Drucker on Concentration, Performance, Results – The Effective Executive – 63 min read

“It is more productive to convert an opportunity into results than to solve a problem – which only restores the equilibrium of yesterday.”

In earlier posts in this series on Peter Drucker’s book The Effective Executive: the definitive guide to getting the right things done, we reviewed his list of basic practices:

Effective managers:

  1. “….know where their time goes.” 
  2. “….focus on outward contribution”
  3. “….build on strengths….” 
  4. “….concentrate on the few major areas where superior performance will produce outstanding results.”
  5. “…. make effective decisions.”

Peter Drucker's The Effective Executive

This posting is devoted to the fourth practice, concentrate where it counts. ((All quotes in this posting come from pages 100-112 in Peter Drucker The Effective Executive: The Definitive Guide to Getting the Right Things Done. Revised. Collins Business, 2006.)) 

If there is any one “secret” of effectiveness, it is concentration. Effective executives do first things first and they do one thing at a time. ((Note that decades before the controversies over so-called “multi-tasking” Drucker notes the singular importance that people can only effectively do one task at a time. I have written about this earlier in “Multitasking, Too Much Information, Interruptions, and High Performance” ))

By “first things first” Drucker means the real contributions that a manager can make. These are always found looking upward and outside of the organization to customers, markets, and other external factors. By concentrating on these the manager can direct the human resources of the organization to opportunities that are significant, where the results will be large. This focus requires self-discipline and an aggressive readiness to say “NO” to distractions.

The very act of attending to large opportunities causes the effective manager to concentrate the strengths of his human resources on the tasks required to achieve superior results. So, the manager concentrates personally on the opportunity and concentrate their human resources on the opportunity. Because people do pay attention to what the boss does, this act of personal concentration on a significant opportunity concentrates the organization’s focus. This is a virtuous self-perpetuating loop of attentiveness. Drucker goes on:

The first rule for concentration of executive efforts is to slough off the past that has ceased to be productive. Effective executives periodically review their work programs – and those of their associates – and ask: “If we did not already do this, would we go into it now?” And unless the answer is an unconditional “Yes”, they drop the activity or curtail it sharply…..those first-class  resources, especially those scarce resources of human strength which are engaged in those tasks of yesterday, are immediately pulled out and put to work on the opportunities of tomorrow.

In my experience, some companies put in place “end of life” policies for products and services. Quite literally the life cycle is defined explicitly. This forces out the old and requires the new.

Drucker points out the difficulties of setting priorities and sticking to them. First among these is making the decision about what not to do and then persisting in these decisions. There are enormous pressures to keep on doing what is, and has been, done. These are the pressures of history, of keeping on operating. Only the manager can make these choices and shift the focus of scarce human resources to the future.

Drucker summarizes:

Courage rather than analysis dictates the truly important rules for identifying priorities:

  • Pick the future against the past;
  • Focus on opportunity rather than on problem;
  • Choose your own direction – rather than climb on the bandwagon; and
  • Aim high, aim for something that will make a difference, rather than for something this is “safe” and easy to do.
…….The effective executive does not, in other words, truly commit himself beyond the one task he concentrates on right now. Then he reviews the situation and picks the next one task that now comes first.
Concentration – that is, the courage to impose on time and events his own decision as to what really matters and comes first – is the executive’s only hope of becoming the master of time and events instead of their whipping boy.