Elegance By Design: The Art of Less

Great designers understand the role subtraction plays in creating elegant solutions. What can managers learn from this organizing principle?

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The word “elegant” suggests many images: diamonds, fashion, art, certain people. But you generally don’t conjure up anything related to management. Yet there is an art to the management of ideas and the people who create them, and thus a role for elegance.

Everything elegant is simple; not everything simple is elegant. That’s because there are two kinds of simplicity. As Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. once said, “I wouldn’t give a fig for simplicity on this side of complexity, but I would give my life for simplicity on the other side of complexity.” Elegance is “far side” simplicity that is emotionally engaging, profoundly intelligent, and artfully crafted to be two things at once: simple and powerful.

The goal of elegance is to maximize effect with minimum means. It’s an elusive target. Scientists, mathematicians, and engineers search for theories that explain highly complex phenomena in simple ways. Artists use white, or “negative,” space to convey visual power. Musicians and composers use silence to create dramatic tension. Physicians try to find a single diagnosis to explain all of a patient’s symptoms, shaving the analysis down to the simplest explanation.


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For today’s manager, the key to understanding its relevance lies in realizing that value, for customers and employees alike, may best be added, paradoxically, through a primarily subtractive process. As Jim Collins wrote in 2003, “A great piece of art is composed not just of what is in the final piece, but equally what is not. It is the discipline to discard what does not fit—to cut out what might have already cost days or even years of effort—that distinguishes the truly exceptional artist and marks the ideal piece of work, be it a symphony, a novel, a painting, a company, or most important of all, a life.”

What helps is to have a framework for applying three important design principles—symmetry, seduction, and subtraction—for these are critical elements of elegance.

Symmetry: Simple rules create effective order Most people think about symmetry in terms of a mirror reflection, which is a visual left-right balance. But that’s just one example of a kind of symmetry, of which there are many. In fact, most of the natural world is symmetrical, characterized by infinitely repeating patterns. So the best way to think about symmetry is the way Hermann Weyl defined it in his 1952 book, Symmetry: “A thing is symmetrical if there is something you can do it so that after you have finished doing it, it looks the same as before.” Symmetry is about dynamic properties of ordering, organizing, and operating. And that places the concept in the manager’s world.

When we construct hierarchical organizational charts, we are trying to achieve a certain intuitive symmetry, a fractal. The term fractal was coined in 1975 by Benoit Mandelbrot, at the IBM Thomas J. Watson Research Center in New York, applying mathematics to problems of economics, finance, and information technology. Fractals are known as the “fingerprint of nature,” and are a special type of symmetry: repetitive patterns nested within each other that remain the same at differing scale of magnification, so that the overall structure is similar to a single smaller structure. The most important thing for a manager to realize is that fractals occur naturally and arise out of extremely simple rules that when fed back on each other create beautifully organized and highly complex designs.

Meg Wheatley, in her 1992 book Leadership and the New Science, suggested the link between fractals and effectively run organizations, and that the most desirable order might best be achieved not by demanding compliance to an exhaustive set of centrally mandated, onerously rigid regulations, but from one or two vital agreements. Those agreements are often found only at the core value level; they are mostly implicit, nonnegotiable rules that everyone understands and is accountable for, yet that are left open to individual interpretation and variation.

The implications for a manager are important. For example, many large corporations approach high rates of absenteeism by drafting strict penalty policies. Some have gone so far as to hire “absentee coordinators” to shadow employees. Toyota Motor Corporation took the opposite approach when it partnered with General Motors in 1983 to reopen a shuttered plant, one that had been plagued with 20 percent absenteeism and the lowest quality and productivity of all GM’s plants at the time. Inheriting the same workforce, Toyota embedded in the culture two crucial, nonnegotiable agreements that represent the Toyota philosophy: respect for people and continuous improvement. Workers were placed in charge of their own work and encouraged to interpret these ideals in their own way. Absenteeism dropped dramatically. Quality and productivity rose to record highs..

Seduction: limiting information creates intrigue The power of suggestion is often stronger than that of full disclosure. Leaving something to the imagination, open to interpretation, creates an irresistible aura of mystery, and we are compelled to find answers. The seduction is in what we don’t know. What we don’t know far outweighs what we do, and we are naturally curious. What isn’t there drives us to resolve our curiosity, and we will fill in the information we deem missing in order to do so.

Apple’s original iPhone strategy is a good example. In the months leading up to its launch the iPhone was hailed as one of the most-hyped products ever to hit the market. But to hype something means to push it heavily through the use of various sales and media tactics. And that’s exactly the opposite of what Apple did. There were ads, but Steve Jobs’s simple 2007 MacWorld demonstration was the lynchpin. The spare design was coupled with a spare strategy. No appearances by Mr. Jobs on television. No sweeping demo model program for technology journalists. No advance reviews. No evangelistic outreach to the Apple cult. No special introductory offer or handset rebate. No preordering. By the time the iPhone finally went on sale, 20 million Americans had expressed interest in buying one, regardless of the price or potential wait time. It was a well-executed seduction strategy, and the iPhone “tipped” well before it hit the market.

Subtraction: restraint and removal creates value When neuroscientists examine brain activity using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), they notice that activities involving subtracting numbers light up an entirely different part of the brain than those involving addition. Subtraction is indeed a different way of thinking. But the positive impact of a manager asking and answering questions like these is undeniable: What would my customers love for me to eliminate or reduce or stop adding? What is it that my competition would struggle with if I were to cease? What would my most highly valued people love for me to stop doing?

W. L. Gore and Associates, makers of GORE-TEX, completely eliminated job titles and typical corporate hierarchy to release the creativity of its employees. Toyota’s youth brand, Scion, refused traditional advertising and drastically reduced the number of standard features on its vehicles so ad-averse Generation Y buyers who wanted to make a personal statement could customize their cars with trendy accessories. The British bank First Direct went branchless and became the most highly recommended bank in the country. French manufacturing company FAVI realized better employee relations when it eliminated its human resources department. Cities in Holland have eliminated traffic controls and experienced not only better traffic flow but also a significant drop in automobile accidents..

The trick, of course, is in understanding what to eliminate, and exactly how to go about it. But that is another discussion entirely.

Matthew E. May is the author of In Pursuit of Elegance: Why the Best Ideas Have Something Missing and The Elegant Solution: Toyota’s Formula for Mastering Innovation.

The above article is © Matthew E. May

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