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April 6, 1995

Singularity

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Few companies can execute more than one strategy at a time no matter what they put on paper.

Organizations are complex, and the bigger they are, the more complex they are, doing many different things all at once—right?
My answer is that this is true only in one sense. If you look at the details of an organization—the many people who are a part of it and the tasks and projects they are carrying out—then, yes, it is complex. A lot of different things are happening.
But if you step back and assess the overall thrust of the organization, you will notice that it is actually doing only one thing. To put it another way, it probably has just one strategic driver. In this sense, it’s simple rather than complex. (Or at least it is if it’s an effective organization.)
Surprising?
Think of a pointillist painting, such as Georges Seurat’s famous “A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grand Jatte.” You know, the one with Parisians standing or reclining on the banks of a park lake, some of the women with parasols. A pointillist painting like this is made up of thousands of small dots of color. Stand close, and all you see are the dots. Stand back, and you take in a unified scene.
That’s the way it is with strategy. An organization can effectively carry out only one master strategy at a time. And it would be a mistake to try to do otherwise.
What brought down the banking industry in the collapse of 2008–09? One reason may have been that banks were trying to do too much, dabbling in ill-advised mortgages when they should have stuck to core banking.20
A jet takes off heading for just one destination. Getting it there involves many steps and processes, but success is landing safely and on time at the airport identified in the flight plan.
I have a client who has the goal to double his business within two years. If I were to advise him to simultaneously pursue a strategy to stockpile cash, it would be a disaster. Growth requires investment of cash. He needs to focus on his double-in-two strategy for now. A cash pileup will come later.
It can be tempting to try to carry out more than one major strategy at a time. You can put multiple strategies on paper and order that they be carried out. But it just won’t work. You’ll likely get confusion in the ranks and a diffusion of resources, and you won’t see your organization moving ahead.
There’s genius in the simple clarity of having one big goal. So, while others in the organization are carrying out their multitudinous projects, the people at the top have got to keep a singular focus in view. Later they’ll have another strategy. But for now, they need to focus on the one they’ve got.
To succeed in strategy, get simple.

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