Saturday, May 9, 2009

Haiku Strategy

"Principle I: By setting limitations, we must choose the essential. So in everything you do, learn to set limitations." -- Leo Babauta from "The Power of Less"

In "Strategy, Plain and Simple," I summarized the difference between a strategy document that was shelved versus strategy that is integrated into the operations of an organization in one word: simplicity.

In his book "The Power of Less" quoted above Leo Babauta uses the example of the Japanese Haiku poem. Haiku poems are nature-related, just 17 syllables, written in 3 lines, always 5, 7, 5 unrhymed. One of my favorites:

A firefly flitted by:

"Look"! I almost said

but I was alone

- Taigi

The Haiku poet must carefully choose only the ESSENTIAL words. From the very structure of the poem, one is forced get to the heart of things with absolute clarity.

If you want strategy to be successful, I suggest "Haiku Strategy." Simplicity doesn't just mean limit yourself to 3 to 4 areas of strategic focus solely because people are unable to effectively focus on more than that, although that is a fact. Haiku Strategy means because people can only effectively focus on 3 to 4 areas at most, you are forced, as with the Haiku poem, to carefully choose only the ESSENTIAL areas.

Now, I would also contend, if you could keep all strategic statements, such as visions, missions, goals and strategies to 17 syllables, that would be ideal too.

Google's informal mission statement is: "Don't be evil." Four syllables. It's actual mission statement is: "to organize the world's information and make it universally accessible and useful." Not quite 17 syllables (25 actually) but a heck of a lot closer than most organizations get. Pretty simple for one of biggest, most complex companies on the planet.

The Apple advertising slogan is "Think Different." Can you think of a company to which this simple statement more aptly applies? Can you see how employees of Apple achieve exactly that? While it may just be a slogan, if you worked for Apple, and this statement became the lens through which you made decisions, it's no surprise innovations like the iPod and iPhone become a deliverable.

In "The Laws of Simplicity" John Maeda lists 10 laws, the first of which is "Reduce" where he introduces the concept of "Thoughtful Reduction." He says, "The simplest way to achieve simplicity is through thoughtful reduction. When in doubt, just remove. But be careful of what you remove." The last statement is the critical one, of course. Keep it simple but not too simple. Don't eliminate the essential, too, in your zeal for simplicity.

The work of determining what is essential, or at the very least, most meaningful and applying "Thoughtful Reduction" is, in fact, the most difficult work. While the outcome is simple, the process of getting there is not. Think again of the Haiku poem. Try writing one. It's hard. But think about how elegant, simple and clear it is when done well.