Case in Point: Using the power of ‘one’ as a business practice

The big idea:

●Which e-mail, among dozens received daily, should I reply to if I have time to reply to only one?

●In a meeting, what is the one item we should discuss if we have only a few minutes left?

●If I am giving a speech or presentation, what is the one takeaway I want the audience to leave with?

●If there is one thing I can accomplish in my career, or for my family, or one dream I’d like to fulfill in my life, what is it?

The scenario: Each of us possesses an inner force that enables us to be optimally effective in all aspects of life. This is the power of “one.” Although a precise definition is elusive, in its purest conception the power of one is the essence — the values, competencies, even relationships — at our center. It is much more than an abstraction. Indeed, it has practical applications for day-to-day life that are pervasive and powerful.

The resolution: In business, the power of one may be viewed through a strategy lens. Strategy is about focus and uniqueness. It involves choices, and in every situation, trade-offs must be weighed and priorities determined. How we choose among options has to do not only with our core values but also with our overall thinking about how to achieve objectives and fulfill the mission at hand. Strategy also requires consistency. The power of one allows strategists to crystallize what is important, make coherent decisions and articulate a unifying theme to integrate their activities.

Equally, a sharp, steady focus on the power of one can help us achieve a balance between urgency and importance and between short-term and long-term goals. It can serve as a compass for making decisions for both the near and more distant horizons, and can resolve the sometimes difficult trade-offs and paradoxes inherent to many activities.

Myriad business leaders have put into practice the “one” principle. Warren Buffett’s “value investing” strategy encapsulates it. For more than 60 years, Buffett has focused almost exclusively on a narrow selection of equities-investing in stocks he knows and likes — yielding an unparalleled track record of financial returns. Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz’s one principle, expressed in his description of Starbucks as a people business that just happens to sell coffee, is to make the corner cafe the “third place” for customers: home, work . . . and Starbucks.

In Disney, we find the power of one at the organizational level. For most of its early history, Disney’s unifying corporate force was “Mickey in the middle” — a symbol of the centrality of the animated characters to its business. Later the company coalesced a new “oneness” concentrated on family entertainment that integrated the diverse range of business entities it had acquired over the years.

The lesson: The effectiveness of the power of one requires a few commitments: focus, discipline, conviction in an idea and equanimity when you find yourself on the wrong side of the equation.

— Ming-Jer Chen

Chen is a professor of business administration at the University of Virginia Darden School of Business.

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