After reading Do, Less Better by John Bell, you can't help but be impressed by his remarkable career and accomplishments. John is a Transformational Leader, Corporate Director, and Former CEO at Jacobs Suchard.
In my opinion, John is the type of CEO the world needs more of and is likely the CEO, so many wish they had the opportunity to work for. This makes his advice even more compelling and worthy of closer study.
Doing less and doing it better is a viable strategy at all levels of an organization. In a world that seems to consume all of us in more and more, John demonstrates through his personal experience and example the why, how, and power of making strategic personal sacrifices of Doing, Less Better.
Before we start the interview, here are a few takeaways' I got from the book:
- To the plethora of leaders and managers who view complexity as an uncontrollable fact of life, I ask whether your viewpoint is the ramification of a twenty-first-century business environment that doesn’t allow focus? Or is it that human beings can’t figure out how to do less, better?
- Prioritize project lists. More projects run the risk of more people. Fewer, better people dealing with fewer, better projects is the name of the game.
- The strategic value of human resources has never been more important. Culture is the strategy in the new economy.
- Good leaders, good strategies, and good corporate values need not cost a penny more than bad leaders, bad strategies, and bad cultures.
Now, over to John.
What prompted you to write the book?
John: Early in my career, I was faced with the challenge of turning around a near-bankrupt company that was mired in complexity. Too many products, too many brands, too many categories, and no competitive advantage for any of them. By closing or selling the majority of the brands, we trimmed the company down to a shadow of its former self. We decided to become an expert in one category – it happened to be coffee – and by focusing on coffee, and nothing else, we were able to swim out of a raging river of red ink. We called the means to that end, the “do less better” strategy.
When I became a consultant, I saw a similar pattern of unnecessary complexity in both troubled and successful businesses. Today, business complexity has reach pandemic proportions . . . big keeps getting bigger. Almost everyone is stuck in a paradigm of doing more and more. Never has the need for simplicity and focus been greater than right now. So where there’s a problem, there must be an opportunity. A book on how to cut through the complexity clutter is that opportunity.
Almost everyone is stuck in a paradigm of doing more and more. Never has the need for simplicity and focus been greater than right now.
What are the advantages of doing less rather than more?
John: That’s just another way of saying think less rather than more, and get really good at whatever that less is. I’ll use the analogy of a mountain range. There’s so many opportunities at the top of each mountain in the broad range. But can you really get to the top by spreading yourself too thin, by diluting your resources to do so? By putting all of your resources (and expertise) against climbing just one mountain, you have a better chance to reach the pot of gold at the summit.
What makes this book different from other books on focus?
John: This isn’t the first book on focus, nor will it be the last. But the element that separates this book from the rest is how people can successfully cut through complexity and achieve focus. The “how” is the ability to make tough strategic choices.
And sometimes, especially when transformation is required such as at J.C Penny and Hewlett Packard, some very tough sacrifices are required. Now, there’s a difference between tough strategic choices and tough strategic sacrifices, and I point this out in the book. Tough strategic choices are about the business. Tough sacrifices are about you. Tough sacrifices claw at your emotions because they require you to do something you don't want to do. And these are the sacrifices that rob you of sleep, sober your disposition, heighten your stress, and choke your patience on the little things in life.
So why should today’s leaders make these sacrifices? Because the essence of sacrifice is giving up something of value for the sake of other considerations.
What is the reader's take-away? If just one idea, what would that be?
John: How about I give you the one big idea and three corollaries?
- The most important takeaway is that leaders and managers don’t have to keep doing more and more to be effective and successful. Doing less and doing it better is a viable strategy at all levels of an organization.
- The best strategies require sacrifice. Because these strategies are concise, they also tell you what not to do. That keeps complexity at bay.
- The specialist always beats the generalist. Doing less, better because of product, market, and customer sacrifice ensures viability and strengthens competitiveness.
- The small guy doesn’t need deep pockets to outmaneuver giants. Creativity, nimbleness, and ingenuity are the best bargains in business. They cost nothing.
What companies are doing less, better?
John: Firstly, let me say that 'doing less, better' is absolutely critical to small companies competing against the giants. Doing less better leads to specialization. Specialists beat generalists. Always have, always will. Focus isn't restricted to smaller operations. Coca-Cola is a good example. Their focus begins at 30,000 feet, where corporate strategy is crafted. Back in 1989, Coke divested Columbia pictures, the last of their non-beverage businesses. From that point on, they committed themselves to soft drinks. Although Coca-Cola's sales lag behind their food and beverage arch-rival, Pepsi, Coke's profit and market cap significantly outpace Pepsi. That said, $44 billion in sales isn't too shabby for a company that sells only non-alcoholic drinks.
The other example is a David vs. Goliath story. In-N-Out Burger. Family-owned with 300 regional restaurants. Beef burgers, fries, shakes, and soft drinks only. No breakfast. Sales per outlet? A fraction short of Mcdonald's which has more than 100 items for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. This company is proof that "doing less, better" for the small guy is the key to success.
John also contributed to our interview series, Forward-Thinking Workplaces in Voices Will Matter, People Will Thrive & Innovation Will Become Ingrained in the Culture If…
About Bill Fox
Bill Fox helps leaders and teams engage in new conversations that leverage the collective voice, energy, and wisdom of pioneering leaders and everyone on their team. This approach helps people discover how to advance beyond best practices, working harder or even smarter in the post-Industrial Era. In my interview series, Exploring Forward-Thinking Workplaces, I lead a narrative for the 21st century that's uncovering exciting new solutions to our most vexing workplace challenges.