Focus = f(humility,confidence)

Everybody in business knows that it is important to focus on few things and do them very well. Right?

So why does almost no-one do it?

Because it is very hard to do. Specifically, it is very hard to say “no”.

Apple is one of the exceptions. It manages to stay very focused on a few product lines despite having a lot of disposable cash. As Tim Cook said today:

“We say no to good ideas every day; we say no to great ideas in order to keep the amount of things we focus on very small in number, so that we can put enormous energy behind the ones we do choose, so that we can deliver the best products in the world. In fact, the table that each of you are sitting at today, you could probably put every product on it that Apple makes, and yet Apple’s revenue last year was over $40bn. I think the only other company that could say that is an oil company.”

It seemed like a tangential answer to the question, which was about how Apple would avoid hubris creeping into the company. But it actually explains a lot. As a manager, one of the key things you need in order to say “no” is humility. You are admitting that you can’t handle more.

You also need to be confident. If you are insecure about previous decisions, then it will be very hard not to hedge by saying “yes” to a shiny new thing.

But modern managers are not confident in general. They are asked to deal with an incredible amount of complexity and research has shown that as a result they have deep insecurities about their ability to perform. The kicker is that inner insecurity is so often accompanied by outward arrogance in middle and senior managers. So instead of humility and confidence, we get arrogance and insecurity.

And very few companies achieve the focus they need.

It is no coincidence that Apple also leads in user experience design. The same principles apply. Saying “no” to features is very hard to do. Apple’s products do fewer things than competing products, but do them well.