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How to Focus Your Main Effort

leadership focusEvery failure can be traced back to one thing: poor focus.

Businesses stop focusing on the customer. Others lose sight of their values or purpose. Still others try to advance in too many directions at once. It’s the same with people. Relationships, dreams and pursuits fail because we can’t keep our eyes on the things that truly matter.

Military doctrine has a device for dealing with distraction. It’s the concept of the Main Effort. In every military mission, the commander designates several supporting efforts and one main effort—that part of the operation that must succeed for the overall mission to be successful.

The main effort has 3 characteristics, it’s…

1. Success-bound. The main effort is what you bet everything on, the one thing that everything hinges on. Every other aspect of your plan could fail, but if you’re successful in your main effort, you’ve succeeded. Likewise, if you succeed on every other front, but fail to accomplish your main effort, then the whole operation was a failure.

2. Singular. There can only be one main effort. It is the priority. Force yourself to find this one single point of victory. The clearer you are about your main effort, the more confidence your team will have in making decisions and executing. Likewise, the more vague you are about what’s truly important, the more hesitant and divided your team will be.

3. Supported. The main effort is the number one show in town. Everyone and everything else exists to make it successful. If you have an activity that isn’t directly or indirectly supporting the main effort, stop it. It’s wasting resources that aren’t contributing to success.

I find that if I can identify and communicate my main effort in any endeavor it keeps me and those around me focused on the right things.

What’s your main effort today?

  1. Prakash
    August 13, 2011 at 10:32 am

    How do you define a main effort in a one year long project, at what level does it make sense? All macro level and/or various phases? Your article is interesting and trying to see how to apply now.

    • August 15, 2011 at 6:38 am

      Great question, Prakash. The main effort is an operational concept as opposed to a strategic one. While it has to be connected to the overall purpose of an endeavor, it has more to do with HOW you accomplish something rather than WHAT or WHY.

      So, while one might have a main effort for a year-long project, I personally use it more on the scale of a day or week. It helps me decide where to place my resources at any given moment.

      Does that make sense?

  2. August 25, 2011 at 11:31 am

    What a great article and question. I’d like to share a couple of thoughts.

    It seems the main effort is where the rubber hits the road. Where the strategy and plan meet the realities of execution in the real world. Operational, like Geoff mentioned.

    A strong strategy is a key pre-requisite to effective, focused execution. The main effort is in large part the answer to the questions what is our key priority and what is the best way to achieve it. You can’t tackle the operational without having clarity around the strategic. Seems obvious but in our haste and action bias, we often forget this.

    In a project management context, the same processes apply.

    If the project exists it’s supposedly because it has been identified as being important strategically. If so, the question is one of execution and we have to be mindful that projects do go through distinct phases.

    I like Seth Godin’s concept of “thrashing” and his take on project management.

    He says the reason most projects fail is because all the thrashing or frenetic push to perfect all details and improve outcomes, occurs in the final weeks of the project’s deadline. This multiplies the complexity at precisely the wrong moment— when the main effort should be on simply meeting the project deadline and not on expanding the scope.

    The thrashing, Godin argues, should happen on the front end, when the main effort should be focused on getting all the stakeholders of the project to weigh in with their ideas about project outcomes and how to best bring them about.

    In other words, projects go through phases and the main effort will need to shift in accordance to those phases.

    Like I said, great article and question!


    • August 25, 2011 at 1:16 pm

      Great builds, Danilo. A solid strategy is definitely a prerequisite for successful execution. I also agree with Seth that the thrashing needs to be front-loaded. My problem is trying to jump start creative thrashing without the excitement of an looming deadline!

      • August 26, 2011 at 6:09 pm

        Thanks Geoff, I definitely see your point. It’s amazing how constraints like deadlines can help us move to faster and more efficient action and focus us on getting things done. But there’s also power in saying at the outset of a project: “speak now or forever hold your peace.” : – )

  1. August 11, 2011 at 2:04 am
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