I have been contemplating the subject of how less is more; about how our pursuit of more distracts us from the right priorities in our jobs, in design, in innovation, and life in general.
The term “Less is more” refers to the notion that simplicity and clarity lead to good design. The phrase became the motto of architect and furniture designer Ludwig Mies Van Der Rohe (1886-1969), one of the founders of modern architecture and a proponent of simplicity of style.
Simplicity vs complexity
No doubt, things which are less complicated are often better understood and more appreciated than those that are more complicated. Simplicity is preferable to complexity.
At a 2010 technology conference, Apple’s CEO Tim Cook said: “We can put all of our products on the table you’re sitting at. Those products together sell $40 billion per year. No other company can make that claim except perhaps an oil company. We are the most focused company that I know of, or have read of, or have any knowledge of. We say no to good ideas every day; we say no to great ideas; to keep the number of things we focus on small in number”.
I think this is the basic theory behind Apple’s brilliant success. In fact, back in 2004, Steve Jobs said “I’m as proud of the products that we have not done as I am of the products we have done.”
The clarity paradox
My partner Rob Hill (Mantra Partners Inc.) is a highly regarded technology expert. He recently emailed me an article by Greg McKeown titled The Disciplined Pursuit of Less. McKeown writes for Harvard Business Review. This is what he wrote on the subject:
Why don't successful people and organizations automatically become very successful? One important explanation is due to what I call "the clarity paradox," which can be summed up in four predictable phases:
Phase 1: When we really have clarity of purpose, it leads to success. Phase 2: When we have success, it leads to more options and opportunities. Phase 3: When we have increased options and opportunities, it leads to diffused efforts. Phase 4: Diffused efforts undermine the very clarity that led to our success in the first place.
Curiously, and overstating the point in order to make it, success is a catalyst for failure.
The undisciplined pursuit of “more”.
One of the key reasons for these failures, McKeown concludes, is that “companies fall into the undisciplined pursuit of more. It is true for companies and it is true for careers”.
McKeown shares a a more personal story about a man, Enric Sala, who finally settled into a career he was passionate about by learning to say “no” to more.
For years, Enric Sala was a professor at the prestigious Scripps Institution of Oceanography in La Jolla, California. But he couldn't kick the feeling that the career path he was on was just a close counterfeit for the path he should really be on. So, he left academia and went to work for National Geographic.
With that success came new and intriguing opportunities that again left him feeling he was close to the right career path, but not quite there yet. His success had distracted him. After a couple of years, he changed gears again in order to be what he really wanted: an explorer-in-residence with National Geographic, spending a significant portion of his time diving in the most remote locations, using his strengths in science and communications to influence policy on a global scale. The price of his dream job was saying no to the many good, parallel paths he encountered.
Following on from this story, McKeown gives us three approaches to use to evaluate things and continue our upward momentum:
First – use extreme criteria. Example, when looking at the clothes in your closet, instead of asking yourself will I possibly wear this sometime in the future, ask yourself, do I absolutely love this piece of clothing? Changes your perspective.
Another example: To find work or a job, we need to apply tougher criteria on a search engine than “Job opportunity”. We can conduct an advanced search by asking three questions: "What am I deeply passionate about?" and "What taps my talent?" and "What meets a significant need in the world?" Naturally there won't be as many pages to view, but that is the point of the exercise.
Second – ask what is essential and eliminate the rest. In the same way that our desks get cluttered without us ever trying to make them cluttered, so our lives get cluttered as well-intended ideas from the past pile up. Most of these efforts didn't come with an expiration date. Once adopted, they live on in perpetuity. Figure out which ideas from the past are important and pursue those. Throw out the rest.
Third – beware the endowment effect. If we own something we attach more value to it that it usually is worth and hang on to it even though we don’t need it. So when looking at something you own, simply ask yourself if you did not own it, would you be willing to buy it?
The hard part with all this, is that it often involves saying no to good things or good opportunities that are not what are best for you.
So the key here is to be strategic in your thoughts and eliminate the distractions, the nonessentials in your life. so that you can focus on what is important.
Greg McKeown concludes:
If success is a catalyst for failure because it leads to the "undisciplined pursuit of more," then one simple antidote is the disciplined pursuit of less. Not just haphazardly saying no, but purposefully, deliberately, and strategically eliminating the nonessentials—constantly reducing, focusing and simplifying— getting rid of the obvious time wasters, and cutting out really terrific opportunities as well.
Few appear to have the courage to live this principle, which may be why it differentiates successful people and organizations from the very successful ones.
In a cost-conscious world, less is more.
Consumers in emerging economies are moving up the income ladder. More people are buying computer tablets, smartphones, cars, and washing machines for the first time. However, they are not yet able to pay high prices. In developed countries the opposite trend is gathering momentum. Both governments and consumers are looking for ways to cut spending.
And this means that large multinational companies will have to change profoundly.
The world is becoming more cost-conscious. In economies like China, South Korea, Japan, or India, Less is More is a force that demands that companies, particularly large ones, make fundamental changes to the way they operate and think. Avoiding or ignoring these changes carries great risks, but they can also offer enormous rewards”. Put simply, for marketing the key is to adopt the “Less is More” approach.
Manifestations of this new frugality include the success no-frills airlines like Asian Air. Another example is the Tata Nano, the world's cheapest car at $2,000, was hyped as the embodiment of a revolution. Though it failed at launch, I don’t think this is the last we will hear of it or other small cars like it.
These frugal innovations, and more like them, put more consumer products and services within reach of ordinary Indian and Chinese consumers. Asian engineers re-imagine Western products with all the unnecessary frills stripped out. The cost savings are huge. These frugal ideas could well conquer the world.
A market for “Less is More”
The market for products and services without all the bells and whistles (Less is More) is there, and increasingly so—both in the East and in the West. These products have to be simple, maintenance-friendly, affordable, reliable and timely to market. Scarcity of resources is not an impediment but an enabler for frugal innovation.
In order to remain competitive in this challenging environment, the large multinationals of today must adapt. The frugal customers of today are the high-end consumers of tomorrow.
Simplify, Simplify, Simplify
Here's example of a company that doesn’t understand that Less is More: Research In Motion (RIM), the Blackberry manufacturer.
The following is just a partial list of RIM's product brand names: Electron, Pearl, Pearl Flip, 88xx, Curve, Tour, Style, Torch, Bold Storm and Bold Touch. To make matters worse, most of these product names have multiple numbered versions. The "Bold" for example, comes in the 9000, 9650, 9700 and the 9790 varieties.
Compare that with Apple's iPhone — one product name. Sure, they have a version number, but these are very easy to understand and remember (G3, G4, G5). Less complex for certain. Absurdly simple when compared to RIM.
Less truly is more.