The Surprising Connection Between Simplification and Innovation

Matthew E. May, author of the new book The Laws of Subtraction, believes if we would take a more minimalist approach to our work, seeking ways to get maximum impact with minimum effort, there would be much less waste - and much more innovation.

In a world in which we are overwhelmed by choices, ambiguity and uncertainty, May argues, less is actually more. By making tough choices in what to focus upon and what to ignore, we can simplify our challenges and decisions and see the path forward – and the creative opportunities in front of us – much more clearly. Limiting information is a key strategy to engaging the imagination, he points out.

The most engaging ideas and experiences don’t overwhelm us with a mountain of detail, but rather paint a compelling picture composed of a minimum of information.

According to May, the most engaging ideas and experiences don’t overwhelm us with a mountain of detail, but rather paint a compelling picture composed of a minimum of information. This compels our brains to fill in the gaps. We “lean forward” as our curiosity draws us into them. May believes that we need to bring a similar mindset to our creative endeavors to increase our odds of success.

To drive home this point, he explains how Wall Street Journal artist Kevin Sprouls creates his eye-catching yet minimalist portraits of business people who are profiled in the highly-regarded business newspaper. What you see in these images isn’t a collection of lines or brushstrokes, but rather an artfully handcrafted optical illusion: Sprouls’ distinctive black-and-white portraits are actually a handcrafted collection of dots and white spaces. It’s our brain’s talent for closure – for filling in the missing information – that interprets them as a picture of a person.

May believes there is much we can learn from this technique, simplifying the ways in which we approach creative challenges in our work:

“It begins with getting the starting point just right. Getting the proper starting image is the key; You need one with enough vivid detail to enable a clear endgame to be visualized. Too often in life it isn’t. People don’t recognize success because they don’t know what it looks like. There’s a reason everyone talks about the big picture. It’s difficult to remain fully engaged without that bigger picture, because our daily work is really about putting down a little dot each day, metaphorically speaking.

“Something needs to guide us in connecting them. If we are missing the mark, so to speak, we can usually trace it to a glaring absence of a compelling mental image to guide the effort. Pictures connect the right brain with the left and help us to see the path more clearly.”

Sprouls begins to create a portrait by by drawing some rough pencil strokes that define the overall shape of the head. He then adds features and detail. Those initial strokes of the pencil are the most important, because they determine the shape of the finished piece and help to guide his efforts. During the drawing process, these initial “broad brush” lines get replaced by dots and spaces, which create the patterns of light and shadow that our brain interprets in the finished piece as the head and shoulders of a person.

…that strong sense of mission and direction is critical; when it’s absent, teams tend to become demoralized and confused and are afraid to take bold, creative action.

What does this mean to innovation practitioners? May says we need to have a broad-brush, compelling vision of what we want to accomplish. This will help the team to lean forward, generate passion and commitment necessary to propel the project and keep people headed in the right general direction. As the vision is achieved, the means to do so may change – that’s the creative part. But what remains, like the penciled-in contours of the person’s face in our portrait, are the core values of the team – “what we stand for, why we exist,” in May’s words.

For teams, that strong sense of mission and direction is critical; when it’s absent, teams tend to become demoralized and confused and are afraid to take bold, creative action. They become immobilized, leading to wasted time, effort and resources. Without vision and direction, teams can’t innovate.

While we may not have the artistic ability of a Kevin Sprouls, we do have the ability to connect the dots: To paint a compelling, simplified picture of an end-game that engages our teams, customers and other takeholders and provides much-needed direction, while also allowing for a wealth of creativity in the tactics needed to get us there. In a world of too much information, too much ambiguity and too many choices, that appears to be a more sustainable path to successful innovation.

By Chuck Frey

About the author

Chuck FreyChuck FreySenior Editor, founded and served as its publisher from its launch in 2002 until the partnership with Innovation Management in 2012. He is the publisher of The Mind Mapping Software Blog, the definitive souce for news, trends, tips and best practices for visual mapping tools. A journalist by trade, Chuck has over 14 years of experience in online marketing, and over 10 years experience in business-to-business public relations. His interests include creative problem solving, visual thinking, photography, business strategy and technology. His unique combination of experience and influences enables him to envision new possibilities and opportunities.

NOTE: Sprouls’ portrait of Matthew E. May can be found here.

  • outtahere78

    I completely agree. The more that businesses try to complicate processes or products in the name of innovation, the less effective they become. As an employee, these sorts of complications can be incredibly frustrating. I like to use the line method. The shortest distance between two points is the most effective way to get from point A to point B.

    This also reminds me of a book I read recently, Edge Innovation, by Ben Ratje (whom I believe often comments on this website) who makes innovation tools accessible to the layman by helping them find new ideas via simplicity. I highly recommend it.

  • VA Shiva Ayyadurai

    Neurologically, it is in the gaps of information where people make innovative leaps. The same is true when training AI to come up with new designs – empty “static” will be programmed in, then the machine has to make an intuitive leap from the other information it has.

    We need to be able to tolerate uncertainty, as the key to creativity is seeing things that others don’t.

  • Robert Gustavis

    Analysis paralysis is so true! I feel like there are so many options on any given subject but because we over analyze everything, we hinder the action that would have given a result to build from. At the end of the day, you have to break a few eggs before you taste the cake!