Author: Elizabeth Matsangou
18 Dec 2017
Perhaps we have finally reached that point – the moment of clarity in which we realise our relentless accumulation of things is not actually as satisfying as we once believed it to be. Ingrained in us from a young age is the idea of what a happy life looks like. As we grow older, the urge to attain such emblems of success – be it a 10-bedroom house, a luxury sports car or a business with revenue in the millions and customers around the globe – grows all the more fervent.
Unquestionably, such urges are magnified by the constant bombardment of advertisements we, as consumers, are faced with, resulting in the subconscious notion that each addition acts as another building block to happiness. Consequently, we are constantly striving for more: more money, more business, more assets, more luxury items, more of anything and everything. And when we do attain these often-momentary nuggets of gratification, the bar is raised once again – and the cycle resumes.
But perhaps the tide is now turning. It would seem that a growing number among us are beginning to grow sick of consumerism; more people are toying with the idea that excess does not necessarily lead to genuine satisfaction. Accordingly, there is a trend that is making the rounds, with a series of books, talks, blogs, documentaries and even entire businesses devoted to the notion of minimalism.
Quality, not quantity
Contrary to popular belief, minimalism is not simply a case of ridding yourself of your possessions, moving into a so-called tiny house, having a 30-piece ‘capsule’ wardrobe or living a nomadic lifestyle. Joshua Becker, the best-selling author of several books on minimalism and the man behind the widely popular blog Becoming Minimalist, shared his own definition: “Minimalism is the intentional promotion of the things we most value by removing anything that distracts us from it. Please notice, minimalism is not about reducing the amount of everything. Quite the opposite: it is about reducing distractions to maximise more important pursuits.”
In other words, minimalism prompts us to re-evaluate our lives and what they contain. Upon closer inspection, we may see that we don’t actually need many of the things we have accumulated over the years. Their excessive presence could, in fact, add to the fog that clouds our minds and gets in the way of achieving our goals. Undoubtedly, this emergent shift in social consciousness is a product of today’s mass consumer culture. “Never in human history have human beings owned as many possessions as they do today,” Becker said.
Minimalism refocuses resources towards the most significant areas of a business, removing unnecessary processes and products
Becker argues that, having reached the inevitable point of saturation, we have been forced to ask whether our incessant accumulation is actually beneficial. “I believe the resounding answer is no – and people are becoming increasingly aware of that,” Becker told European CEO.
“Add in the fact that the internet and technology have changed everything – the advent of the sharing economy being a perfect example – and you find the world ripe for a new society and mindset that is becoming increasingly post-materialistic.”
Importantly, it’s not just about tackling bulging wardrobes and overburdened bookshelves; for minimalists, it’s a way of life, a purposeful decision to only incorporate things with actual merit. Becker said: “Minimalism is essentially about removing distractions – in possessions and in pursuits. In this way, it is mostly an exercise in intentionality.”
Those that advocate the minimalist approach highlight its freeing nature: with less around and less going on, there is more freedom to do what brings actual value to your life and business. Ultimately, it also forces the question, what does success actually mean to me? Naturally, the definition of success can be as individual as we are, but there are two obvious schools of thought that divide most people; to some, success means more money, but to a growing number it’s about having more freedom.
This distinction can play a pivotal role in how an organisation is run. Often, business leaders plug away under the premise that bigger is always better. As such, they strive for expansion into new territories, branch out into different industries and expand their workforce in the hope of netting greater profits and more apparent success. Indeed, the vision of many a CEO is to turn his or her organisation into a global enterprise and a household name. While such achievements are the stuff of dreams, they don’t always form the correct path.
Put simply, bigger business can involve bigger risk. A higher profile inevitably leads to more exposure – which is not always a positive thing. Being thrust into the limelight can force ruffled rivals to investigate nooks and crannies, finding weaknesses or flaws to counter or highlight. Higher exposure can also encourage more competition and a throng of copycats, some of which could ultimately do a better job. Further, more customers require more support, but rising costs don’t always correlate with growing profits. Indeed, bigger can mean more expenses and more investment, which can dent profit margins rather than widen them.
“The point of minimalism is that more isn’t always better,” said Paul Jarvis, a designer and author who offers minimalism workshops for online businesses. “Sometimes more simply means larger. Sometimes enough is better.”
Again, the decision about what is enough comes down to one’s own vision and definition of success. If it’s a case of providing a highly bespoke service or being the best in a niche area, all the while securing more personal freedom and earning enough to provide for one’s family, then bigger is not, in fact, better. Once such objectives have been achieved, going about perfecting rather than enlarging can provide greater satisfaction, all the while creating a better work-life balance, which feeds back into the process of continual improvement.
An introspective examination can bring to light unnecessary costs that fail to produce enough value to justify the input they require. “[Entrepreneurs] may discover side projects or pursuits [are] no longer aligned with their key business strategy – these side pursuits have become burdens that are actually holding them back rather than propelling them forward,” Becker explained. “Others may begin to notice distractions within their business culture (meetings, layers of approval, etc.) that can be removed in order to more efficiently accomplish their business mission statement.”
Such superfluous processes can slow decision-making, delaying the company from taking action and harming the business. Sluggish bureaucracy is especially burdensome for large corporations; indeed, it’s often a case of the bigger the company, the slower it moves. This leaves big organisations at greater risk when market disruptions emerge – a recurring trend these days.
As such, minimalism is about asking often-overlooked questions, such as “why are we doing this?” and “do we actually need this?” Companies making the move towards minimalism must, therefore, consider each aspect of their business and ask these questions. Jarvis continued: “Leaner companies are much cheaper to run, so even if you aren’t a one-person business, the more you can cut extraneous costs or mindsets, the better your business will run, and [the] more profit it will create with the same amount of gross revenue.”
Ultimately, by stripping away all unnecessary procedures – and removing partnerships, arrangements and offshoots that are not aligned with a company’s core vision and long-term strategy – organisations can become more nimble and efficient. This, in turn, enables them to respond more swiftly to market trends, and achieve the objectives upon which they were founded.
“Minimalist businesses are also greater at providing value since their focus is more on pleasing existing customers than acquiring new ones,” Jarvis said. “In growth-focused companies, acquisition tends to trump retention, when retention can be much cheaper and more profitable long term.” An added benefit of this, as Jarvis explained, is the consequence of more organic growth via word of mouth from happy customers.
Apple serves as a brilliant example of how this approach can also entail a decisive refocus on a few key products. Writer and brand strategist Wesley Gant elaborated further: “One of the most notable turnaround stories in the history of business was Steve Jobs’ return to Apple in 1997, when the company was only months from bankruptcy.
“One of his first moves was to completely eliminate whole divisions, and reduce the product line to just four products: one desktop and one laptop for the casual user, and the same for the professional user. That was the start of a course that would lead Apple to become the most valuable brand in the world. Jobs followed a minimalist, ‘zen’ philosophy, and Apple’s approach – to business and to products – became an influential case study for not only Silicon Valley, but entrepreneurs, designers and CEOs everywhere.”
Work with what you’ve got
Another extraordinary benefit of applying minimalist principles to business is the way in which it encourages greater ingenuity and resourcefulness. “Minimalism in business requires a MacGyver attitude, being that the best tools are the ones that exist,” Jarvis said. “So, even though I can develop software, I’d rather find an existing piece of software to suit my needs. Then I don’t have to spend time and money creating tools.
To a growing number of people, success is about having more freedom
“This leads to creativity – in that you are forced to come up with creative ways to use what you’ve got at hand. So if all your business has is a ball of twine, a stick of gum and a paperclip, you figure out a way to make those things work.
“Minimalist businesses aren’t great businesses because of the tools; they’re great businesses because their owners know how
to creatively use the tools they’ve got. The best tool for your work is the one you’re using right now, to make your business run. If it’s not working, find another.” Again, the notion of re-evaluation is key to the minimalist approach and, in this respect, finding ways to
utilise resources optimally.
Fortuitously, there are certain tools available nowadays that pair well with the minimalist model. Storing everything on the cloud, for example, eliminates the need for space-wasting, time-guzzling data storage – whether paper or digital. Instead, omni-present apps like Dropbox, Google Docs and Evernote make vast volumes of information, schedules and company records accessible within seconds from anywhere on the planet. Business operations become smoother and more efficient, while greater freedom is created for both employees and the company itself.
For many leaders, it can be difficult to relinquish control of certain aspects of a business, particularly given the passion and sentiment involved when they have built an organisation from the ground up. Micromanagement, however, has plenty of pitfalls: for one, it can breed resentment and hostility in the workplace, which could result in the departure of crucial talent. Overbearing leadership can also harm the business itself, as one person simply cannot complete all of the important tasks to a high standard – there just isn’t enough time.
Sharing responsibility with employees can empower them, motivating them to do a better job. Ridding oneself of duties that can be shared also affords those in senior positions more freedom to apply greater focus to broader issues, such as strategy and the achievement of long-term goals.
Streamlining workloads isn’t just beneficial for those in charge; it can transform an organisation at every level. As Becker explained: “Applying these principles intentionally to a management style would force a leader to look at the organisation and/or the people being led and ask the question, ‘are there any processes, hurdles or requirements I have put in place that are preventing my team from becoming the very best that they can be? Have I overburdened them in any way that has become a distraction from our mission?’
“This does not mean necessarily that we remove all oversight or direction or systems. Sometimes those things are needed in order to help our teams perform at their best. But applying minimalism to a management style would force us to re-evaluate everything we have put into place to rediscover if it is serving the best interests of our business and fellow team members.”
Process of evolution
The minimalist approach is not intended to be a one-off event; it’s a process that requires continual re-examination. “If we have not instituted regular intervals of subtraction, this accumulation too often leads to bloated lives, bloated management styles and bloated corporate cultures,” Becker told European CEO. “It is wise, for us as leaders, to routinely look for distractions in our culture or systems that can be minimised – not just for the sake of minimalism, but for the sake of maximising those pursuits and efforts that are most important to us and the companies we lead.”
Taking the time to assess what’s actually necessary for a business can help form a path that is both expedient and clear. If growth is part of that vision, then ensuring it always brings greater value is crucial. Jarvis added: “A minimalist business doesn’t mean staying small for the sake of being small; it means being small when it makes sense to be small and only growing in areas where growth provides value to you and your customers. Growth isn’t inherently evil, but it comes at a price. And running a minimalist business is more about working towards the [reason why] you own a business in the first place.”
Due to its very nature, minimalism never looks the same to each person or organisation. But, in every case, it refocuses resources towards the most significant areas of a business, removing unnecessary processes and products to provide greater flexibility and freedom. “The process of removing distractions saves us time, money and energy – everything we all wish we had more of,” Becker said.
Minimalism also enables companies to develop unique offerings, deep expertise and a truly bespoke customer experience, all of which foster a competitive edge over rivals. Instead of spreading resources thinly and to no great avail, organisations can use the time and money they have freed to improve – and make the most of – what they do have. Ultimately, minimalism creates space for the freedom we need to become the best we can be.