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Published: February 26, 2013
 / Spring 2013 / Issue 70

 
 

Six Secrets to Doing Less

4. Creativity thrives under intelligent constraints. As writer, art critic, and essayist G.K. Chesterton once claimed, “Art consists of limitation. The most beautiful part of every picture is the frame.”

In the mid-1990s, the Mars Pathfinder team at Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., had to respond to the new NASA mandate of “faster, better, cheaper” by launching a reliable, low-cost alternative to traditional space exploration. Their challenge: Create a rover that could efficiently return with new engineering and scientific data on Mars, and do it for less than one-tenth the typical cost of a space mission. It was a seemingly impossible task requiring a “change everything” approach. The results, though, were spectacular. The entire project, from concept to touchdown, was completed in 44 months—less than half the time of the previous Viking mission to Mars—with significantly fewer team members, and on budget. And it resulted in dozens of resourceful innovations, the most remarkable being the use of deployable airbags as the landing method.

5. Break is the important part of breakthrough. Innovation often demands a break with convention.

While the U.S. government struggles to solve the healthcare problem, one entrepreneur is taking a fresh approach. WellnessMart, MD, is a retail doctor’s office for healthy people to access services such as vaccinations, CPR training, and physicals. Founded by physician Richard McCauley in Los Angeles, WellnessMart is nothing like a typical medical office. Picture modern furnishings, an open floor plan, big-screen televisions, and walls covered with prominent menu boards listing services and cash pricing. In McCauley’s view, sick people and healthy people should not go to the same place, and healthcare isn’t just for unhealthy times. With low prices, no insurance accepted, no appointments, and no coughs and sniffles, the WellnessMart approach is a complete departure from other healthcare operations. The business has expanded to four retail locations in California, and McCauley is contemplating a national franchise.

6. Doing something isn’t always better than doing nothing. Innovation often demands taking a break from the rigors of work. Neuroscience now confirms that the ability to engineer creative breakthroughs indeed hinges on the capacity to synthesize and make connections between seemingly disparate things. A key ingredient is a quiet mind, severed for a time from the problem at hand.

Meditation—a practice that eliminates distraction and clears the mind—is an effective way to enhance self-awareness, focus, and attention, and to prime your brain for achieving creative insights. Oracle chief executive Larry Ellison meditates, and asks his executives to do the same. In 2007, Google initiated a mindfulness and meditation course at its Google University to help its employees maintain the company’s strong track record for innovation. Leaders at GE, 3M, Bloomberg Media, Green Mountain Coffee Roasters, and Salesforce.com meditate. So do Ford chairman William Ford and former corporate chiefs Bill George of Medtronic and Bob Shapiro of Monsanto. George, now a Harvard leadership professor, says that 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.

Business leaders today face endless choice and feature overkill. They need to cut through the noise, using the art of subtraction to reveal the quiet truth. These six rules point to a single, powerful idea for achieving simplicity in any innovative effort: When you remove just the right things in just the right way, good things happen.

Author Profile:

  • Matthew E. May is a speaker, a creativity coach, and the founder of Edit Innovation, an ideas agency based in Los Angeles.
  • This article is adapted from May’s most recent book, The Laws of Subtraction: 6 Simple Rules for Winning in the Age of Excess Everything (McGraw-Hill, 2013).
 
 
 
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