Management-speak: Focus

Management likes to use the word focus. They like it so much, that anything important is called a focus.

That's an interesting scenario, one which we hope to address, but it's not our main focus.

We're focusing on three features for this release.

But how can you focus on more than one thing? The first citation implies that there's more than one focus (a main focus, and maybe some secondary foci); the second citation makes explicit the mutiplicity of foci.

But a lens doesn't focus on more than one thing. There is one focus, the point at which parallel rays from infinity converge.

Then again, if a lens is defective, it can have more than one focal point. And there's a term for that phenomenon: Aberration.

Comments (39)
  1. Maybe all of the managers just have astigmatism?

  2. Jimbo says:

    The camera I use shows lots of things in focus.  

  3. John says:

    Are you this a.n.a.l. in real life, or do you just use this forum to vent from time to time?

  4. Karellen says:

    "if a lens is defective, it can have more than one focal point. And there’s a term for that phenomenon: Aberration."

    Not always.

    Some managers may have a split-focus triopter (?), allowing three different parts of their brain to focus on three different things simultaneously.

    However, I suspect that their mind (or at least their use of language) being aberrant is the much more likely hypothesis. :-)

  5. Spike says:

    There’s also a phenomonen known as "Depth of field"

  6. dave says:

    There’s also a phenomonen known as "Depth of field"

    Yeah, but that’s just the range in which things are not so far out-of-focus that you notice it.

  7. anonymous says:

    we are focusing on X is a metaphor for "X is our top priority".   Both make litttle sense when X is A, B and C

  8. Alexandre Grigoriev says:

    Then there is a concept of a focal plane. And depth of field. All objects there will be in focus.

    PS. How come a performance review process is called "Focus" in different unrelated companies?

  9. Pierre B. says:

    Aaaah… people. Stop nit picking and trying to spin the story. It’s about three things:

    1. Innapropriate metaphors.
    2. Managers without real focus.

    3. A good punchline.

    Are you really that much of a bore that when someone tells an anectode with a final "bon mot", you start picking it out?

  10. porter says:

    You can have lot’s of things in focus as Spike mentioned, just use a wide-angled lens.

  11. Bryan says:

    The Focus and In Focus are two different concepts. Something being in focus is describing a range of light ray convergence. The Focus describes the specific point where all light is converging. Having a split focus concept in play doesn’t change the dynamics of how optics work: each segment of the picture has one focus.

    A lot of comments are taking the phrase "We’re focusing on three features for this release" and mentally reordering it as "We have 3 features in focus for this release". The latter would make sense: any number of objects can be in focus; however, only one thing can be the focus.

  12. Gabe says:

    An ellipse has two foci. Why can’t a manager?

  13. Cheong says:

    If it’s spotlight and not focus, it doesn’t sound quite strange for me.

    You can surely place a few spotlights on things and just neglecting things not on spotlights.

  14. porter says:

    Perhaps they really mean “Schwerpunkt”

    [It is my understanding that “Schwerpunkt” was the hot buzzword in Germany back in 2000 or so, and unfortunately it seems to be starting its invasion into this country… -Raymond]
  15. Scot B. says:

    Are you really that much of a bore that when someone tells an anectode with a final "bon mot", you start picking it out?

    Happens all the time inside Microsoft.  That’s the kind of people they like to hire.

  16. Ray Trent says:

    People can’t really think about more than 1 thing at a time either, but yet we talk about multi-tasking all the time.

    Perhaps the focus is being multi-tasked.

  17. PhilW says:

    Ah, this is so out-of-date ;=)  The current hot management-speak term is re-focus. This is the result of constant changes in direction, and it’s no longer useful to focus on those things there, we always need to re-focus on these things here instead. Well at least for today anyway. The constant re-focussing is indeed an aberration.

  18. CRM says:

    Imaging systems like ultrasound machines can have multiple foci.  We do this by shaping the initial wave using an array of oscillators triggered at different times.

  19. Alexander says:

    It’s a trend in contemporary marketing speak that’s seeping into wide-spread daily usage. Marketing likes to use non-committal yet suggestive words to mis-lead readers while not mis-leading in the legal sense. This lead to using slight exaggeration in numbers, so the overall atmosphere of the copy consistently push readers towards their designed meaning.

    Managers, after being "trained" to read these market pieces, pick up the ability to "extend" the meaning of words, and get used to always speak in "suggestive case", resulting in these somehow not-so-right usage.

    But we can’t really say they’re wrong. Natural language is known to shift like this. During an era where technology is king, technical speak spread to the masses; during an dra where marketing is king, so does marketing speak.

  20. configurator says:

    Sounds like my dad’s multi-focal glasses to me…

  21. Mr NotSoPedantic says:

    how can you focus on 3 different things?… you can, because you have more than one person (aka ‘lens’) in the team

  22. ariel says:

    I think that the mere fact that a plural to the word focus exists should be proof enough that more than one focus can indeed be proper.

  23. Drak says:

    @Mr NotSoPedantic

    I agree, that’s what I thought. In our company my direct manager manages 3 groups of people, and each groups has its focus on a different (set of) product(s). So the manager can rightly say ‘we’ are focusing on three things.

  24. rtm242 says:

    I can’t believe nobody here thought to mention the more modern version of that term:

    "Laser Focused"

    (waits for beam splitter comments…)

  25. Bulletmagnet says:

    The only customer focus I’m interested in involves a table, some rope, a sunny day, and a Really Big magnifying glass.

                 — Roger Burton West

  26. Morten says:

    I can dig Schwerpunkt. It’s from the blitzkrieg doctrine of warfare so it’s kinda appropriate. However, I don’t think it should be used when trying to sell stuff to Poland, France etc. ;-)

  27. Michael says:

    My understanding of the usage of the phrase is that focus equals concentration.  While focus might imply a digital measurement, concentration is quite clearly an analog measurement.

  28. Rick says:

    Regarding "We’re focusing on three features for this release" it is apparent to me that these features will each be concentrated on in turn prior to release, or perhaps simultaneously by more than one actor, as "We" implies more than one person. Raymond, this one is just you being weird.

  29. tb says:

    The parameters of cognitive focus are distinct from the parameters of optical focus. And I think you’re confusing focal plane (or length) with focal point. You can have several objects be in focus at various points in the field of view. Look up tilt-shift lenses for an example of manipulating the focal plane outside the context of a defective lens.

  30. jmp says:

    Yeah, this is just the usual way of making it look like everything is equally important, instead of making a sensible assessment of what’s going on.  A few people here seem to’ve missed that point…


    "What, it’s not like we’d invade you a *third* time, that’s just crazy!"

    And has the captcha been effective at stopping spam?  I vote we make it more like the old school video game copy protection, but with a CS twist.  "What is the 15th word on Knuth’s volume 2 page 73?"

  31. Blackfield says:

    This remains me of my former company’s CEO.

    To galvanize employees’ low morale, the newly hired CEO would setup company meeting once every quarter.

    He would say "laser beam focus" several times in these mettings when describing how we would approach the goals.

  32. kip says:

    This isn’t management speak.  This is the English language.  The first definition for "focus" on is "a central point, as of attraction, attention, or activity: The need to prevent a nuclear war became the focus of all diplomatic efforts."  You have to go further down to find the physics/optics definitions.

    Saying one’s focus is on A, B, and C makes perfect sense when A, B, and C are only three out of hundreds of possible things to consider.  It wouldn’t be odd, for example, to hear someone say that the Obama administration is focusing on health care and the economy.  As opposed to crime, AIDS, corruption, homelessness, military expansion, or any number of other things he could also be concerning himself with.

  33. Me says:

    jmp nailed it — people who are poor at prioritizing things say that they are focused on several things at once which actually means they are not really focused on anything.

    You can’t have foreground and background in focus on a photo when using shallow DOF (large aperture). Yes, you can use focus stacking but then you don’t have two things in focus at the same time.

    It is the same kind of people who mark all their outgoing emails with "high priority".

  34. porter says:

    > Perhaps the focus is being multi-tasked.

    Perhaps the task is to be multi-focused.

  35. MadQ says:

    @porter, Morten: The literal translation of “Schwerpunkt” is “heavy point”. In the context of the examples given by Raymond, it would be translated as “a center of interest or activity.” “Schwerpunkt” can’t really be verbiaged, but a proper equivalent verb would be “konzentrieren”, which would be perfectly valid as used the examples, without abiguity.

    [Any noun can be verbed. Try “schwerpunktifizieren” or, if you’re a minimalist, “schwerpunkten.” What? That’s not a proper verb? Who cares! -Raymond]
  36. Brett says:

    Sure they are wanting to focus on multiple tasks, but how good is their visual acuity to begin with?

  37. Mark says:

    As Cheong said, a light (e.g. torch) and the mind can "focused on" multiple objects.  Even literally, you can have different focal points for different lenses, or for varying points in time.  I wonder, would you also take issue with "almost unique" or "more correct"?

    Alexander, that’s a fantastic summary: I’d expand it to all media outlets.  But concerns like political correctness and being quotable have tilted language throughout history.

  38. Acog says:

    One group had 70 focus areas. After much debate, meetings, and fan fare, they laser-focused into 20 core areas each with 3 to 5 sub foci.  I love management.

  39. Marv says:

    Okay, there is a similar Chinese word misused frequently. People like to say "囊括" to mean that "winning ‘most’ of the prizes" or "taking ‘most’ of the seats". But "囊" means "bag", so it shall signify "all", not "most".

    I guess when a concept is cool and certain word seems adequate, people just use it.

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