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In Pursuit of Elegance: Why the Best Ideas Have Something Missing

By: Matthew E. May, Broadway Books, 2009

Refrigeration without electricity. Traffic flowing without traffic lights. A smart phone without a keyboard. Houses without living rooms. May makes a convincing argument that the human tendency is to add complexity, but subtracting is the key to real innovation.

Using a handful of stories, May explains the neuroscience behind why we leap to less-than-optimal solutions, why we feel good when we complete a Sudoko puzzle (or solve a business problem) and how to get people involved in solving problems by making the missing pieces exactly the right size to provoke our natural curiosity.

In this environment of cost-cutting and limited resources, it’s good to hear that the most elegant ideas emerge precisely when there are serious constraints. And that by looking at what we don’t need to do, we will always find better ways to do nearly everything.

He quotes Steve Jobs, “Focus means saying no to the hundred other good ideas…I’m as proud of the things we haven’t done as the things we have done.” And Jim Peters, of Good to Great fame, who starts each year deciding which things he’s going to stop doing.

For anyone in charge of streamlining processes, inventing new products, or just managing more with less, it’s an intriguing approach.  I’d give it a 9.5 on the LL innovation meter, because it will make you think about everything a little differently.

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About Lynda Lawrence

Lynda Lawrence is an innovation consultant with Ideaworks Consulting. She teaches Strategic Innovation and Design Management at the Merage School at UCI, and is an advisor to the Beall Center.