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Focused Or Flailing?

Apparently our human minds can only remember three or four things at once. Psychologists at the University of Missouri published a paper in 2008 entitled “An assessment of fixed-capacity models of visual working memory.”* Up until this study, most researchers thought we could remember seven things at once – like the seven digits in our phone numbers. Instead, it turns out our minds have much more limited capability.

This academic finding is consistent with my life experience in organizations: the people cannot execute more than three or four things well. When you stretch the people across too many top priorities, their work quality declines.

When we began the turnaround of Popeyes in 2008, we had eleven top priority initiatives. We quickly narrowed the list to seven when we realized we did not have the resources to do all of these things well. Looking back, the reality was we did three or four things really well in those first few years. We built a pipeline of exciting new products, we improved the speed of service at our drive-thrus, and we saved our restaurants about two profit margin points from supply chain savings.

Just this year we found that our Popeyes priorities had mushroomed to a long list again. We caught ourselves heading towards chaos and we narrowed the focus back to three to four initiatives that would be activated in our restaurants.

It appears that our minds love to think up seven to ten initiatives every year when our organization can only do three to four new things well.

Sound familiar?

“….talent without focus is like being an octopus on roller skates. You can be sure that there will be plenty of movement, but you won’t know in what direction it will be.”
—John Maxwell

The problem with lack of focus: activity explodes and performance stalls.

People are busy to be sure, but the work does not yield good outcomes. Said another way:

Activity ≠ Results

If your organization seems frantic, chaotic, and exhausted, the problem is lack of focus. And it will only be a matter of time until your performance results reflect the chaos.

Action for today?

Ask your team to tell you the top three or four things that must happen this year.

If the priorities are not crystal clear to the entire team, stop the madness, narrow the focus, and start working towards better performance results.

Focus serves the people well.


* “An assessment of fixed-capacity models of visual working memory,” by Jefrey N. Rouder, Richard D. Morey, Nelson Cowan, Christopher E. Zwilling, Candice C. Morey and Michael S. Pratte. Published by Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, April 14, 2008.


One Response

  1. Very challenging concept as I begin to think through our plans for the next academic year. This has the ring of truth about it. Thanks for sharing it.

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