Focus ruthlessly to deliver your purpose

By Martin Vogel

Obsessive about focus

Few organisations know how to focus on their core purpose. The technology company, Apple, is one. Its chief executive, Steve Jobs, is famously obsessive about focus. Apple infuriates as many people as it delights by stripping away that which it considers inessential. But it is now worth more than a number of its close competitors combined. “People think focus means saying yes to the thing you’ve got to focus on,” said Jobs in 2008. “But that’s not what it means at all. It means saying no to the hundred other good ideas that there are. You have to pick carefully.”

How many arts organisations would see their purpose in these terms? My guess is that focus would be an underrated virtue in many. This may be the case for two reasons: either the organisation is not very clear about its purpose and therefore finds it hard to know what should be the object of its focus, or the leadership has clarity about the corporate purpose, but does not know how to align the organisation’s activities behind the mission.

Losing sight of one’s purpose is understandable in arts companies given the shifts and turns in cultural policy over the long-term. Any arts organisation that has been in business more than a few years may well have won a variety of funding lines, each of which has different policy objectives attached. Imperceptibly, activities get bolted on and then integrated to bring objectives like regeneration, social inclusion or education alongside the core purpose of artistic enterprise.

But even if the leadership is able to define the corporate purpose clearly, there remains the challenge of getting all sections of the enterprise focused on the same thing. This is harder than it appears. The board is often disconnected from what’s really going on in the organisation. The people operating the business and who are close to audiences and ticket payers probably have a very different idea of what the company is about. It is almost impossible for an organisation to focus if it is operating to multiple versions of its corporate purpose at once.

The best way to avoid this risk is to keep the organisation’s purpose under regular review to ensure that its activities stay fresh and relevant to changing conditions. Part of this is about reading the external environment well – anticipating changes in policy, the economy and society in general and working out what these will mean for the organisation. But the bigger task is for senior leaders to learn to hear from people at all levels and all areas of the organisation. This is important not only because it involves everyone in dialogue and deeper understanding about what the organisation exists to do, but also because it ensures that the leaders expose themselves to the diversity of perspective and breadth of insight that are critical to making good decisions.

Many arts organisations tend to prioritise the perspective of the artistic director and the head of development. The person who delivers the artistic mission and the person who brings in funding are critical to the enterprise, but they don’t hold a duopoly of knowledge. Other areas of the business – for example, those responsible for brand and marketing, those who run the box office and answer the phones, those who engage with the audience on social networks – have unique perspectives which can be closer to the audience interest and may challenge the prevailing orthodoxy. Challenging views are the ones that are especially worth hearing when you’re trying to keep your purpose fresh. They may well alert you to emerging trends which need to be at the centre of your focus and provide clues to cherished commitments that it may be time to let go.

Computer programmers use the term ‘cruft’ to describe bits of code which are left in place when a program is rewritten but which have become irrelevant to the functioning of the program. By analogy, companies carry organisational cruft in the form of activities which survive because they have momentum but no longer contribute anything relevant to the corporate purpose. They may have opened access to funding in the past, but might actually have become a drain on resources or a distraction from focusing on what is important.

It is especially relevant to tackle these when money is tight, and to think critically about what changing conditions mean for what you should be focusing on. Stripping out the cruft and focusing on the value are key steps to ensuring that the activities people undertake are in support of a consistent sense of purpose throughout the organisation.

Originally published at Arts Professional.