When everything becomes a toaster less is more

Incremental innovation can have transformational effects, but we must also understand the limits of pursuing further efficiencies.

Yesterday, I came across a post on Gizmodo about everyday products that were improved to be perfect. Just look at them, I know you’ll want to have a few of them. Though none of them are Apple products, Apple is probably the one company that any of us can point to that makes us crave their products.


Any talk of recent breakthrough innovations usually start with the iPhone, iPod and iPad. Yet what many don’t know is that Apple invented neither of them. Rather they, with their own point of view, made them accessible.

There are many factors that go into innovation adoption, one of them is timing, the other is the one most don’t get right. Our adoption of Apple products had to do with more than one thing, but the fact that they’ve made our interaction with technology as simple and seamless as possible is a big one. Whether or not Apple understood this from the beginning, it’s no secret that people gravitate towards simplicity.

But most businesses and people go for its common enemy: simplistic.

Here are the main differences between the two:

simplicity vs simplistic

Whenever you see a company that is constantly tweaking its value proposition with improvement upon improvement, you are looking at a business that is dedicated to being the absolute best that it can be. It is a company that is pursuing evolutionary advantage. But, the constant pursuit of more can also become an innovation issue.


When every restaurant in town is offering a fabulous all-you-can-eat buffet, it’s only a matter of time before we cease to be impressed by any of them. Think about it, when was the last time a restaurant experience was as memorable as your first kiss? Most likely you went to the same place you always go to, out of habit.

So, what’s the problem?

Companies must challenge the problem of more

Ideas are in a constant fight against the pull of commoditization. And so are we. Identifying that all ideas become commoditized at some point, Bruce Greenwald, the Columbia professor known as the guru of value investment insightfully said that “everything becomes a toaster”.

What this means to me is that even though we may innovate how we innovate, it’s possible to improve yourself all the way to mediocrity. This is the problem of more.

The mindless addition of more of the same stuff no one really cares about, without careful consideration for what really matters, is what simplistic thinking leads to. On the other hand, simplicity requires a clear understanding of what creates value.

Everyday I see simplistic thinking in my town of Tijuana. It is very rare that a restaurant or night club lasts more than a year or two in business. My take is it’s because they all try to be like every one else. At that point, everything regresses to the mean and people go back to old habits. There simply isn’t a mindset to exceed or completely redefine expectations, but to add more of the same.

You see this all the time, many of these business owners believe that giving customers what they want (taking cues from related businesses) is what they should also do. Now, if you go to Las Vegas, everyone there aims to be unique because that is the context in which they operate, and also what people have come to expect from a trip to Vegas.

Why don’t businesses import that mindset? Because it’s not human nature to challenge assumptions (simplicity), but rather fit in (simplistic).

Another example of the problem of more, sadly, is Evernote. I’m a paying customer, and don’t really need everything I pay for. The reason I started paying for it is simply because I loved it and thought that if I added my $45 USD/year it would help make the product better. But, for the last two years or so they’ve piled on the features, and has made the software very slow and bloated. I don’t know exactly what it is that is wrong, but the pattern of more is clearly there. And it’s frustrating to see a product you care about trying to be all things to everyone.

Anyway, I believe that the fact that internet based businesses can test and iterate quickly reinforces the syndrome of featu-ritis. This is what the “Lean Startup methodology” licenses mindless entrepreneurs to do: freedom to create more of the same.

So, how do we combat the challenge of more?

Subtract to innovate

To subtract is to eliminate what doesn’t add value. This only happens after you’ve reflected and then made a conscious decision about what matters and what doesn’t. This is how you arrive at simplicity. It’s hard to do because most people are not equipped to make tradeoffs. And, today, because technological trends are reshaping the way people do things, as well as how business do business with customers, and old industries; simplicity is becoming a premium.

But, the truth is that subtraction has always been the bedrock of innovation. Not just for products and services, but for branding, communications, processes, networking, customer experience, leadership, management, etc…

Anytime you set out to innovate, you shed old skin. You eliminate the old. You don’t just pile on the new on top of past history like Hot Cakes.

Anyway, here are a few questions you can ask yourself to get you thinking about simplicity:

  • What can we be the most at? The only at?
  • What stuff that used to matter no longer adds value? How do we eliminate it?
  • What’s our point of view about X? What do we believe sucks? What inconveniences, headaches, does it create for customers? How might we redefine it?

Every business wants a piece of the bigger pie because it supposedly indicates that the bigger the market the bigger the profits. This, as you know, is ridiculous. Apparently, Twitter, which is as different a social network at there is, is trying to look and be like Facebook in order to appeal to everyone.

This is the pressure of Wall Street. Unless you are someone, like the Google founders and Jeff Bezos, with vision and conviction to tell Wall Street to suck it, you will eventually give into the pressure of short-term-ism that plagues many companies that started out as innovators but turned into me-too’s once they shifted to the mainstream.

The mainstream is where most innovations go to die because they stop being relevant. There aren’t many companies like Apple, who start at one extreme of the market and successfully cross over to the mainstream while maintaining their uniqueness and further separate themselves from the rest of the pack.

But the mainstream eats you if you don’t have the courage and guts to say no to a few things. You can be in the mainstream and maintain your uniqueness by taking an extreme point of view with the goal of becoming the most at something that matters.

As I wrote last week, to get you thinking in extremes and go from me-too-business-as-usual-ideas to radical ideas, stretch your current strategy to an extreme version of itself. Either try to add more that would dramatically add value, or eliminate something that doesn’t!

Bottom line: The pursuit of mindless incremental innovation eventually results in mediocrity.

How do you avoid the challenge of doing more?

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