The Power of Focus

There is an apocryphal tale of Warren Buffett and his pilot Mike Flint that beautifully illustrates the power of focus. According to legend, the conversation went something along these lines.

Mike was celebrating ten years of being Buffett’s pilot and Buffett was gently chiding him on why he had not moved on to something better. Flint said he had plenty of ideas he was working on.

Flint listed out all of his projects and Buffett applauded his effort. He then asked Flint to list his top five goals, which Flint found easy.

Then Buffett asked Flint a key question, “What about the other 20 things you listed?”.

Flint responded, “Well, the top five are my primary focus, but the other 20 come in a close second. They are still important, so I’ll work on those intermittently as I see fit. They are not as urgent, but I still plan to give them a dedicated effort.”

This was where Buffett jumped in, “That’s the problem, those other 20 things are what you should avoid at all costs, do nothing with them until you have succeeded with your top five”.

What Buffet was really describing was the power of focus.


Of course, in business this process can be enormously difficult, and Buffett’s tale is optimistically simplistic. Businesses often have a change agenda running to hundreds of priorities with multiple stakeholders with opposing needs.

Having said that, events over the past year have proven that significant transformational outcomes can be possible, in seemingly impossible timescales, when there is the right level of motivation. In a recent survey from McKinsey* there are two points that really grab the attention.

One of the highlights is that the expected number of days organisations felt it would take to make the organisational and technical changes to achieve remote, collaborative working was 454 days. In reality the average time taken to achieve this outcome was 10.5 days.

Putting remote working at the very top of the pile of priorities as it became a matter of survival, reduced the time to deliver by over 97 percent. Another great example of the power of focus. Remarkable.

We also know that the changes in digital delivery and operations to meet the massive increase in digital demand from customers was reduced from years to a month, perhaps two at the most.

The outcome of this seems to be that the level of digital adoption has advanced around about seven years in less than seven months. And businesses that have been unable to keep up with this white-hot pace, or chose not to, have been shuttered or lost forever.

We recently interviewed Gar Mac Criosta, the Covid Tracker Product Owner at the HSE in Ireland. Gar was clear that the range and complexity of the decision making to bring the app to life would not have happened in ‘normal’ times. It happened because there was such a clear imperative that it enabled an alignment and focus across a whole range of key stakeholders, in this case, underpinned by IT architecture at pace.


The dichotomy that organisations face is that for the majority, the pandemic has had a negative impact with cash being at a premium, at the same time the demand for a rapid increase the in digital transformation is a matter of survival.

Even if your business is well prepared to weather the storm in the short term, it seems very unlikely that the rapid leap forward in digitisation will be reversed, if anything it is beyond a tipping point where it is likely to speed up.

Based on our experience of the marketplace if there are contenders for the top five list, they would include digital transformation, cloud migration, data and security as a minimum.

Other priorities may be robotics, cognitive, and perhaps legacy as it is a blocker to rapid digitisation.

In our recent Global IT Architecture Survey, the respondents reported the following priorities.

What is on your top five list? How will you manage to ‘avoid at all costs’ the long tail of to do items?


Perhaps the more important question is how you are making the list. What is the process and governance of the decision-making process? Business needs are paramount and how is this being translated into the technology programme is the key question.

Over recent years we have seen the pendulum swing towards rapid delivery of outcomes with the growth of Agile and DevOps. What we have also seen in some cases is a loss of coherence in the technology programme as governance has been fractured. Architecture can be seen as a hindrance rather than a help. Is it possible to deliver with great speed with architecture as an enabler rather than a hindrance?

What our recent interview with Gar revealed was that with enough focus extraordinary outcomes can be achieved in a short space of time. He also underlined that the solution was fully architected even though the programme was delivered in very compressed timelines. This approach to architecture at pace enabled radical decisions to be made at speed and for the governance and outcome not to fracture.

We have had a similar experience ourselves supporting a start-up get off the ground by establishing the MVP. We demonstrated it was possible to create the MVP with great focus, a focus that benefited from the application of good architectural principles that has already served the business and will so in the future.

Has the pendulum that was swinging towards the agile end of the scale started to swing back again?

Our recent survey confirmed organisations are still seeking rapid, focused outcomes. It also indicated that they recognise that architecture has a crucial role in supporting focused decision making, minimising technical debt and ensuring that technology outcomes are coherent and aligned to business and technology strategies.

What might become possible for your business if you could harness the power of focus to deliver what you really need?


*How COVID-19 has pushed companies over the technology tipping point—and transformed business forever, October 5, 2020