Aristotle talked about three kinds of work: theoretical, practical, and poetical. The first searches for truth. The second is practical with an objective around action. The third, however, is lost in our modern culture. The philosopher Martin Heidegger called this “bringing-forth.”
In his book Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less, Greg McKeown describes this as an essentialist trait.
This is how the essentialist approaches execution: “An Essentialist produces more—brings forth more— by removing more instead of doing more.”
We rarely have the time to think through what we’re doing. And there is a lot of organizational pressure to be seen as doing something new.
The problem is that we think of execution in terms of addition rather than subtraction. The way to increase the production speed is to add more people. The way to get more sales is to add more salespeople. The way to do more, you need more — people, money, power. And there is a lot of evidence to support this type of thinking. At least, at first. Eventually you add add add until your organization seeps with bureaucracy, slows to an inevitable crawl, centralizes even the smallest decisions, and loses market share. The road to hell is paved with good intentions with curbs of ego.
Rather than focusing on what to add, the Essentialist, McKeown argues, focuses on “constraints or obstacles” that need to be removed. It isn’t about adding, it’s about subtracting. I found this interesting to think about in the context of Ben Horowitz’s distinction between good and bad organizations.
But how can we re-orient around what to remove? Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less offers three ways:
1. Be Clear About The Essential Intent
2. Identify the “Slowest Hiker”
(The slowest hiker is a reference to Herbie in the business parable The Goalby Eliyahu Goldratt. More generally it can be thought of as the question what is keeping you back from achieving what you want? “By systematically identifying and removing this constraint,” McKeown writes, “you’ll be able to significantly reduce the friction keeping you from executing what is essential.”)
3. Remove the Obstacle
If you’re a manager or team lead, another thing starts to happen when you start removing obstacles. Not only does the output of the team increase but you’ll find that people like working with you a lot more.
Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less will help you sift the signal from the noise and focus on what really matters.
This piece originally appeared on Farnam Street.
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