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Rules to simplifying life come up short

In stating his six laws for subtracting, the contradictions arise. The author does not avoid these contradictions, but he does not really address them, either.

January 27, 2013|By Andrew Hill

Los Angeles-area author Matthew E. May has hit upon an attractive theme in his recent book, "The Law of Subtraction: 6 Simple Rules for Winning in the Age of Excess Everything" published by McGraw-Hill.

Who does not yearn for a guide to simplifying, synthesizing and subtracting some of the clutter, overload and demands of the "Age of Excess Everything"?

He has also cleverly subtracted from his own workload by inviting others, mostly authors and consultants like him, to contribute about a third of the material for his six laws for doing more with less in the form of summaries of their views.

Mind you, it took fellow author Daniel Pink to point out the appeal of the subject. "Subtraction is your meme. It's out there; it's growing," he told May just before he took the stage at a corporate conference, urging him to "own" it. "Best. Advice. Ever," writes May.

This exchange is itself a little guide to what the book is like. Not only is it full of people talking in a slightly artificial, visionary way about common sense objectives, it is also filled with contradictions. "Subtraction is growing" is only the first.

The book does contain good examples of the less-is-more theme, some well-known, some less so. May's opener (illustrating Law No. 1: "What isn't there can often trump what is") is the FedEx logo, featuring an arrow created by the blank space between the E and X. Lindon Leader, its designer, explains how he "didn't overplay it, didn't mention it" when pitching the idea. (He makes up for that here.)

May, who lives in Westlake Village, also provides a brief history of how Lockheed Corp. put a team of design engineers in a circus tent next to a foul-smelling plastics factory to design a jet fighter: the secret Skunk Works became a byword for how to foster innovation. (Law No. 5: "Break is the important part of breakthrough.")

He cites J.K. Rowling, who was inspired for the idea for Harry Potter on a long, boring train journey, in support of Law No. 6. ("Doing something isn't always better than doing nothing.").

My favorite came from contributor Bob Harrison, a retired police chief, who introduced an "unplan" to withdraw officers directing traffic after a July 4 fireworks display and discovered everyone got home more quickly. (Law No. 2: "The simplest rules create the most effective experience.")

But I find every subtractive success story has an additive counterweight, some of which are explicit in May's examples.

It is true that "creativity thrives under intelligent constraints" (Law No. 4), but Michelangelo — ordered to work on a fresco for the Sistine Chapel, not a sculpture, his preferred medium — then "expanded the job's scope," covering the walls as well as the ceiling.

Steve Jobs was a great simplifier, who "handed control to us" as users of Apple devices. But he was also a control freak when it came to designing the same artifacts, supervising fine detail, adding features and forcing his team to work all hours, rather than giving them time for "purposeful daydreaming," as May advocates elsewhere in his book.

"The Artist," the silent, black-and-white film that provides May with the book's coda, was a worthy Oscar winner — but so was 2008's "Slumdog Millionaire," with its cast of thousands and Bollywood-style excess.

May does not avoid these contradictions, but he does not really address them, either. He prefers to list examples of his six laws rather than explore how employers or their staff could reconcile the daily conflict between constraints and freedom, perspiration and inspiration.

In the interests of "owning" his Zen-inspired meme, May subtracts these complexities. Instead he offers tips, such as his invitation to take "long, languid showers" — No. 8 on a list of ways to relax the mind. This point "needs no explanation," May writes, "which is good, because I could find no research on the subject."

For most people at most companies, where the pressure to add customers, revenue and value is intense, it is as difficult to "subtract" as it is for most grown-ups to follow the advice of one of the book's contributors and live out of a suitcase in a near-empty apartment.

It is a pity, given the need to simplify many business processes, that May adds so little to the sum of knowledge about how to do it.

Hill is the management editor of the Financial Times of London, in which this review first appeared.

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