement culture.

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