I wrote recently about Focusing on Focus, but that post left me feeling like I didn't exactly hit the nail on the head with the point I wanted to make, so I'm going to try it from a different angle.

I recently read a NY Times article about Steve Jobs and the creation of the iPhone. Jobs is famous for focusing by being maniacal about saying "no." But this article exposed the flip side of that coin -- how tenacious he was when he said "yes."

For example, take this quote:

"Fadell had strong doubts about shrinking such an enormous prototype so much and then manufacturing it. But he also knew better than to say no to Steve Jobs. He was one of Apple’s superstars, having joined the company in 2001 as a consultant to help build the first iPod, and he didn’t get there by being timid in the face of thorny technological problems... “I understood how it could be done,” Fadell says. “But it’s one thing to think that, and another to take a room full of special, one-off gear and make a million phone-size versions of that in a cost-effective, reliable manner.” The to-do list was exhausting just to think about."

I can imagine how impossible the idea seemed to the people around Jobs. Apple was mainly a computer company. They'd had great success with the iPod, but they knew nothing -- absolutely nothing -- about phones and the cellular ecosystem. The phone carriers dominated, and handset manufacturers had to live within their rules.

That's what made Jobs so special. If you'd asked the CEOs of consumer hardware companies back in 2006 about making a breakthrough phone, they would've all told you "that industry is locked up by the carriers" or "it's not possible" or "that's not how our business works." And the reason I say they would've all told you that is because none of them did it. That's what made Jobs so special -- he saw past the state of his industry, past the "way it was done" and imagined what it could look like. And what gave him the ability to find the "yes" was his unrelenting focus on saying "no" to other things. Here's another quote from the NY Times article:

"Jon Rubinstein, Apple’s top hardware executive at the time, says there were even long discussions about how big the phone would be. “I was actually pushing to do two sizes — to have a regular iPhone and an iPhone mini like we had with the iPod. I thought one could be a smartphone and one could be a dumber phone. But we never got any traction on the small one, and in order to do one of these projects, you really need to put all your wood behind one arrow.”"

Even Apple, a company with many billions of dollars of cash in the bank, didn't have the bandwidth to make two sizes of phones. Now that's a testament to focus for the rest of us.

The lessons I take away from this are:

  • Start by saying "no" to people, projects or priorities that don't drive you towards your goal. Even if you haven't found the "yes" yet, starting with the "no" will give you the space, time & resources to find the "yes". In fact, saying "no" to people, projects & priorities that you know aren't on your path is way easier than finding the "yes" around what might be, because saying "no" is obvious, while the "yes" has to be figured out. Or to put it another way, it's easier to say "no" to people, projects & priorities that already exist, than to find a "yes" to something that hasn't yet been invented. So focus on the "no" first. Focus on stopping the activities in your life that aren't driving you towards your goal.
  • Look beyond the "no." This one is the most meaningful point -- but you have to do the one above before you can execute successfully on this one. Once you've said "no" to the people, projects & priorities that don't get you closer to your goals, take a hard look at ways to say "yes" to those that could -- even if they don't feel like "the way business is done" in your industry. The more creative you can get in your "yes" based on your goals, the more differentiated your business will become, which gives you more opportunities to create orders of magnitude of disruption.
  • Prioritize your "Yes" and start with the most important one first. The more people, projects & priorities you say "Yes" to, the less meaningful each "yes" becomes. If you have more than one priority, the easy way to manage that is to order them in a descending list, and focus on the most important one first. Or to put it another way, why would you spend your time doing anything other than what's most important? Only work on the second priority item when you have a block on the first. Then return to the most important thing the moment you're able to do so.

Good luck starting with the "no" so you can find the "yes."