In Pursuit of Elegance: Matt May Talks about His Own Journey and What Inspires Him

Matt May is the author of In Pursuit of Elegance: Why the Best Ideas Have Something Missing and The Elegant Solution: Toyota’s Formula for Mastering Innovation.  He is also a weekly columnist for the American Express OPEN Forum Idea Hub.  Matt is an expert in design strategy and innovation, two subjects he focuses heavily on in his blog In Pursuit of Elegance.

After reading many of Matt’s blog posts as well as his work on the OPEN Forum, I wanted to find out exactly what the pursuit of elegance was all about.  I asked Matt to explain the concepts from his book and to discuss how he arrived at the conclusions which have inspired so much of his work.

What was it that inspired you to write In Pursuit of Elegance?  Was it something you saw while working for Toyota in the corporate world?

Actually, I was disappointed that with my previous book, The Elegant Solution: Toyota’s Formula for Mastering Innovation, the example eclipsed the message and principle of the elegant solution, which is achieving the maximum effect through minimum means. That was how it was defined inside Toyota, and there was some real gravity around finding elegant solutions to every problem. Through my travels I began to pursue and collect examples from many different domains — art, athletics, architecture, you name it — and decided to write about that journey….which I’m still on.

When defining the elements of elegance, how did you choose which would be the key principles that you discuss briefly on your blog?

In my search for the use of the concept of elegance to describe something other than people or fashion, I ran across a story about Donald Knuth, who is world renown as an innovator and revered for his masterwork, The Art of Computer Programming. In it there was a quote by a University of California professor saying that, “Donald Knuth put elegance into computer programming,” and “made everybody’s life so much better and the scholarly work so much more beautiful.” Computer code? Really? That intrigued me enough to pursue a framework using Knuth’s own elements. He says “Something is elegant if it is spare, pleasingly memorable, and symmetrical; if it has the ease and immortal ring of an E=mc2.” I simply took some creative license with those to come up with Symmetry, Seduction, Subtraction, and Sustainability.

Are there things that stand in the way of the pursuit of elegance, the reverse of the elements of elegance, if you will?

Sure. It’s actually much easier to define what elegance isn’t. Anything that’s in large measure excessive, wasteful, confusing, unnatural, hazardous, hard-to-use, and ugly…pretty much can’t be considered truly elegant. At Toyota I became a master kaizen coach, and our targets were the enemies of elegance: Muda (waste), Muri (overload), and Mura (inconsistency).

In your book, you mention the concept of the to-do list versus the “stop-doing” list. But sometimes everything seems to be of utmost importance; so how do we decide what to stop doing?

If everything seems important, you haven’t thought deeply enough. Usually in that case everything gets done, but not done well. The concept of the stop-doing list comes from Jim Collins. He recommends starting with your to-do list, giving deep thought to the prioritization of those items, then simply eliminating the bottom 20%. Forever…never to appear again on any list. That’s a difficult discipline! He says, though, that “A great piece of art is composed not just of what is in the final piece, but equally what is not. It is the discipline to discard what does not fit—to cut out what might have already cost days or even years of effort—that distinguishes the truly exceptional artist and marks the ideal piece of work, be it a symphony, a novel, a painting, a company, or most important of all, a life.”

Can you explain the concept of maximum impact with minimum effort?

It’s the universal pursuit of elegance, the concept of simplicity beyond, simplicity to die for. Oliver Wendell Holmes once wrote, “I wouldn’t give a fig for simplicity on this side of complexity, but I would give my life for simplicity on the other side of complexity.” You see, not everything simple is elegant, but everything elegant is simple. It’s the pairing of unusual or uncommon simplicity with surprising impact that marks something truly elegant. You see it in every domain of activity: scientists, engineers, and mathematicians devote their lives and careers to devising theories that explain vastly complex concepts in the simplest of terms; designers use white space for visual impact; musicians and composers use silence for dramatic effect; athletes and dancers search for maximal impact with minimum motion; Japanese architects and martial artists pursue shibumi, a word without direct English translation but meaning effortless effectiveness; doctors seek Occam’s razor—the simplest diagnosis to explain all exhibited symptoms; filmmakers, songwriters, novelists all seek simple stories with universal resonance that yet foster multiple interpretations; the most dynamic organizations have the fewest rules, as do the most popular games.

Can you connect the concept of the quiet mind to your career as a writer?

The gist of the pursuit of elegance is to think and observe first, before designing or building or doing anything. But even thinking isn’t immune from a stop-doing strategy. We know that there’s real science behind why we get our best ideas when we’re engaged in something other than the problem at hand: when we’re in the shower, sleeping, taking a walk, driving. Breakthrough moments actually require a break, a divorce from thinking to allow connections between seemingly disparate pieces of information to be synthesized in the hippocampus region of the brain. You can’t speed those connections up or “think harder.” You can only take a break and wait for the sudden insight. The quiet mind precedes the sudden insight, sets the stage for it. “Creatives” intuitively know this, and I’ve experienced “the block wall” in my writing…as well as the subsequent “eureka!” when I’ve stepped away from the problem and engaged in something else.

In the conclusion to your book, you mention many great innovators and their “eureka!” moments.  Which innovators have inspired you most?

Of all the definitions of innovation, the one I love the most and subscribe to is the one by David Neeleman, who founded JetBlue: “Innovation is figuring out a way to do something better than it’s ever been done before.” That’s innovation. So, to answer the question, it’s the everyday innovators—the folks who start every single day looking for a way to perform their work and add more value for their customers that inspire me the most.

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