3 Ways to Focus on the Familiar and Trigger Innovation

05/07/2015 04:05 pm ET | Updated May 07, 2016

"No time."

"I've just got to finish this side project."

"Yes, I'm getting sidetracked, but I need to hedge my bets."


You see it everywhere.

Passionate entrepreneurs working on 5 very different projects. Spreading themselves razor-thin. No energy to do anything well. Focus dissipated.

Excellence? What's that? No time for that.

Here's a challenge for you. Try to do 5 things exceptionally well--at the same time. What do you get?

Mediocrity. Lukewarm results. Junk.

How could it be otherwise? Jayson Ahlstrom and Jared Allgood, cofounders of ClassTop, saw this. Passionate to transform online learning, they started to build the top 20 features customers said they wanted. Everything went well--until it came time to ask for money. The most they could get was $200 per month. Not enough to grow a business with.

However, they had the presence of mind to test which features their customers valued most. They collapsed their product down to just four key features. The result?
Customers were willing to pay $1,000 per month; a 5x increase. And with 5x faster and cheaper development.

But there's more.

Their story shows that drilling down can trigger innovation. New ideas are the high-hanging fruit. You can't reach them with shallow work.

"Focus on the smallest possible problem you could solve that would potentially be useful. Most companies start out trying to do too many things, which makes life difficult and turns you into a me-too."
- Evan Williams, cofounder of Twitter, 10 Rules for Web Startups

The good news? Anyone can focus. You can too.

How? Three ways.

1) Hold the line. Tolerate the familiar.

Focus requires you to stay with the familiar to discover the new. You may have to keep staring at the same things to notice something new.

Consider the incredible rise of Uber, the private taxi service. A few taps in their app and you've got a taxi. When Travis Kalanick and Garrett Camp founded their company, they were immersed in the familiar: smartphones, cars with spare seats, and passengers with places to be. But where others saw common technology and common problems, they saw new ways of doing things. And they focused on just one thing: taxis.

They crammed an incredible amount of value into one tap on a phone. Six years later, they're in over 200 cities and valued at more than $40 billion.

Great value could be hiding in the familiar. But if you can't stand the familiar, you can't find it.

2) Look for odd combinations of things right under your nose.

The stuff in front of you might be tedious. Unremarkable. But that is deceptive. Odd combinations can create magic.

Larry Page saw that academics are ranked by the number of citations they've accumulated. He then combined this with web search--an odd combination. Add Sergey Brin as cofounder to the mix, plus a ton of work, and you know the rest of the story. It's called Google.

People thought web search was already solved. Why were they wrong? Because new stuff is hard to imagine.

You can focus for a long time when the thing yields something new. Combinations create new stuff.

3) Sleep on it.

Rest clears your short term memory. The familiar becomes a little unfamiliar again. That replenishes focus.

Also, an added bonus for you: you get better ideas.

If you were a fiction writer, Ernest Hemingway would tell you to only think about your story when you're working, and to forget about it when you're not. He made a habit to never "empty the well" of his writing. That would invite worry and doubt: can I get this good again tomorrow? That breaks the flow. Thus, with always something left in the well, it could refill while he slept. You can do the same.

Not all thinking is conscious. Your mind goes to work on the problem once you step away from it.

Focus is about more than killing distractions. It's right in front of you.

Your side projects can wait. Go make your work count.