Business Turnaround 201 – Focus

In the blog, “Business Turnaround 101 – Let’s Be Honest,” we saw that the three fundamentals to turn a troubled business around are as follows:

  1. Understand Reality, Face Reality
  2. Focus, Prioritize, Plan (Less is More)
  3. Right People Doing the Right Job

We also reviewed “Understand Reality, Face Reality.”

Today, we turn our attention to “Focus, Prioritize, Plan (Less is More).”

Focus, Prioritize, Plan (Less is More)

At this point in your turn-around, you have defined the 2 – 3 root causes of most of your problems.

Your goal now is to devote your personal time and effort and your company’s resources towards solving these 2 – 3 problems. From the example of one of the turnarounds I led, we needed to solve these three problems:

  1. There was no accountability
  2. There was no consideration for cost
  3. There was no respect for the customer and no appreciation of customer service

Of course, you are saying…

“But wait, I also need to re-brand my product and I need to develop a new product line and I need to buy some new equipment and I need to get my quality certified and and and… David, solving just these 2 – 3 problems will not solve all of my problems.”

Correct, solving these 2 – 3 problems will not solve all of your problems.

Your goal, however, is not to solve all of your problems. You cannot possibly solve all problems in a distressed business (or any business) at the same time. Your goal is to solve the 2 – 3 most important problems. Then move on to the next batch of most important problems.


  1. Without accountability, how can you think that you will really get your quality certified?
  2. Without any consideration for cost and efficiency, why would you buy new equipment? Would the new equipment magically transform your production operation?
  3. Without customer service, what can your new brand possibly mean and how would you possibly live up to the promises implicit in this new brand?

Focus and prioritize on solving just these 2 – 3 problems (along with keeping the business running). Combined, all of this is, in the words of a former colleague, “a lot of ice cream.”

Less is More!!!

OK, OK, you promise that you will stick to your guns and only focus on those few items. Great!! Now what?

  1. You Go First
  2. Write Down the Plan
  3. Follow Through

You Go First

Albert Schweitzer writes that “example is leadership.” So lead by setting the example. You need to ensure that you are embodying the solution to the problems. In my example:

  1. Be tremendously accountable
    1. Return everyone’s phone call within 24 hours
    2. Respond back to everyone
    3. Make sure that what you do is on time and excellent
    4. Don’t start meetings late; don’t late meetings run over
    5. Etc.
  2. Focus on cost
    1. First class airfare and $100 bottles of wine while discussing cost reduction are more than slightly hypocritical
    2. Make sure that every meeting or off-site is absolutely required
    3. This is not the time to drive your new Mercedes to work
  3. Respect the customer
    1. Be the customer advocate
    2. Go visit the customers
    3. Get visibly involved in being on the front line with the customer and personally providing some type of customer service

Write Down the Plan

Oh so simple!?!

First, brainstorm and write down the solutions and action items that need to be done under each of the three categories. Then work with your team to prioritize these action items. Some suggestions on solving and prioritizing:

  1. Do not re-invent the wheel
    1. This is not the time for re-organizations either
  2. As Lou Holtz says, “Think WIN”
    1. “What’s Important Now”
  3. Remember the 80 / 20 rule
    1. 80% of the problem can be solved by doing 20% of the solutions that you have written down
    2. 80/20 allows you to see key “leverage” items where a little change goes a long way
    3. Beware of focusing on trivial issues
  4. But, gain momentum in problem solving
    1. Pluck some low hanging (non-trivial) fruits first; solve some easy problems to get some visible change and celebrate!!
    2. Continue to hit singles, not home runs.
  5. Look at the time element in problems and problem solving
    1. Think critical path
    2. Some work may need to be started right now even if the solution cannot be implemented for weeks
  6. You do not need to make everything perfect
    1. Think 80 / 100
    2. Go for the 80% solution that is 100% implementable quickly rather than the perfect solution that is unlikely to be completed correctly and quickly.
    3. As an example, start today with sales people keeping contacts in Microsoft Outlook and weekly sales activity reports in Microsoft Word even if your medium term plan is a fully integrated CRM solution
    4. “A good plan, violently executed now, is better than a perfect plan next week.”   George S. Patton
  7. Make sure that the solution to the problem can be implemented by the people who need to implement the solution (see below)

When I wrote down the plan in these turnarounds, we compiled 8 – 10 pages of solutions, ideas, and action items. Then we, painstakingly, whittled it down to a 2 page document. This document had the most important items that needed to be done with the name of the person assigned and the due date.

This is not exactly rocket science I know. The real challenge is to whittle the list down and keep it at two pages (without shrinking the font size   J). If you forget something and need to add it to the list, then something else needs to be taken off the list to keep it to two pages.

This is not exactly rocket science. I know. But, it worked because every week I would go over the document and get status updates from the senior management. In short, we made sure to…

Follow Through

You are trying to make a significant change. This takes a lot of leadership. Follow through. Follow up. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat. Your job as a leader is to ensure that these three problems and the solutions are front of mind of everyone in the company. Only by constant repetition, personal engagement and follow-through, will this change take place. As Vince Lombardi said:

  1. “Communication doesn’t take place until your people: Hear or see what you say. Understand it. Believe it. Believe you mean it. Remember it. Internalize it. And begin to use it themselves.”

While walking around and engaging with your team, quiz them on the three important problems and the three keys to the turnaround.

I have seen this follow-through fail from apathy. I have seen this follow-through fail due to another hot priority that displaces the previous priority. I have also seen this follow-through succeed. In the one case, the CEO was unstoppable and unrelenting in ensuring that the change took place. We heard or saw it. We understood it. We believed it. We definitely believed that he meant it.


About David Shedd

David has been a President - CEO - COO of an up to $350M group of manufacturing, distribution, specialty retail and services companies, having led 22 different businesses from turnarounds to start-ups to fast growth companies.
This entry was posted in Improve / Turnaround, Perform / Execution. Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Business Turnaround 201 – Focus

  1. Terrie Robinson says:

    I like your streamlined and organized approach. As an experienced finance executive I have lead many management teams through the planning process. Typically the initial outcome is too much, rather than too little. After all, nobody wants to look like a slacker in front of their peers. Many annual plans are really 3-5 year plans in disguise. Prioritization and focus are the only ways to keep an organization from getting lost in their own great intentions!

  2. David Shedd says:

    Hi Terrie,

    Thank you for the comment. I really like your line about “getting lost in their own great intentions.” As we all know, the chasm between intention and completion is both deep and broad.


  3. Pingback: Turnaround 101 – Key Item # 2 of 3 « Verto Laurus Consulting

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