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What’s The One Thing?

by David Brock on October 2nd, 2014

I’ve been having a conversation with a good friend.  He’s doing a project and has come up with a laundry list of critical issues that have to be addressed.  I’ve been advising him to consider, “What’s the one thing?”

His reaction is natural, “It can’t be one thing, it’s all this stuff.  We have to pay attention to all this stuff.”

Coming up with lists of all the issues we have to address is central to how most of us address and solve problems.  We have to explore, analyze, and think about everything that impacts our ability to achieve our goals.

Most of us, if we are thoughtful, are very good at coming up with these lists of issues.  Since we’re action oriented and taught to solve problems, we immediately attack them–we come up with action plans, we start checking off all the issues we have to address and move forward.

Then we usually grind to a halt, we lose steam or, more typically, more issues start popping out of the woodwork.  Sometimes, we are overwhelmed with the number of issues, we don’t know where to start.  We get discouraged by possible complexity of the issues.  Inevitably, our efforts grind to a halt, or we divert our focus to something else—perhaps another list of issues we have to address and resolve.

Sometime, addressing too many issues results in confusion.  We are trying to change too many things too fast.  We confuse or distract people from the priorities.  No one knows what to focus on, where to start.  In general, we are very bad trying to focus on too many things at one time, so many change initiatives or programs fail.

If we expect to be successful, we have to figure out, “What’s the one thing?”

As I challenged my friend, he kept responding, “I can’t get it to one thing, it has to be a bunch of them.”  I replied (partly because of the joy I got in tormenting him), “No, what’s the one thing?”

Eventually, he came up with it, it was brilliant.  In his struggle to come up with the one thing, he was forced to crystallize all the issues, he was forced to understand how they are related, he was forced to look at causal relationships and effects.  Most of all he was forced to find clarity–to identify the core issue that drove everything else.

Clarity and simplification is critical to our success in solving very tough problems.

What’s interesting is which “one” sometimes is less important than the process of getting to the “one.”

Getting to one, requires us to think about how each issue is interrelated.  It causes us to define them, analyze them, and think, “Where is the best place to start?  If I address this issue, does in also solve all the other issues?  Do I have to address some issues before others? Which has the greatest impact on what we are trying to achieve?”

If we are doing it for ourselves, “our one thing,” it requires introspection, vicious prioritization, and real focus.

If we are doing it in a team or with our colleagues, it’s very powerful in understanding differing points of view, aligning ourselves and our priorities, and establishing an action plan that we all agree on.

It’s not easy work–which is why too often, organizations don’t do this work and try to attack their laundry list, and then usually fail.

Some people and organizations don’t have the discipline to do the work or they think it slows them down, “After all, we have to address all these issues anyway, why not get started.”

It’s kind of an odd phenomena.  Figuring out the one thing bring such great clarity, helps us simplify and focus–and usually allows us to solve everything far more effectively and faster than any other approaches.

So as you look at all the things that impact you and your organization in achieving your goals, first come up with your laundry lists.  Then take the time to figure out, “What’s your one thing.”

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  1. The main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing, eh?

    I know this is good advice, and I’m a fan of the clarity it can bring, as you cite, Dave. Here’s my struggle with the One Thing.

    Did Covey (who did publish First Things First), publish the One Habit of Highly Effective People? How effective would we be if we only sharpened the saw but neglected to seek first to understood, before being understood?

    If I were tackling the Seven Habits, I certainly might prioritize them, based on where I see my greatest need. Perhaps that’s how The One Thing applies to multiple things… through prioritizing?

    Yet, I still struggle, for the want of a hated buzzword that I still use. Habit #6… Synergize.

    I think back to a series of projects I once ran for employer whose President was intensely serious about performance improvement and gave us full, top-down support. In looking across the Sales Performance Ecosystem (dozens of touch points and possible performance levers), I selected 6 that through analysis, I believed would have the greatest impact. Any one may have had good impact, but the combined power of these 6 had true potential for synergy… for the sum of the parts to be greater than the whole.

    Turns out (for once?), that I was right. The combined power of top producer analysis, far better selection and hiring, a new approach to onboarding (with an effective learning system), compensation adjustments, creating a sales coaching culture, and aligning performance management practices, produced a huge payback and ROI.

    Alignment has real power. Syngery is an over-used, under-executed principle, but it does, too.

    Some times, there is more than The One Thing.

    Another quick(?) story. I once took over an entire professional services group (pre-sales consulting, implementation, training, customer service) when the previous leader was let go, after a miserably failed product implementation.

    I found myself in a meeting with the upset client. I orchestrated a feedback session where I let them pour out everything that was wrong. Two hours later, the walls of a conference room were covered in flip chart paper with probably 150 bulleted items, scribbled in blueberry-scented blue marker.

    My team and I solved 5 of those 150 issues, and fixed everything. Without going into more detail, I’ll share that it was the culmination of impact from those 5 well-selected things (root cause analysis) that resolved the rest and made the client happy (and helped all our future implementations).

    I like the thinking behind The One Thing. And as you know, I sometimes suffer from verbosity (what? me?) and need much edit time to simplify my naturally-complex thinking (as the old Mark Twain joke goes, “I’d have written shorter letter if I had more time”). So, I want to fully admit that I have some things to learn from you here. But I can’t fully agree that it always (effectively) boils down to “The One Thing.”

    That’s my one cent, on the matter. 😉

    • Mike: Thanks for your looong 😉 and thoughtful note. I suspect several things:

      1. I didn’t express myself very clearly.
      2. We are probably talking past each other.
      3. We probably will agree to disagree—and both of us will find endless examples to support our respective positions.

      I still abide by the one thing, I think I may have been confusing, in that the one things drives a whole variety of different action plans. The critical issue is those action plans all have a common grounding, how do they contribute to our ability to achieve the one thing?

      It’s very critical to understand that one core driving thing or principle, because it provides the foundation and context for everything else you do. You evaluate every activity, program, strategy based on whether it contributes to your ability to do that one thing.

      We see too many companies, programs, initiatives fail because of lack of focus–lack of a clear understanding of the one thing that we are trying to achieve. Figuring out is non trivial, hard work. It’s so much easier not to do the tough work, not to focus visciously. It’s not only hard work to figure that out, but it takes tremendous strength of character because we may be wrong. So I think these are some of the reasons we fail, or we don’t achieve our full potential. We either don’t do the tough work to figure out the one thing and evaluate all the other things to see how they fit or don’t. And we hedge our bets, by not committing totally to the one thing (I’m not advocating blindly-in fact the people/organizations that do this well have the greatest clarity and ability to recover). As a consequence, we have a far greater tendency to do too much, to be defocused, to hedge our commitments–consequently we fail or we fail to achieve our full potential. There’s just too much evidence of this in the 1000’s of organizational failures, the 1000’s of product failures, the 1000’s of performance failures we see around us.

      I think the Covey example is very good. He was viciously focused on the one thing: Achieving our full potential as human beings. Stated differently maximizing our effectiveness and impact in what we achieve and our relationships with people. That was the sole focus of all his books. What he introduced was a number of tools and principles all tied to the achievement of that one thing.

      So I think that may be where our miscommunication is. I never claimed one activity, one initiative, etc. I said there has to be one underlying focal point, goal, principle, “one thing,” that provides the context and grounding for everything we do.

      So, good or bad, I am inflexible about that. I may be wrong, my experience seems not to be, but we probably are best off agreeing to disagree. In any case, it’s these differences, that cause everyone to think and learn, not so much whether we agree.

  2. Love it when the comments are longer than the post.

    So you’re right about not understanding, at least on my side. Perhaps it should have been clear the first time, but your reply comment and the Covey example certainly made it clearer for me. “Achieving our full potential as human beings,” or stated differently, “Maximizing our effectiveness and impact in what we achieve and our relationships with people.”

    I guess I didn’t associate that with “One Thing,” thinking. The Covey summary seems to me to be a guiding purpose, vision or mission, that would certainly take multiple things to achieve. If I’m now interpreting that correctly, I don;’t believe we disagree.

    In sales performance work, in the example I shared in my first comment, would you see The One Thing as “Hire, train, coach, and develop our sales force to solve customer problems or enable hem to capitalize on opportunities, better than our competitors?”

    • Thanks Mike, while others will not understand this. You identified the “one thing,” don’t lose it in all the other “things.” They support the achievement of the one thing!

  3. Doug Schmidt permalink

    Dave, great insight on the perspective on the ability to think concisely and clearly. Interesting how thinking is a critical skill, asset and habit in achieving goals, overcoming obstacles and gaining momentum. While I am not sure if “one thing” is the best perspective your blog sure begs the question on “thinking” both strategically and tactically.
    Fortunately for me I am working on a “Culture and Power of Smart” project in conjunction with the U.S. Marine Corps Civil Affairs Group in Quantico. If anyone wants to be a better thinker a great start is with the US Marines. They don’t make leadership, goal achievement and “thinking” a mystery! Why should we?

  4. Doug Schmidt permalink

    Dave, keep up the great work and encouraging sales and marketing professionals to be smarter, better decision makers and intellectually curious.
    Several things I have learned about working with U.S. Marines and other armed forces i.e. U.S. Army Rangers are the following:
    1) Our veterans do not make leadership, coordinated efforts and decision making a mystery. Their ability to act and make decisions in complex environments is a key component of their leadership principles, training and cultures. Can we say the same for sales and marketing professionals? Can we finally answer the question of how to integrate sales and marketing strategies/tactics to work together and coordinate sales/marketing efforts for best results?
    2) Our veterans are encouraged to learn as much about their professions in a multi-disciplined approach. For example, both the Army and Marines have required reading lists that cover a range of subjects. How many companies in America have required reading lists so we are better thinkers and decision makers? Shouldn’t we?
    3) General James Mattis, U.S. Marine (Retired ) has a famous quote – “The most important six inches on the battlefield is between your ears.” General Mattis is known as a “warrior scholar”. How many of our leaders in the sales/marketing profession encourage intellectual curiosity as a leadership attribute? How many “sales and marketing scholars” do we have in our companies?

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