Before More Sector Changes Begin: Why Less Might Actually Be More

3 years ago
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Always remember, your focus is your reality.
– George Lucas, Founder of Lucasfilm

You’re better off with a kick-ass half than a half-assed whole.
– David Heinemeier Hansson, Co-Founder of Basecamp

With the Royal Commission’s Final Report now released, and the Government’s response soon to follow, the sector is a buzz with the prospect of more existential changes to come. Yet the Commission’s position on how the sector will be funded is unresolved, and some have suggested, conflicted.

The mention of pre-certified, standardised and universalised aged care technology, and a Research and Innovation Council—if not calibrated correctly—might harken to days when the sector’s innovation agenda was aligned with the interests of a few, and misguidedly equivocated with technology and research.

In shifting and uncertain times like this, conventional wisdom would suggest focusing on growth and diversification. However, chasing business opportunities requires investing resources and funding many do not necessarily have. To insist on a growth and diversification path when you’re not calibrated for it means you end up doing a lot, without being good at anything.

Equally, there’s nothing positive about working off the smell of an oily rag, and championing punching above your weight, when staff end up burnt out or fall ill.  

In light of the inflection point that our sector is in, and our operational landscape, there’s much to be said about the importance of maintaining focus, and doing less. To quote Ron Ashkenas, co-author of the Harvard Business Leader’s Handbook:

“It’s a natural human tendency to want to do more. Most of us have trouble walking away from tempting opportunities, whether it’s at the dinner table, or at work. So we end up with indigestion at home and overload at work. That’s why it takes a great deal of discipline, and even courage, to slim down, both physically and strategically.”

This may seem counterintuitive to business wisdom, but there’s nothing radical or audacious about limiting your organisation’s products and services, customers and capabilities.

In the 1950’s Peter Drucker introduced the idea of ‘purposeful abandonment’, telling business leaders to prune projects, policies and processes that were no longer useful. In his words: “The first step to a growth policy is not to decide where and how to grow… it’s to decide what to abandon.”

Tom Peters and Robert Waterman in their book In Search of Excellence, captures the sentiment well with their sixth theme for organisational success: “Stick to the knitting—stay with the business that you know.”

Essentially, you need to stay focused, and not get distracted. This is a paramount strategic decision—stick to the few critical initiatives and projects that’ll make the most impact for your organisation, and don’t deviate from your core business.

Here are a few supplementary considerations:

  • You only need to be useful, not change the world. As a sector where care is our core, focus on making people’s lives better when they access and use your service/product. If your organisation suddenly disappeared from the sector, would people notice this? If yes, you’re making a meaningful contribution.
  • Providers are grownups, not startups. You’re a real business that needs to worry about the bottom line, pay the bills, make payroll and generate sales. Thinking like a startup, when you’re not one is delusional, but more importantly, hides fundamental business problems in your organisation.
  • You can’t win them all. Not everyone will be happy with your less-is-more decision, but if it’s focused and considered, it’s more on the mark than a growth punt. Quality takes time, refinement and a long view—no one has a crystal ball into the future.  
  • Creativity is dictated by constraints. If you really need or want something, but don’t have the resources to make it happen, then open yourself up to other possibilities and solutions that you may not have considered. You may not get what you envisioned, but your constraints might lead to a better solution.
  • Don’t be a hero, get back to basics. In the face of limited resources, it’s important to understand that it’s not about doing many things, but focusing on a valuable few. It’s OK to not chase the biggest possible, but instead focus on the smallest essential.

In a sector that’s constantly having its goalpost changed, chasing growth and diversification is a crapshoot of sorts. Avoiding distraction and dilution of focus—doing something well, is worth more than overreaching to chase new offerings and market segments.

It’s not that ambition is bad, just that less might be a better foundation to bigger things to come. After all, you only need to be right once.

Merlin Kong is Head of innovAGEING and Interim Director of the Centre for Workforce Development & Innovation, LASA. He has been recognised by the Australasian Society of Association Executives as an Association Influencer 2020.