Essentialism: A book review by Bob Morris

Posted on: April 9th, 2014 by bobmorris

EssentialismEssentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less
Greg McKeown
Crown Business/Imprint of Crown Publishing Group

“Make everything as simple as possible but not simpler.” Albert Einstein

As I began to read this book for the first time, I was again reminded of the Einstein observation as well as Greg McKeown’s previous book, Multipliers: How the Best Leaders Make Everyone Smarter, in which he and co-author Liz Wiseman juxtapose two quite different personas whom they characterize as the “Multiplier” and the “Diminisher.” Although they refer to them as leaders, assigning to them supervisory responsibilities, they could also be direct reports at the management level or workers at the “shop floor” level who can also have a positive or negative impact on productivity within the given enterprise.

Multipliers “extract full capability,” their own as well as others’, and demonstrate five disciplines: Talent Magnet, Liberator, Challenger, Debate Maker, and Investor. Diminishers underutilize talent and resources, their own as well as others, and also demonstrate five disciplines: Empire Builder, Tyrant, Know-It-All, Decision Maker, and Micro Manager. They devote a separate chapter to each of the five Multiplier leadership roles.

In Essentialism, McKeown focuses on what must be done to increase what is essential to an organization’s success – as well as to an individual’s success – by reducing (if not totally eliminating) whatever is not essential to such success. I agree with him: Almost anyone in almost any organization (whatever its size and nature may be) can choose how to expend time and energy; reduce/eliminate “noise” and clutter, preserving only what is exceptionally valuable; and decide which few trade-offs and compromises to accept while rejecting all others. Essentialists have what Ernest Hemingway once characterized as a “built-in, shock-proof crap detector,” one that is especially reliable when detecting their own.

“There are three deeply entrenched assumptions we must conquer to lived the way of the Essentialist: ‘I have to,’ ‘It’s all important,’ and ‘I can do both.’ Like mythological sirens, these assumptions are as dangerous as they are seductive. They draw us in and drown us in shallow waters.”

These are among the dozens of business subjects and issues of special interest and value to me, also listed to indicate the scope of McKeown’s coverage.

o The Cluttered Closet Test (Pages 17-19)
o The Essentialist Mind-Set: A Three-Step Process (20-25)
o Discern the Vital Few from the Trivial Many (60-61)
o How to Create Spaces to Design, Concentrate, and Read (65-71)
o Clarify the Question (80-81)
o A Mind Invited to Play (86-89)
o Protecting the Asset: Ourselves (94-96)
o The 90 Percent or NOTHING Rule (104-107)
o How to Cut Out the Trivial Many (116-117)
o From “Pretty Clear” to “Really Clear”: Two Common Patterns (121-124)
o The Power of a Graceful “No” (131-0135)
o The “No” Repertoire (140-143)
o How to Avoid Commitment Traps (148-154)
o EDIT: The Invisible Art (155-162)
o LIMIT: The Freedom of Setting Boundaries (163-167)
o How to Produce More by Eliminating More (188-192)
o FLOW: The Genius of Routine (203-205)
o The Essential Life: Living a Life that Really Matters (236-237)

McKeown also provides an appendix, Leadership Essentials, during which he suggests and discusses five:

1. Be Ridiculously Selective in Hiring People
2. Go for Extreme Empowerment
3. Communicate the Right Things [values, standards, objectives] to the Right People at the Right Time
4. Check in Often to Ensure Meaningful Progress

Greg McKeown makes frequent use of terms such as “less,” “more,” and “better.” For example, the essentialist mind-set affirms “Less but better.” We know what he means: Less (if any) of what is non-essential but better results. In this context, as he explains, essentialists are trimmers and pruners, eliminating organizational fat while strengthening its bones. That is especially important these days when, on average, less than 30% of those who comprise a U.S. workforce are actively and positively engaged; the other 70+% are either passively engaged (“mailing it in”) or actively undermining efforts to achieve the given business goals.

Obviously, no brief commentary such as mine can do full justice to the abundance of information, insights, and counsel provided in this volume but I hope that I have at least indicated why I think so highly of it. I encourage those who share my opinion to check out David Shaked’s Strength-Based Lean Six Sigma: Building Positive and Engaging Business Improvement, published by Kogan-Page (2013).

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