Less Is More

On my most recent transcontinental flight, I found myself writing the phrase “less is more” in response to a 60 page PowerPoint that I had been sent.   Unlike other irritating phrases, I believe that we could all benefit from following that advice.  Although the origins appear to be in doubt, “less is more” is often associated with the architect and furniture designer Ludwig Mies Van Der Rohe, one of the founders of modern architecture and a proponent of simplicity.  In essence, it suggests that we should strive for clarity of purpose and simplicity of design.

While it’s hard to argue with this premise, there are very few software products that support this lean mantra.  OpenOffice and Google Docs are good examples as they’ve avoided many of the sophisticated features of Microsoft Word that very few of us use.  And both alternatives are free.  Software-as-a-service (SaaS) vendors once promised a streamlined version of their on-premise competitors but I’ve noticed a recent tendency towards SaaS bloatware.  (Note to my readers: Can you come up with any good examples of lean software?)

Simplicity of design seems to be more popular for computer hardware.   Historically, Moore’s law allowed vendors to cram even more features into computers while keeping the price steady. However, over the last few years, more machines function at about the same level as the previous generation but cost significantly less.    The punny titled Economist article “Less is Moore” points to an IDC study that suggests ~$250 netbooks are the fastest growing computer category, from less than 200K units in 2007 to a projected 21M in 2009.

While I’ve previously preached that people should be simple and clear in their communications, recently I’ve been thinking about how to apply simplicity of design to organizations.  In doing so, I stumbled up Michael Hyatt’s blog post with the following four tips on eliminating organizational complexity:

  1. Periodically review regularly-scheduled meetings to determine if they are still needed.  Meetings can be like weeds; unless you pull them out regularly, they will take over your lawn.
  2. Carefully consider the number of people required to make a decision.  It’s good to solicit opinions but the ultimate decision should be made by a smaller group.
  3. Treat processes like you treat most medicine.  Use them to improve organizational health but be careful you don’t overdose.
  4.  Use acronyms sparingly and avoid uncommon initialisms

The first three are very sound advice for reducing complexity that I should put into practice in my own organization.  The last one is just a good idea.  L8r.

5 Responses to Less Is More

  1. Robert E says:

    It is a skill to be both brief and concise. It takes practice and focus to edit presentations.

    Unfortunately, these skills are neither taught in the educational system nor through corporate training.

    These skills find their most reward from a thankful audience.

  2. I think this applies in many ways. Everything within the organization has become complex. Each department has a different strategy framework, they have different meeting structures, etc.

    As an organization grows in time or in size, complexity grows at an exponential rate. Yet we never take the time to do a little spring cleaning (with the exception of people). One of my favorite questions as a consultant is to ask why you do it that way – and I am always surprised by the answer of “that’s the way we have always done it.” That process is almost always a process that has can be dramatically redesigned to improve value.

    We need to be looking at all the additional stuff as distraction. And distraction has a price in terms of wasted time, confusion, frustration, rework, redundancy, etc.

    Shameless self-promotion… http://purestonepartners.com/2009/05/17/clarity-pick-one-voice/

  3. Hi Jonathan,
    Couldn’t agree more. As an analyst I often receive slide decks from vendors with 60-80 slides for a 30-40 minute presentation. When I receive those I dread that whoever is presenting is going to just read the slides to me verbatim and then say “any questions?”. But when I receive a deck with just a few slides I am intrigued to hear what the presenter will say. Less is definitely more. Thanks for reminding us all to think about that before we communicate.

  4. […] 19 10 2009 Jonathan Becher of the Manage by Walking Around Blog last week wrote about “Less is More.”  While he starts out with an attack on PowerPoint presentations, he then broadens his […]

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