Personal Finance

Pay attention to small details for big returns



  • Design and management are in the same domain.
  • Clearly, paying attention to the smallest details creates big returns.
  • In business and management if you remove the things you don’t want, you create space for the things you do.

“Perfection is achieved, not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing left to take away” said French writer Antoine de Saint-Exupery.

Addition by subtraction -- means taking away all the clutter, and focussing on the bare essentials. Being able to take on an ‘addition by subtraction’ mindset is a valuable principle to add to your management toolbox. Being confusing, spouting management gibberish, in long plans and endless PowerPoint presentations is easy. Addressing the heart of the matter, focussing, touching on the essence of the business problem is difficult.

Would you rather be great at one thing, or just plain average, bordering on mediocre, at many ?

Design and management are in the same domain. “Less is more” was the approach of one of the pioneers of modernist architecture, Mies van der Rohe, whose buildings are known for their elegant simplicity. Designer Coco Chanel became famous for her simple little black dress.

Artistry -- characterised by Zen like simplicity and perfection -- and technology met in Apple creations, with Steve Jobs insisting that their products could only be sold in Apple retailers, with gleaming white counter and bleached wood floors. Breaking technology retail revenue records, in the new [lots of white space] stores, sales were tabulated every 4 minutes giving a real time picture integrating manufacturing, supply chain and sales functions.

Clearly, paying attention to the smallest details creates big returns.

In business and management if you remove the things you don’t want, you create space for the things you do. Addition by subtraction, suggests when faced with a confusing business problem, get out the flip chart and markers -- visualise all the elements, then ask do we really need this part?

Keep taking away, subtracting, and chances are you will get down to the essence of the problem you have to solve.

Few companies, non governmental organisations and donor programmes have a strategy, what they have is an operational plan with a ‘to do’ list. Essence of good strategy is the what Richard Rumelt called the kernel, the simple essence of the idea, based on a design. All the fluff, high sounding management buffoonery is absent, just the essentials. Is this easy? No, it requires work, research and insightful diagnosis which explains the absence of strategy in much of business planning.

One of the best examples of strategy comes from history. In 333 BC, a 22 year old Alexander the Great, with 50,000 men defeated Darius with an army of 1 million. If the young Alex simply had an operational plan, the result would have been a massacre, but instead he had the kernel, an insight about the hidden divided nature of Darius and his terrifying armies. And, a design on how to take advantage of the fragmentation.

In architecture, form follows function. In management, structure follows strategy. Meaning once the management team comes up with the kernel, the essence of the bright idea, all other elements, for instance, the required staff, skills, systems, organisational culture are designed to dovetail, best fit with the strategy.

One step at a time on the counter intuitive ‘addition by subtraction’ journey. Getting back to basics and coming up with a [hopefully] game changing strategy requires hard analysis and a dash of ‘out of the box’ creative thinking.

Planning process should be fun and engaging, beginning with an insightful diagnosis. In this very crowded Kenyan competitive market place, who does not tell you that their ‘fantastic’ product or service can do the secular equivalent of ‘walk on water’ ?

Poetry in business begins with an ability to see what others might have missed. Aim is to be able to notice something new in the path you have walked down a hundred times. To just plain: see and think different. Poet and painter William Blake expressed it this way: “To see a world in a grain of sand, And a heaven in a wild flower, Hold infinity in the palm of your hand, And eternity in an hour.”