A Brain Map for How to Spend Executive Time

As an owner of a small business, or as a key manager in that business, ever wonder what you should be spending your time on?  You might ask yourself, from time to time, “Am I focusing on the right things?”

Too bad most of us don’t learn in school what we should think about or how we should allocate our time and brain power in business.  We have to figure it out on our own.

One clue for how to do this is to emulate what the CEOs of large corporations do ….  Because if you want your business to grow, you might look at what it takes to grow to become a successful large business.

Today’s New York Times has an article about HP that points to the company’s turnaround through tight fiscal management under CEO Mark Hurd (note: HP is a sponsor of Small Business Trends).  One of the instructive parts of the article for small business owners is a map of Mark Hurd’s brain.  The New York Times laid out the four concerns that he thinks about at all times as the CEO.  Here’s the brain map:

Based on the map that appeared in the New York Times, you can see that Hurd is putting part of his attention on current concerns, and part of his mindshare is on the future.

Also, part of his brain focuses inside the four walls, with how the company is performing.  The other part of his focus is outside the four walls, with what the competition is doing and the latest trends in the marketplace.

Here is my conceptual map based on his thought processes, for what small business executives should be focusing on:

Maybe this map is wishful thinking for small businesspeople.  I would be willing to bet that most of us are far more focused internally on our own operations and profitability — and with the here-and-now.  We give far less attention to things going on outside our companies and to what the future holds.  I’m not saying that is the way it should be, just the way it probably is.  We have limited time and we spend it on whatever is urgent and ensures the survival and smooth operation of our businesses.  That necessarily forces us to put most of our attention inside our companies.

But if that’s the case, it’s all the more reason to make a conscious effort to devote more mindshare to what’s happening out in the marketplace.  We should think more about the future and trends.  How else will we ever grow our businesses if we don’t make time to raise our heads up above our daily tasks?

The question for you is, how do you spend your time?  Would the map of your brain look like this?


Anita Campbell Anita Campbell is the Founder, CEO and Publisher of Small Business Trends and has been following trends in small businesses since 2003. She is the owner of BizSugar, a social media site for small businesses.

20 Reactions
  1. Martin Lindeskog

    I see this as a combination of SWOT (strengths – weaknesses – opportunities – threats) analysis and using business intelligence in order to keep in touch with what is going on with your market. Another thing to consider if you could use lateral thinking in order to both think outside & inside the “box”… I will spend time on learning more about the Theory of Constraints and apply forward thinking skills and the GTD (“getting things done” methodology to my worklife.

    I will take some time and read the NYT article later on today, but I have “protest” against the headline, “Does H.P. Need a Dose of Anarchy?” You don’t want to have anarchy inside a company.

  2. Maybe in some ways this is similar to small business vs. big business when it comes to advertising?

    Small businesses tend to focus more on direct response advertising while big businesses put more emphasis on “branding” and other broad based advertising campaigns.

    On the one hand, you might argue that small companies wishing to become bigger should advertise in the same general fashion as big companies.

    My guess is that if they [small businesses] did, most would be out of business long before they got big! There’s not as much margin for error and missed shots on goal in the SMB environment.

    So, as a small business owner you can try to think like a big time CEO, but if at present you’re wearing many hats – ‘technician, manager and CEO’ – your “brain map” better be adjusted accordingly or you might find yourself headed for a destination you don’t want to visit – bankruptcy!


  3. Anita, I think you are right about many focusing on the internal and one reason could be that it is more concrete and immediate.

    One way I have found to keep an eye on both is to think of what they mean for our customer relationships. We monitor what our competitors are planning or doing and monitor a number of trends that could affect the relationships now and in the future. There is so much information available it is not that difficult to set up.

    Then once a month for example we look at the information and ask questions such as how, why, what and either take action or not or put plans in place for future action.

  4. Martin I agree with SWOT. This is how our brain should work.

  5. I think I don’t think about competition – does a dr think about competition? There is so much work out there for accountants. Some people feed of coompetition though…

  6. The most successful small business owners I have observed and coached focus on three things:
    l. Selling
    2. Delivering
    3. Developing their own business

    Doing so through their own efforts and through their people is the simplest way to keep focused on what will keep them successful.

    Here’s a piece I wrote that elaborates on this http://www.andybirol.com/DisplayContent.aspx?MenuID=659

    Regards, Andy Birol abirol@andybirol.com

  7. This distinction between internal and external focus is very interesting. I have a natural tendency to migrate towards the external focus – that is where I get my energy and creativity. For example, it gives me ideas and better positioning. But it is not what gets the business in.

    It is interesting that I just spent a long weekend, as tourist guide for another successful small business owner visiting my neck of the woods, who has decided to spend 3 months a year “on vacation”… to improve creativity and of course he is checking out competition and trends first hand.

    I definitely feel I need to balance these two areas of focus.

  8. Ben, that’s a good point. You don’t want to follow the large corporations blindly, or you may go kaput trying.

    But most small-business owners I know are heads down — to the exclusion of looking ahead. That can’t be good, either.


  9. I think the distinction between internal and external is helpful, but I’ve always preferred to think in terms of a timeline when working with my small retail clients. Most are so embedded in the here and now that they are not able to anticipate what’s around the corner, much less take the time to plan out six months, twelve months, two years or five years into the future. Show me a small retailer that actually takes the time to plan in detail, and create a roadmap for the future, and I’ll show you a retailer that far more likely than not to be very successful.

  10. Nice variation of a SWOT analysis. Thanks

  11. Dallon Christensen

    This post brought me back to one of my favorite MBA projects. One organizational management class allowed me to review the time diaries of two business leaders. One ran a local radio station he owned, and the other was a factory manager of a large manufacturing organization. This exercise allowed me to see what each leader thought was important to the organization.

    I am not surprised by some of the comments saying that a small business owner can focus too internally. My advice would be, if one can afford it, to hire a contract or project-based professional to focus on the internal operations of the business. A business owner must be primarily outward facing to the market, customers, and competition. There is no question that internal operations and efficiency are very important, but you can find people who really enjoy that type of work so you can focus on the outside environment.

  12. While the internal/external focus is important, it is equally important (or maybe even more so) to look at Covey’s time management quadrants. Getting stuck in the cycle of focusing on the urgent/unimportant – aka putting out fires – is the downfall of many entrepreneurs.

    Planning your efforts is key to getting in front of the demands of your business and allows you to spend time in a manner that will most increase the value of your business.

    Cecilia Edwards
    Equipping Businesses for Phenomenal Success

  13. Cecilia Edwards:

    Are Covey’s ideas similar to David Allen’s “Getting Things Done” methodology? I have started to read Speed of Trust by Stephen M.R. Covey. I think it is very important to create a culture of trust, internally in the company, and externally. Look at the whole supply chain and take care of bottle necks and constraints in the organization.

    For more on GTD, please read my post, Getting Things Done Stuff, by clicking on “Martin Lindeskog” Says.

  14. Martin,

    You asked “Are Covey’s ideas similar to David Allen’s “Getting Things Done” methodology?” Not really – I think they are complementary. Allen’s Getting Things Done is more about how to be productive and give lots of tools and methodologies for managing things productively and with minimal stress.

    The Covey work I was referring to was “7 Habits of Highly Effective People.” It is more big picture, planning, prioritizing than tactical. He does talk a bit about planning your day and has a methodology that could easily include the tactics shared in “Getting Things Done.”

    I do love his son’s book “The Speed of Trust” and think this a very important business element worthy of some focused attention.

  15. Martin Lindeskog

    Cecilia, Thanks for your thoughtful follow-up comment. I will follow you on Twitter and read your blog.

  16. Clemens Rettich

    Elegant and concise summary of a serious challenge confronting small business owners, and many mid-level managers.

    A solution would seem to me to come either from within (organizations that provide time and mentoring for management to ‘look up’ and act), or from without (business owners working with professional support in marketing, HR, coaching, etc. to support that required shift in focus).

    Bottom line… we don’t have to go it alone.