“Elegance describes the perfect answer to any problem: a solution so good it makes you tingle.”—Leigh Buchanan, Inc. Magazine
“One has the feeling that May is introducing us to the future through an entertaining and educational theme park of ideas.”—Seth Kahan, FastCompany.com
In Pursuit of Elegance offers an engaging narrative from former Toyota consultant Matthew E. May on the power of elegance at work and in our lives, arguing that what’s NOT there often trumps what is.
AVAILABLE IN PAPERBACK SEPTEMBER 7th
IN PURSUIT OF ELEGANCE
Why the Best Ideas Have Something Missing
By Matthew E. May
Foreword by Guy Kawasaki
As a soft economy meets a brutally competitive business environment, the need for creative ideas and innovative solutions will never be more keenly felt. In his new book, IN PURSUIT OF ELEGANCE: Why the Best Ideas Have Something Missing (Broadway Books; September 7, 2010), now available in paperback, author and former Toyota consultant Matthew E. May digs deep into the art of crafting ideas and solutions through an essentially subtractive approach—what he calls elegant solutions. These elegant solutions combine surprising power and uncommon simplicity—they not only fix problems but they also create value.
In his new book, May looks at a wide swath of fields, from science to art, business to sports, and offers a provocative case for achieving the maximum impact with the minimum input—seductive and sustainable solutions that cut through the noise, engage the customer, touch hearts and minds, and change behavior forever. He calls these “elegant solutions” that result in a way of a thinking that involves doing less, rather than more.
“Savvy innovators,” writes May, “understand that what isn’t there can often trump what is, and are executing subtractive strategies: artfully paring back their offerings, leaving out the right things by design in order to fully engage the recipient. Those that don’t understand how to aim for elegance will be left behind.”
The elegant solutions that May explores in depth share four common characteristics. They are symmetrical, seductive, subtractive and sustainable:
Symmetry helps us solve problems of structure, order, and aesthetics. We are natural-born symmetry-seekers. Most of nature, with its infinitely repeating patterns, is symmetrical. Symmetry is where mathematics, nature, science, and art come together. We are adept at noticing a lack of symmetry, which is why we can exploit it to our advantage—when someone experiences a degree of asymmetry, they naturally want to “fill in” the obviously missing piece. It’s the nature of symmetry that enables us to find solutions given only partial information. When symmetry comes into play, what appears to be missing isn’t. It’s at once absent, and yet present.
Seduction addresses the problem of creative engagement. It captivates any attention and activates any imagination. 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; we are easily drawn to the unknown, precisely because it is unknown. What isn’t there drives us to resolve our curiosity.
Subtraction helps us solve the problem of economy. Doing less, conserving, doesn’t come naturally. Humans are natural born adders, hard wired to push, collect, hoard, store, and consume. And therein lies the conundrum. The same penchant we have to “fill in,” to add, is exactly why elegance, being subtractive, is so elusive. Whether we’re talking about a product, a performance, a market, or an organization, our addiction to additive solutions results in inconsistency, overload, or waste—and sometimes all three. The trick is in understanding what to eliminate, and exactly how to go about it.
Sustainability helps us solve that problem; it implies a process that is both repeatable and lasting. To consistently find elegant solutions, we need to alter how we approach problems, so that the principles of symmetry, seduction, and subtraction can be applied effectively, over and over again. A sustainable thinking strategy helps us to do that by giving us a process we can use and reuse to tap the power of the missing piece.
Some examples of these subtractive solutions that May examines include:
The final episode of HBO series “The Sopranos” cut to a black screen instead of neatly tying up the story, leaving 12 million viewers stunned and then outraged that creator David Chase would leave them hanging. The inconclusive ending, which Chase says was the easiest way not to alienate each half of the audience—one who wanted to the series’ lead character Tony Soprano to die and the other half who wanted him to survive—became one of the most talked about episodes in television history and in the end, got three times as many people to watch the episode for clues. The result? Viewers in essence supplied their own conclusions about what happened based on subtle dialog and visuals in the highly debated episode.
Steve Jobs eliminated the keypad, using a touchpad for his products from the iPod to the iPhone and even carries the concept to the elevators in Apple’s multilevel stores which are without conventional buttons. His approach infuses everything from the visual look of the product, to its functionality, to the company’s marketing strategy, all of which centers around what Jobs called a “stop doing” strategy. When Fortune magazine named Apple the country’s most admired and innovative company, Jobs cited this strategy that he says forces employees to focus, pick their ideas carefully, and then stop trying to innovate on the hundreds of other ideas they might have. They subtracted the possibility of other solutions, choosing instead to focus on just a few.
In-N-Out Burger, a freakishly popular hamburger chain in Los Angeles, has built its brand on the “less is more approach” with an interesting twist. The menu offers only five items – a hamburger, cheeseburger, double burger, French fries and a short list of beverages. By keeping things simple, founder Harry Snyder says he is able to provide the highest quality food in a sparkling clean environment. The twist? There is a secret menu at the restaurant that only regulars are privy to – mostly just different combinations of the standard fare, like three burger patties and three slices of cheese. These special combos have never been allowed on the regular menu and apparently never will, as they offer the customer a certain “mystique,” the suggestion of the missing piece that the customer himself is allowed to provide.
May’s message seems particularly apt now as leaders struggle to move their companies forward while using fewer resources. Elegant solutions provide the opportunity to do more with less, maximizing impact while minimizing outlay.
May also explores the fascinating connection between brain function and solution, with a shocking number of the world’s major discoveries happening in strange locations and random moments. Einstein’s theory of relativity came to him in a daydream, car designer Irwin Lui sketched the innovative lines of what became the Toyota Prius after helping his child with a school project involving hard boiled eggs, and Richard Phillips Feynman was watching someone throw a plate in the air when the spinning medallion spurred his Nobel Prize-winning idea of quantum electrodynamics. This state of “quiet brain” and how to achieve it concludes the book, sparking thought about creating the proper state for elegant solutions to emerge.
IN PURSUIT OF ELEGANCE is a counterintuitive, unconventional, but undeniably powerful book and concept. It deftly proves that the best ideas are those that are intentionally open to interpretation and leave something to the imagination.
For more information, visit: www.InPursuitofElegance.com.
About the Author
MATTHEW E. MAY is Senior Lecturer on Creativity and Innovation at Pepperdine University’s Graduate School of Business and Management, and the author of the critical acclaimed The Elegant Solution. A popular speaker, he lectures to corporations, governments, and universities around the world on ingenuity and innovation. He spent nearly a decade advising Toyota, and his articles and profiles have appeared in USA TODAY, The Los Angeles Times, strategy+business, The New Yorker, The Wall Street Journal and on CNN and National Public Radio. A graduate of The Wharton School of Business, May lives in Westlake Village, CA, with his family.
For more information, or to schedule an interview with Matthew E. May, please contact Dennelle Catlett at 212-782-9486 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
In Pursuit of Elegance: Why the Best Ideas Have Something Missing By Matthew E. May
On-sale: September 7, 2010; Paperback; ISBN: 978-0-385-52650-0; Price: $14.00