A Leader’s Primary Task: Guide Attention

The news recently that RIM, the maker of the Blackberry, may be looking for a buyershows once again that how leaders guide attention can make or break a company.

The term “strategy” can be understood as referring to how a leader directs the focus of an entire organization. Each division – finance, marketing, R&D – focuses on that strategy in its own way. A change in strategy reorients where everyone’s attention should go, and how.

The best leaders sense when and where to shift the collective focus, getting it there at the right time – for example, to capitalize on an emerging trend.

While any one person’s attention has a limited capacity, an organization’s attention bandwidth can be immense. But if that huge bandwidth has no direction, the result will be confusion. Some of the signs of organizational attention deficit include a lack of data that leads to bad decisions and a paucity of reflection on where long-term forces are heading, and so a lack of strategic wisdom.

Blackberry was founded and led to success by co-CEOs who were brilliant engineers. Their focus on excellence in engineering made the Blackberry a winning technology in its time. But they kept the company’s focus there too long, missing fundamental market and tech changes like the shift to faster networks and the rise of the iPhone and Android.

At one time Blackberry sales captured more than half the U.S. market for mobile phones. Today their market share hovers around three or four percent.

At RIM that reorienting of focus came too late. By contrast, consider Intel under the leadership of Andrew Grove, the legendary CEO who built the company to the top of its market. At one time, early in its history, the company faced what Grove calls a “valley of death,” where a company can disappear.

From its earliest days Intel had focused on making computer chips – and it failed to notice that Japanese manufacturers were undercutting its sales. As Grove candidly admits, that failure of attention to marketing realities almost torpedoed the company.

But Grove deftly shifted the company’s focus to what was then a side-business, making sophisticated micro-processers. Within a few years during the peak of the popularity of PCs and laptops, the vast majority of those machines displayed a sticker, “Intel Inside.”

Intel’s leaders had seen an opportunity coming, and focused on how to seize it.