The Less Lesson

Ernest Hemingway put it so prettily: ‘The first draft of anything is shit.’

Hemingway was a great writer who knew the truth.  Many great authors will tell you the same; that it’s the editing of their work that’s the tough bit.  The same is unequivocally true in business. The secret of success is in polishing, refining, editing that business plan until it is simple, sharp and absolutely the best you can make it.  Editing is about cutting out some of what you’ve done or want to say.  Successful business is the same.

Recently, I saw my old business alma mater Procter & Gamble making a decision to do less.  They announced the sale of their beauty business to Coty because they wanted a simpler, nimbler organisation.  This is a dramatic move after years driving the beauty business.  As a shareholder in the business I watch what they do carefully.  It’s the first thing I’ve seen in a while that felt bold and brave. And surprising – to divest their business in order to achieve growth.

One of the critical lessons in business (as in life) is that less is genuinely, truly, completely more. Editing down the choices about what you do; that’s what make the difference.

This applies to a) writing and b) leadership (And your wardrobe too but that’s a wholly different blog piece which involves discussion about Coco Chanel and for which this is sadly not the right forum…)

The simple point is that I’m constantly struck by how the cleverest people I know have an innate ability to make the complicated stunningly simple.  Lacking in confidence?  It’s you who will overcomplicate work, life, conversations, writing.  Longer words, more waffle, 250 different projects; that’s what we see from leaders who lack the confidence to edit their words and their plans.

Bill Bernbach's famous ad for the launch of the VW Beetle in the U.S. 1963

Bill Bernbach’s famous ad for the launch of the VW Beetle in the U.S. 1963

Great leadership is fundamentally about making decisions.  About choosing less.  Great writing is the same.  Taking out the superfluous, and the excess.  The toning and sharpening of the writing is where you discover how to create real impact.  Great advertising creatives often say a similar thing.  It’s what you choose not to put in an ad that’s as powerful as what you do.  Great business leaders agree.  Focus in a plan is next to godliness, in terms of effectiveness.

This focus on the edit is particularly true if you look into developing a technical product.  Deciding what not to put into a product is more important than deciding what to put in.  I like the fact that at Square, Jack Dorsey’s payment company, they call their product managers “Product Editors”.  It’s too easy with any product, with any plan, with any communications to add more and more and more and end up with less. Too much confusion, too much choice – consumers don’t want more, they want simple.

Steve Jobs brought this to life beautifully when he returned to Apple, in looking at the products and also at the number of products.  He reduced the number of products by an incredible 70%.  A bold, brave editor who famously said: “Deciding what not to do is as important as deciding what to do”

Leaders who make choices about what they won’t do: they are worthy of respect.  Don’t look at your business to look at what you will do to make it grow; look at what you will choose not to do.  The focus should be on how you sharpen your focus and work out what’s right not to pursue.  Choices about what you don’t do.  That’s what makes what’s left incredibly strong, punchy and powerful.

Want to be a successful leader in business? Believe in the power of the edit. Let’s resolve to bring out the editor in all of us. Simplifying lists. Simplifying products. Simplifying the words. Thinking about what we can take out to make it stronger. Just do it. Just do less.

I think I’ll stop there.

Sophie Devonshire
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