5 steps towards a clear focus

When looking for solutions to any business challenge, it is extremely important to thoroughly define a sharp focus question. To make sure you are not wasting your time solving the wrong problem, we created a five-step checklist.

Most people will immediately start looking for solutions, the moment they encounter a problem. While this is fully understandable, it is a big mistake. You should really try to suppress the urge to jump right into the search for solutions. Before trying to find solutions to any problem, it’s very important to first get your focus right. If you accidentally ask the wrong question, you will start looking for answers in the wrong direction. You will generate solutions that don’t fully match your challenge and you will end up with fairly useless ‘solutions’.

Ignore your inner problem-solver for a minute. It won’t be easy, but it will save you lots of time and energy. First, pay attention to sharpening your focus question.

Whatever your challenge is, make sure you phrase it as a question. This might seem obvious, but it is easy to start a thinking session with merely a description of the problem. Especially when you ask other people to help you find solutions, it is important to start with a question you can find answers to. Asking people to help you with a problematic situation and simply writing down “not enough customers” on a flip chart might seem sufficient, but often it is not. Avoid all confusion. Don’t focus on the negative situation. Focus on solutions. A good way to do this is by starting your sentence with “How can we…” or “How do we…” In this example, for instance, you might ask “How can we get more customers?

Once you’ve formulated your question, it’s time to sharpen it using the following five guidelines.

1. Are you addressing ONE ISSUE?
Make sure you are focussing on only one challenge at a time. People have a tendency to include multiple problems in one focus question. By doing this they’re making things unnecessarily complicated. Do you have multiple challenges? Work on them separately. One by one.

Not: “How can we sell more shoes and prevent shoplifting?
But: “How can we sell more shoes?’ or ‘How can we prevent shoplifting?

2. Is your focus SPECIFIC?
Zoom in on your challenge. A complete stranger should know, just from reading your formulated challenge, what your desired outcome is. A goal that is too broad is not very stimulating. Avoid general goals like “increasing profits” or “selling more”. While these broad goals leave lots of room for different approaches, too much choice can be paralysing. The people who try to find solutions simply won’t know where to start (or worse; start looking in obvious directions).

Not: “How can we increase sales?”
But: “How can we sell more men’s shoes?”

3. Is your formulated challenge CLEAR?
Some people have a tendency to describe their goals and challenges in complicated and abstract terms. I remember a high-ranking government official describing his challenge to us with the words: “The armpits of this organisation need deodorant.”

A special category of being vague is the use of jargon. Avoiding this mistake can be difficult, as you quickly get used to the common expressions in your field. A good question to ask yourself is: “Will someone who knows nothing about my field understand this sentence?” If the answer is “no”… fix it. Your focus should be simple. You don’t want people to be confused about what the exact challenge is. Of course, this is especially important when you include outsiders in your thinking session.

Not: “How can we maximise shareholder value?”
But: “How can we make more profits selling shoes?”

4. Did you phrase the challenge in a POSITIVE way?
Avoid the words “no” and “not” at all times. People simply can’t process these negative words. For instance, if I tell you “Do NOT think of a green frog!” chances are you’ll start thinking about a green frog…

Never use these negative words in your focus question. Instead, focus on a positive outcome.

Not: “How do we make sure no people steal our shoes?”
But: “How do we prevent people from stealing our shoes?”

5. Is your focus ACTIONABLE?
Does it make you act? Your challenge should lead to ideas that are in your control. Ideas that are relying on something out of your control are not very effective. When you start your challenge with “How can I…” or “How can we…” for instance, you will automatically start looking for ideas YOU can act on.

Not: “Ways our profits can grow”
But: “How can we make our profits go up?”


If your focus question matches all these criteria, you can be fairly sure it’s a sharp focus. If not; rephrase it until it does.

What are your experiences with rightly or wrongly formulated challenges? Do you think this checklist can improve your success rate? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comment box below.


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Showing 2 comments
  • Peter

    This is a very clear 5 step list, not only to make sure people take action, but also that the actions taken are feasible and take the project in the right direction.

    Number 5 is very valuable. When a task is not actionable, it triggers procrastination.

    Great article!

    • René de Ruijter

      Thank you Peter! Starting with a passive (non-actionable) problem statement is a remarkably common mistake. These types of statements often lead to general broad ‘solutions’ and as a result no one knows who needs to act or exactly what actions need to be taken. (sadly resulting in procrastination and nothing actually happening…)

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