Book Review: In Pursuit of Elegance


I just finished reading Matt May's excellent new book, In Pursuit of Elegance: Why the Best Ideas Have Something Missing." Matt is a former Toyota University guy and the author of The Elegant Solution.

To say that his book is about lean would be a disservice. It's much more than that. The stories and analyses record Matt's search for creative ideas and innovative solutions to problems in a surprisingly wide range of fields, from Jackson Pollack to the Sopranos, from traffic circles in Europe to video rental stores, from sudoku to corporate HR policies. I don't buy into all of his examples, but the overall force of his argument is compelling and very, very thought-provoking. Certainly, I won't look at a product boasting a "New & Improved!" sticker in the same way again.

Matt proposes that truly "elegant" solutions have a wonderful -- and elusive -- combination of  simplicity and power. We don't have to lard up a product with new features to solve customer problems any more than we need a 175-page employee manual to tell workers what we expect them to do. In fact, Matt argues, the best solutions most often involve subtraction: leaving something out, rather than adding something. Subtracting the buttons from the iPhone is one thing that made it so successful (and at the time, unique). Subtracting road signs from a busy intersection in the Netherlands is what improved traffic safety. Subtracting information from the Sopranos finale (i.e., the infamous static-screen ending) is what made it such a hot topic of conversation. Matt goes on in more depth about this concept, but in keeping with his idea of subtraction, I don't want to add too much.

What I love about the book -- and what I'm still thinking about two weeks after reading it -- is the challenge of creating elegant solutions to the ongoing information management problems I see everyday. The complexity of so many solutions means they have no hope of working in more than just the short term. Think of a company that drafts email guidelines that painstakingly detail when and in what circumstances people should use "Reply All." How successful are those? By contrast, think of Nielsen Research's elegant solution: they simply removed the button from Outlook.

In one of my previous companies, my boss hit upon an elegant solution to the chronic problem of meetings that started late. He simply locked the door to the conference room and started the meeting on time. No long-winded speeches about the importance of time management, no memos posted on the wall, no penalty funds -- just a locked door. (It definitely helped that the wall of the conference room was a full height window -- embarrassment is a powerful motivator.) After the first meeting, everyone was on time. And after a few weeks, on-time meetings became an indelible part of the corporate culture.

This is going to be my new goal: to find the elegant solution to seemingly intractable problems involving efficiency and information management. As I work with my clients on A3 analyses of their problems, I'll be looking for solutions that feature "simplicity on the other side of complexity."

Read Matt's blog here, download a free chapter here, and order the book here. And if you're wondering, no, I'm not being paid for this. But in a world of fungible, indistinguishable business books purporting to offer "insights" that are just self-evident platitudes, this is one book that stands out.

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