Do Less, Better: a Strategy, a Culture, and 20 Reasons Why

culture to do less better

To “do less, better” isn’t something most leaders and their organizations embrace. The seemingly more attractive (and logical) option is to do more and more – the theory being the more markets, products, and businesses a company engages in, the better the results. This is not true.

Do Less Better is a strategy and a culture; it’s also the name of my book. And for organizations and their leaders, the proponents of this discipline worship focus, loathe complexity, and enjoy success.

MORE ISN’T ALWAYS MORE
The Campbell Soup Company has been doing more and more for decades. They have added a vast array of canned goods, juices, fresh and frozen foods, organics, and baby food to their core soup business. These additions account for 70% of Campbell’s sales. You’d think their revenues would have soared. Think again. Campbell’s 10-year sales trend is stagnant and their profits are down. Mired in the complexity of an unrelated product line, Campbell’s leaders keep plugging along trying to do more of the same, only better. They are kidding themselves.

Nike began as a shoe company. Today, 40% of Nike’s revenue comes from apparel and sporting goods. Have they also lost their way? Almost. The lure of more led to the acquisitions of Cole Haan and Umbro. The added complexity and loss of focus on the Nike brand was a lesson well-learned and it didn’t take Nike long to see the error of their ways. They divested both businesses and discontinued several other products including golf clubs and bags. What’s left in apparel and sporting goods is a good strategic fit with Nike’s operations. Nike sales are 40% higher than they were just 5 years ago and profits are up by 65%. Nike is a Do Less Better company. So are Coca-Cola, Lego, In-N-Out Burger, and Patek Philippe.

3 WORDS. 1 BIG IDEA. 
In the simplest of terms, three words exemplify one big idea. “DO” represents resolve and action. It’s an expectation placed upon us at a very young age. “LESS” is the noun that contradicts everything we see and hear in the busy world in which we live. “BETTER” is the adjective that expresses our desire to do well at whatever we undertake. Bring these words together and we facilitate a culture of clarity and focus.

Specialists beat generalists, but generalists who embrace and practice focus can be wildly successful.  ~John Bell

TENETS OF DO LESS BETTER

  1. Complexity alienates customers, contaminates cultures, heightens stress, and increases the cost of doing business. Stamping out complexity won’t happen without a strong will to change at every level. Along with the will, you must be rationally and emotionally convinced that focus through sacrifice will take everyone to a better place. This is the why and the how.
  2. Clout is the culture of giants. Surprisingly, the small guy doesn’t need deep pockets to co-exist with powerful multi-nationals. Nimbleness, creativity, and culture go a long way, especially when contraction isn’t feared. That makes an organization operationally and strategically stronger.
  3. Whether you are a start-up or a Procter & Gamble, the ethic of focusing on what you do best and excelling at it is the culture and the identity that sustains an organization’s success.
  4. Human capital is the source from which competitive advantage flows or falls. That’s why Culture is the strategy for so many success stories such as Google and Amazon.
  5. The glue that binds leadership, strategy, and execution is people—at every level of the organization.
  6. Strategy tells you what not to do. The power of the do less better strategy is its capacity to keep things simple and uncluttered, from production and distribution all the way to sales, marketing, and service. The reward is longer-term competitive advantages.
  7. Cutting through the clutter requires giving up something of value such as brands and products for the sake of other considerations. This is strategic sacrifice. And the sacrifices that affect you personally are the ones that require courage.
  8. Leaders must pinpoint and honor their unsung heroes. This is a transparent way to reiterate the organization’s purpose, its strategy, and culture.
  9. Transformational leaders sacrifice the security of the status quo. Is your organization leading or scrambling to catch up?
  10. Boards give a damn about shareholder value. When a leader successfully links corporate culture to shareholder value, there’s a much better chance the board will give a damn about culture.
  11. Every challenging environment presents tremendous opportunities for leaders to excel. Maintaining clarity and cohesion though the tough times differentiates the victors from the vanquished.
  12. Farsightedness is essential to effective leadership. Clear, compelling visions establish the foundation for exciting growth.
  13. When business complexity increases, managerial complexity isn’t far behind. Likewise, when managerial complexity increases, business complexity isn’t far behind.
  14. Carefully prepared, genuine manifestos tell everyone who you are, what you believe in and why your cause is worth the sacrifice.
  15. Whether an organization is sick or healthy, doing more of the same but better is never the means to long-term prosperity.
  16. Specialists beat generalists, but generalists who embrace and practice focus can be wildly successful.
  17. Like gardening, pruning is as important as planting in business. If you plant as well as prune, your organization will prosper. Case in point, Nike.
  18. More balls in the air do not present more chances of success.
  19. Prioritize project lists. More projects run the risk of more people. The goal isn’t more people; it’s less. Fewer, better people dealing with fewer, better, projects is the name of the game.
  20. The do less better strategy must impact every element of an organization – that includes messaging, systems, recruiting, R&D, and employment. Sacred cows cannot exist.

The lessons of Do Less Better apply to every leader and every organization, big or small. Good leaders, good strategies, and good corporate values need not cost a penny more than bad leaders, bad strategies and bad cultures. Sure, my heyday as a business leader occurred during an era of less complexity. So I ask you—if the concept of strategic sacrifice and doing less better worked in a less-complicated business world, why wouldn’t it work now?

I look forward to your thoughts in the comments section below. 

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John Bell is the author of Do Less Better: The Power of Strategic Sacrifice in a Complex World. He is the retired CEO of coffee & chocolate maker Jacobs Suchard North America, best known for Toblerone, the triangular Swiss Chocolate bar. A prolific blogger, his musings on strategy, leadership, and branding appear in several online journals including Fortune and Forbes.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.