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In search of elegance

A counterintuitive antidote to turbulent times.

The pandemic has laid bare the dire need for elegance in business. I’m not talking about the kind of elegance exhibited by Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers dancing in formal attire, but elegance in the best software engineering, computer programming, industrial design, and customer experience. Elegant solutions unravel difficult problems—customer service centers thwarting connection to someone who can answer a question; terms of service agreements that run dozens of pages; organizational processes mired in bureaucratic thickets—achieving a desired outcome using the minimum of time, effort, and materials. They feel seamless and almost intuitive. They bring clarity and ease.

Indeed, elegance in enterprises is more necessary than ever because of the increasingly complex challenges executives face. Leaders must meet the evolving demands of workers as well as customers, and they are expected to weigh in on social issues. Climate change and geopolitical uncertainty are introducing new and greater risks. Emerging technologies such as blockchain and cryptocurrencies are upending assumptions about how business will be done. Conditions such as these call for elegance.

Elegance can be found everywhere, if you only stop to look. It abounds in nature: the plunge of a raptor in pursuit of prey. The ingenious scalability of the fractal structure of nautilus shells. The numerous interdependencies of a healthy ecosystem. And elegance abounds in the business world. Sleek laptops and smartphones have replaced their bulky, boxy predecessors. There is elegance in the instant moves and countermoves in well-functioning financial and commodity markets, the holistic strategies of regenerative businesses, and even a high-performing warehouse crew that melds human talent and technology to deliver both volume and accuracy.

Elegant solutions mitigate stress in the system while fostering flow—the feeling that individual and collective effort are optimized for achieving desired outcomes. But attaining elegance is not easy. Serena Williams’s tennis stroke, Rory McIlroy’s golf swing, and Lionel Messi’s fluid moves on the soccer pitch all result from countless hours of practice and a commitment to continuous improvement through feedback loops. In business, Google’s search engine and Amazon’s e-commerce business see constant enhancement through robust feedback loops of their own: each user’s activity is incorporated to improve the experience of future users.

The most elegant business solutions simultaneously solve multiple problems. Stakeholder capitalism is an ambitious pursuit of an elegant solution that does just that: rather than singularly pursue the goal of increasing shareholder value, companies have worked to address the needs of all stakeholders—employees, customers, suppliers, governments, communities, and investors. Each facet of a challenge can yield fresh insights into both opportunities and potential pitfalls while accelerating learning. For example, member companies at the Center for Higher Ambition Leadership believe that committing to create financial and social value in tandem helps “sharpen strategy” and is “the best way to build organizations that outperform in the short- and long-term.”

A fundamental challenge for leaders today is to reset and refocus their organizations to move with hope and confidence into an uncertain future. Elegance is a framework that facilitates that journey.

Another characteristic of elegance is simplicity. Albert Einstein said, “Most of the fundamental principles of science are essentially simple, and may, as a rule, be expressed in language comprehensible to everyone.” If that approach can work for Einstein and science, it certainly should hold true for your products, policies, and procedures. And it’s important, because over the last several decades, the systems, functions, and processes of many large companies have become extremely costly and complex. The digitization of business models and operations has only exacerbated matters, as companies have increasingly created ecosystems with myriad new partners to help expand their reach and capture new, profitable growth. More recently, the business challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic have forced organizations up the digital adoption curve at a breakneck pace while also dealing with workforce disruption that looks to endure beyond the pandemic. The result is the need to solve several problems simultaneously.

Unfortunately, many respond to complexity by increasing complication—and thus increasing inelegance—through extensive bureaucracy with a rule for every contingency. Instead, leaders would be wise to pursue elegant simplicity: the fewest rules possible or, even better, a few rock-solid principles. This enables and empowers individuals and teams to quickly respond to the dynamism inherent in complexity. For example, look at Netflix’s five-word expense policy—“Act in Netflix’s best interest”—or Metro Bank’s customer service principle that requires only one person to say “yes” to a customer request, but two to say “no.” Authors Marc Effron and Miriam Ort, in their book, One Page Talent Management: Eliminating Complexity, Adding Value, argue, “Simplicity plays to basic human desires and cognitive processes. We crave it.” Insisting on simplicity rewards concise, coherent thinking and action; elegance recognizes and works with our core humanity. How better to engage and energize your workers?

A fundamental challenge for leaders today is to reset and refocus their organizations to move with hope and confidence into an uncertain future. Elegance is a framework that facilitates that journey.  With elegance, one can embrace beauty and fluidity while eschewing waste and complication. As you examine assumptions and surface innovative alternatives, ask yourself, “Is this the most elegant option?” Go in search of elegance and you may just find an age-old goal: excellence.

Eric McNulty

Eric J. McNulty is the associate director of the National Preparedness Leadership Initiative. He is the coauthor of You're It: Crisis, Change, and How to Lead When It Matters Most (PublicAffairs, 2019). He writes frequently about leadership, change, and organizational culture.

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