The importance of elegance

“Perfection is achieved not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.”  – Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

In a very elegantly written book,, Matthew E. May argues that less is more in all aspects of life.  In The Pursuit of Elegance, he develops four key themes, which lead to more elegant solutions to all kinds of problems: symmetry, seduction, subtraction and sustainability.

All four are important in innovation, particularly when innovation is disruptive, although I believe that subtraction is the most important of all, and can of itself create solutions which are symmetrical, seductive and sustainable.

Indeed, innovation and creativity are often defined not in terms of creating completely new ideas, but in synthesizing different ideas to create a new combination.  So creating connections between disparate ideas is truly a subtraction (that is, 1 + 1 = 1), or as someone once said (and I would welcome an attribution), “Creativity is the power to connect the seemingly unconnected”.   Several philosophers and scientists argue that analogy and connection are the basis of the mind, language and being human (but more on that in a future posting).

Similarly, truly disruptive innovation is often thought of in terms of taking an existing product and “improving” it in a way which surprises the market, often by making it cheaper or redefining the product for a new market (ie different consumers).  This is often achieved by stripping away existing features to focus on key benefits, making the product tailored to specific and often more basic needs.  A by-product of such disruptive innovation is a more elegant solution to a specific consumer need (ie a product with fewer features which performs specific tasks better).  Innovations driven by the needs of emerging consumers show such elegance (see “How China and India are Changing Innovation”).

So next time you are looking to innovate, don’t just think about what you can add to the product or service, and consider what can be taken away to make a more elegant solution.  Similarly, always seek to simplify research programs and data sources to focus on key issues outputs, and create more elegant and efficient answer to your business problems.  It has never been truer that “less is more”.


The Innovator’s Dilemma: Where New Technologies Cause Great Firms to Fail by Clayton Christensen  (1997)

In Pursuit of Elegance by Matthew E. May (2009)

The Paradox of Choice by Barry Schwartz (2004)

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