Matthew E. May: Second Interview, Part 1, by Bob Morris

Matthew E. May is the author of The Laws of Subtraction: 6 Simple Rules for Winning in the Age of Excess Everything, as well as three previous, award-winning books: The Elegant Solution, In Pursuit of Elegance, and The Shibumi Strategy. A popular speaker, creativity coach, and close advisor on innovation to companies such as ADP, Edmunds, Intuit, and Toyota, he is a regular contributor to the American Express OPEN Forum Idea Hub and the founder of Edit Innovation, an ideas agency based in Los Angeles. His articles have appeared in national publications such as The Rotman Magazine, Fast Company, Design Mind, MIT/Sloan Management Review, USA Today, strategy+business, and Quality Progress. He has appeared in The Wall Street Journal and on National Public Radio. A graduate of the Wharton School of Business and Johns Hopkins University, he lives in Southern California.

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Morris: Before discussing The Laws of Subtraction (in Part 2), a few general questions. First, who has had the greatest influence on your personal growth? How so?

May: Without a doubt, my daughter. She’s 10 now, but she unknowingly helped me get back in touch with that childlike curiosity we’re born with but slowly lose as we make our way through a school system focused not on asking the right questions, but the right answers…for the teacher. And it carries over into our organizations, where boss-centered work is the norm.

She taught me what real learning is all about. Not the absorption of existing knowledge, but rather the creation of new knowledge. We preach and write books about the “scientific method,” but all you need to do is what your child in the high chair throwing food on the floor–you’re watching a learning cycle in action. She’s wondering what will happen if she drops her strained carrots. The problem is how to get them on the ground. She could tip her dish over the tray, flick her spoon or grab a fistful and toss away. She tries the tip. It works. Great feedback: noise from the crash, food everywhere, Mom gets really busy. Works so well she adopts it as her interim best practice. Good little scientist that she is, she confirms her results by doing it again after mom picks it up. Lesson learned, though: Mom doesn’t like it and Dad needs to get involved, which he isn’t really all that happy about. So she launches another experiment with the spoon option.

She taught me what real observation is. Once she was able to walk, I’d need to carve out an hour just to walk to the mailbox in our neighborhood, all of 50 yards. She was a sponge–every twig, bug, blade of grass or crack in the sidewalk held utter fascination for her…looking, touching, smelling, and usually tasting each and every little thing that caught her eye, and everything caught her eye

Morris: The greatest impact on your professional development? How so?

May: Not so much a particular person, but many people…the Toyota organization. I worked as a full time advisor for them here in the U.S. for eight years. The experience changed my outlook, my thinking, and my life. It’s where I learned to think lean, to understand the concept of an elegant solution, and the importance of subtraction. I also learned the Zen aesthetic ideals, all of which are subtractive in nature.

Morris: Years ago, was there a turning point (if not an epiphany) that set you on the career course you continue to follow? Please explain.

May: Halfway through my tenure with Toyota, I came up against a brick wall in a particularly difficult project that required me to reconcile two completely different ways of thinking. Trust me when I tell you that Eastern and Western ways of thinking are at times at odds with each other. My struggle must have been obvious, because this bit of ancient wisdom found its way to me:

“Thirty spokes share the wheel’s hub, it’s the center hole that makes it useful. Shape clay into a vessel, it’s the space within that makes it useful. Cut windows and doors for a room, it’s the holes which make it useful. Profit comes from is there, usefulness from what is not there.”

My first thought was someone wants me gone. I’d be more useful. Then I read it again, and lightning struck.

It’s a 2500 year old idea. Not exactly new. But for me, radical. Stopped me dead in my tracks. I woke up to the fact that I had been looking at the problem in the wrong way. As is natural and intuitive for the Western mind—which is hardwired to act and to add—I had been looking at it in terms of what TO DO, as opposed to what to NOT DO, or cease, or eliminate, or subtract.

Once I shifted my perspective, not only was I able to complete the project, but the incident drove me to eventually leave in order to seek out elegant, subtractive ideas all over the world and in many different domains…to study the ideas and write about them.

Morris: To what extent has your formal education been invaluable to what you have accomplished in life thus far?

May: Career-wise, it’s been a serial door opener. Had I not attended John Hopkins, I doubt I’d have secured the kind of job that provided the work experience that helped me get into the top tier business schools and select Wharton for my MBA. Had I not received that degree, I wouldn’t have had the entree into prestigious consulting firms for whom I freelanced. Had I not been associated with those firms, I never would have gotten the call from Toyota in 1998.

Skills-wise, it helped me develop a rigorous critical thinking ability, a left brain, if you will, which I needed, because I’m essentially a right-brain guy.

Morris: What do you know now about the business world that you wish you knew when you when to work full-time for the first time? Why?

May: That the most effective problem-solving always begins with a child’s question: why? That the question of “what are my options?” must never come before the question of “what is possible?” All too often in business, we reverse the order, then somewhere down the road, after we’ve invested time, money and effort, we wonder why the problem never got solved.

Morris: Of all the films that you have seen, which – in your opinion – best dramatizes important business principles? Please explain.

May: Moneyball. It was, of course, adapted from Michael Lewis’s great book. We read it at Toyota, and immediately asked Billy Beane to come speak to us. It points out the power of achieving the maximum effect with the minimum means. It points out the power of discovering and exploiting undervalued elements overlooked by the mainstream market. It points out the power of disrupting the status quo, the conventional “wisdom.” It points out the power of developing a portfolio approach–singles and on-base percentage–versus the ever sexier “killer app” approach of seeking grand slam home runs.

Think about it: how many baseball teams are made up entirely of home run hitters? None. What do we know about home run hitters? Average or below batting average, and high strike out rate. That translates to high carrying cost and dangerous risk in business.

Morris: Here are several of my favorite quotations to which I ask you to respond. First, from Lao-Tzu’s Tao Te Ching:

“Learn from the people
Plan with the people
Begin with what they have
Build on what they know
Of the best leaders
When the task is accomplished
The people will remark
We have done it ourselves.”

May: It’s another Lao Tzu quote I love. It points out the art of leadership and management. As my friend Bob Sutton (he of Stanford, author of Good Boss, Bad Boss) is fond of saying: “Sometimes the best management is no management at all.”

Morris: Next, from Voltaire: “Cherish those who seek the truth but beware of those who find it.”

May: As my father once taught me: “Always consider the source.” I also learned a lot about “the truth” from Taiichi Ohno, that the truth is rendered by firsthand observation, that data is fine, but only indicate facts, which are truth.

Once we interpret a fact, it become our own version of the truth. I think Voltaire is warning us of our own biases, as well as those of others. Biases and mindsets happen quickly, as our brains are pattern-makers, pattern-lockers.

Anything purported to be fact must be challenged by a question I also learned at Toyota: “How do we know that is true?”

Morris: And then, from Oscar Wilde: “Be yourself. Everyone else is taken.”

May: To know your true self is a lifelong quest. Many of us never find it, because many of us don’t even broach the questions so prevalent that every voicemail recording carries them: “Who are you? What do you want?”

Find what is unique about yourself is something I’m working on. I’ve written four books, and I don’t believe for a second that as yet I’ve found my true voice. It’s elusive, and I’ve no real way to determine what it is, other than being satisfied and happy with the outcome. Every time I finish a book, I have umpteen ways to improve on it for the next one. It’s why I write a blog…it allows me the freedom to experiment with my “authorship” and voice.

I know for a fact that emulating someone else’s style does not work. It never feels right, and usually fails to achieve the goal of any message: touching hearts and minds.

Morris: From Albert Einstein: “We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.”

May: Amen to that. I’ll go one better…most of our problems are not the result of thinking, but from acting without much thought. There’s a simple discipline you can employ when solving problems: stop, think, observe. As UK urban designer Ben Hamiltion-Baillie puts it, “If we observe first, then design second, we wouldn’t build most of the things we do.”

Morris: Finally, from Peter Drucker: “There is surely nothing quite so useless as doing with great efficiency what should not be done at all.”

May: People confuse efficiency with effectiveness. I learned at Toyota about muda, or waste, in the forms of overproduction, overprocessing, defects, time, motion, transportation, inventory. Most waste comes from simply doing the wrong work, not doing the right work wrong.

Morris: In Tom Davenport’s latest book, Judgment Calls, he and co-author Brooke Manville offer “an antidote for the Great Man theory of decision making and organizational performance”: organizational judgment. That is, “the collective capacity to make good calls and wise moves when the need for them exceeds the scope of any single leader’s direct control.” What do you think?

May: In the Toyota world it’s called consensus decision making, or nemawashi. I think in the long run, decisions are better when there’s some aspect of the “wisdom of crowds,” even if it’s a small crowd. I have on a number of occasions designed exercises to point out that “we” is smarter “me.” It’s a tough pill to swallow here in the West, though, because of our “cowboy” heritage focused on the maverick leader. The prevalence of narcissistic leadership and inflated ego gets in the way. Japan on the other hand, is a culture steeped in humility, so they naturally are more participative in decision-making. Yes, there’s a leader, but when it comes to executive decisions, the reality is that 37 directors are making the decision. The downside is the speed with which a decision can be made…the collective is by nature slower.

Morris: Here’s a brief excerpt from Paul Schoemaker’s latest book, Brilliant Mistakes: “The key question companies need to address is not ‘Should we make mistakes?’ but rather ‘Which mistakes should we make in order to test our deeply held assumptions?'” Your response?

May: I agree. The goal isn’t to fail, as we often hear, but to learn. We need to elevate learnership to the level of leadership. It goes back to my daughter in the high chair. We need to run small experiments, be candid about our assumptions, and be willing to do what the medical research community does so well: acknowledge that a given protocol will not work is just as valuable as discovering one that does.

It’s important to realize that there is no failure when the goal is to learn. If you’ve ever wondered why pilot projects never fail while big, change-the-world projects almost always do, it’s because the goal of any pilot is to learn. So you can’t help but succeed. It’s the difference between movies and TV. TV producers always pilot a new series with a few episodes to see the audience response. Movie producers develop the final product with a bet-it-all-gambit, relying on past experience as the key input. That’s risky, very risky.

Learnership is all about the beta. Embed a rapid cycle of prototyping and testing low fidelity solutions, and you’re on to something.

Morris: In your opinion, why do so many C-level executives seem to have such a difficult time delegating work to others?

May: I cannot speak intelligently on this point. I’m lucky enough to be working with C-level execs that aren’t challenged in that way. An educated guess, though, might be the fear of losing control, a lack of trust, or a “I’m the smartest person in the room” mentality. I spoke with one CEO who, refreshingly, took the opposite stance and began our conversation with: “I’m the stupidest person in the company.” When he became CEO, he immediately flattened the organization, effectively turning it into a self-organizing, team-based company.

Morris: The greatest leaders throughout history (with rare exception) were great storytellers. What do you make of that?

May: Leadership to me is about creating meaningful change. That middle word, meaningful, is the key. The most powerful way by far of imbuing anything with meaning is through story. We identify with the roles and characters in the story, we empathize with them, we put ourselves in their shoes. That creates emotional and intellectual investment, the very qualities that move people. It’s why I wanted to write a short fiction business fable a few years ago.

Morris: Most change initiatives either fail or fall far short of original (perhaps unrealistic) expectations. More often than not, resistance is cultural in nature, the result of what James O’Toole so aptly characterizes as “the ideology of comfort and the tyranny of custom.”

Here’s my question: How best to avoid or overcome such resistance?

May: Part of what drives resistance is fear. One way to overcome fear is through small steps and as my friend Peter Sims calls them, little bets. That’s why Kaizen, the Japanese phrase for continuous improvement, when embedded as both a principle and a practice, is so very effective.

I’ve learned over time that change initiatives often because they are labeled as such. The goal isn’t to just change, it’s to improve. When you come right at change, people balk, and step back. But when change is couched as getting better, they lean in. Who doesn’t want something to be better?

The late great John Wooden once said: “When you improve a little each day, eventually big things occur. Don’t look for the big, quick improvement. Seek the small improvement one day at a time. That’s the only way it happens—and when it happens, it lasts.”

Morris: In recent years, there has been criticism, sometimes severe criticism of M.B.A. programs, even those offered by the most prestigious business schools. In your opinion, in which area is there the great need for immediate improvement? Any suggestions?

May: I think you look at what Stanford and University of Toronto’s Rotman School are doing. Design thinking at Stanford, integrative thinking at U. Toronto. That kind of “whole brain” development, the ability to create innovative solutions, to work as artists and designers do, is what’s needed. Other schools are catching on, and things are getting better. In fact, I’d love to go back to a school that has kind of program…I wish they had it back in the dark ages when I got my MBA!

Morris: Looking ahead (let’s say) 3-5 years, what do you think will be the greatest challenge that CEOs will face? Any Advice?

May: Well, the burning question we all have to answer–whether we’re a president, a professional, or a parent–is this: “How do we stand out and stay relevant in a massively disruptive and mostly distracting world…in an age of excess everything?”

That’s the question at the heart of The Laws of Subtraction.

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Matt cordially invites you to check out the resources at these websites:

Matt’s homepage

Matt’s blog

Matt’s Amazon page



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  1. […] To read Part 1 of this interview, please click here. […]

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