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The “Less-Is-Best” Approach To Innovation

Reprinted from my HBR Blog:


In our world of excess everything, savvy innovators realize that less is actually best. They know that delivering a memorable and meaningful experience hinges on user engagement, which is best achieved through a subtractive approach. Anything excessive, confusing or wasteful is intelligently and cleverly removed, or never added in the first place.

Over the past six years I've looked at more than 2,000 ideas — products, services, processes and strategies. Those that achieved the maximum effect with an elegant, minimalist approach all had a few common characteristics.

Lean features. Most people aren't aware that the first iteration of Instagram, the simple and fun photo-sharing mobile app, was a bloated and feature-laden app called Burbn. It lacked a clear value proposition and thus had very few users.
CEO Kevin Systrom stepped back and cut out the clutter, paring it down into something people could understand and use inside 30 seconds. Snap a photo, choose a filter to transform it into a work of art, and quickly share it through social media. Result? Instagram amassed two million users in only four months, a rate of growth faster than Foursquare, Facebook, and Twitter at the time, and was then famously acquired by Facebook.

Loose reins. The trend toward flatter organizational structures is growing stronger. W. L. Gore, maker of GORE-TEX and other fluoropolymer products, is known for their team-based culture void of job titles. A visit to the website of videogame company Valve reveals a "bossless" structure. Even the giant automaker Toyota encourages new hires to "dig their own job" — meaning find a challenge or problem that fits with their skillset, and run with it. The epitome of a "loose reins" approach, though, is French automotive parts maker FAVI, a 600-person company led by a CEO, Jean-Francois Zobrist, who describes himself as "a stupid and lazy manager" who has "no idea of what people are doing." This, of course, was his way of explaining that he trusts his employees to do their jobs. He knows he doesn't have the expertise to do their work and so shouldn't have much input into it. Zobrist subtracted many things when he took the helm of the company in 1983. "I came in the day after and told [everyone] when you come to work, you do not work for me or for a boss; you work for your customer. You do what is needed for the customer." He then eliminated all central control: personnel, product development, purchasing. It was replaced by 20 self-directed, self-sufficient teams, each focused on a specific automaker.

Quiet minds. Leaders at GE, 3M, Bloomberg Media, Green Mountain Coffee Roasters, and Salesforce.com do it. Ford chairman William Ford does it, as do former corporate chiefs Bill George of Medtronic and Bob Shapiro of Monsanto. Oracle chief Larry Ellison does it and asks his executives to do it several times a day. Meditation — i.e. a practice that eliminates distraction and clears the mind — is an incredibly effective way to enhance self-awareness, focus and attention and to prime your brain for achieving creative insights. Google in 2007 initiated a mindfulness and meditation course at its Google University as a way to help its employees maintain the company's strong track record for innovation. George, now a Harvard leadership professor, says it has been an integral part of his career and as CEO of Medtronic, he went so far as to set aside one of the company's conference rooms for employees to take mental breaks.

These three trends add up to a rather powerful, and appropriately simple, idea: when you remove the right things in just the right way, something good is bound to happen.

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