May, Matthew

MatthewMay.jpgMatthew E. May is the author of The Elegant Solution, which won the Shingo Research Prize for Excellence. He's a popular speaker who lectures to corporations, governments, and universities around the world. He spent eight years as a close adviser to Toyota and currently works confidentially with creative teams and senior leaders at a number of top Fortune-listed companies. Articles by Matt have appeared in national publications such as the Wall Street Journal, USAToday, and strategy & business. A graduate of the Wharton School of Business, he lives in Southern California. His latest book is In Pursuit of Elegance: Why the Best Ideas Have Something Missing. Matt's been interviewed on National Public Radio and for Open Forum by American Express. His website is

[Bio adapted from the book jacket of In Pursuit of Elegance.]

Buy the book, In Pursuit of Elegance asks …

Let’s start by talking about your first book, Matt.

MM: It was called The Elegant Solution: Toyota’s Formula for Mastering Innovation. I use Toyota as a shining example of a company that gets 250,000 people fired up to come into work every day looking for new ways to do things. At the heart of that was the notion that they’re always trying to do more with and for less. They try to make tiny changes with big impact; in other words, elegant solutions.

So you worked at Toyota for a long time?

MM: I was never an employee. I’ve always been an independent adviser. They fully retained me for eight years. I did everything from look at new programs, new designs of job skills training, to eventually becoming a master instructor at their university.

Your new book is In Pursuit of Elegance. What drew you to elegance?

MM: It was a term that had equity around it inside the Toyota organization. It was used in the same vernacular as the way scientists, artists, or computer programmers think about it, where you’re trying to combine an unusually simple solution with surprisingly powerful outcomes. That notion of “Simple is good, but elegant is better,” was an informal mantra that stuck in my head. There are examples all across the planet where something has been subtracted in a thoughtful way, and greater impact has resulted.

Do you have a short, sweet definition of elegance?

MM: An idea is elegant if it is two things at once: unusually simple and surprisingly powerful. There’s a framework and four major elements that fall out from that definition. It comes from computer programming.

Stanford’s professor emeritus, Donald Knuth, the father of computer programming, was probably the first person to begin using the word elegance regarding something as arcane as computer programming. He defines elegance as something that is spare, symmetrical, pleasingly memorable, and having the immortal ring of E=mc2.

That was my launching-off point. I thought that was a beautiful way to frame what is meant by elegance. Whether you’re talking about a product, a strategy, or a performance, elegance is essentially subtractive in nature, and not additive. It includes symmetry and uses a certain kind of simplicity that hides, masks, manages, even exploits the complexity that’s all around us, in a sustainable and seductive way.

Who’s the audience for this book?

MM: According to a review I just read, it’s good for chief marketing officers and senior executives who are looking for a way, especially during this economic crisis, to move their businesses forward while consuming fewer resources. Every day we’ve got more to do and less to do it with, and so how do we maximize our impact with a minimum of input?

You start off with a popular culture example, which is somewhat out of the business range. Why?

MM: The opening example in the book is the final episode of the HBO series, The Sopranos. It was a widely-viewed, well-known example of exactly what I’m talking about in the book, that sometimes what isn’t there can trump what is. In other words, a purposefully incomplete idea can be far more powerful than a complete idea because, if done in the right way, it engages the imagination of the viewer. It leaves something to interpretation and engages people in a new and different way.

After a seven or eight year run and a two-year buildup to this finale, in the final seconds of the episode, the screen went black. The looming question of that final episode was, will Tony Soprano, who’s the mob boss in northern New Jersey, get whacked mob-style or not? David Chase, who is the creator of the series, was the writer-producer-director of the final episode. Half the audience thought Tony would get whacked and half the audience hoped he wouldn’t. That presented a very sticky wicket for Chase, who was also considering things like potential movies coming out of the series.

He was building to a climax in a very traditional way. Then when everyone tuned in, and in the middle of the final scene, the screen went black. There was no climax, there was no ending. It was completely terminated before there was any resolution of any kind with respect to the story. All of that tension had nowhere to go. Everyone had the same reaction, and it had nothing to do with the television show at all. It was, “Are you kidding me? My cable went out.” Just as you went to your TV to give it a whack, the credits started rolling. And it rocked everyone back on their heels.

What happened in the media over the next 24 to 48 hours was unbelievable. No one could believe that there was no story ending. How dare David Chase do that to us, leave us hanging that way? Then Chase came out and said, “Everything that you need to know about the ending to the story is in that last episode.” That sent another shock wave through the audience. Everyone went back and watched the episode again and—especially the aficionados—started picking up on various subtle clues that Chase had embedded. Whether it was the way a certain scene was lit, what was on the wall in the back, or what was on a piece of clothing, all of these clues allowed people to arrive at their own story ending.

It was so powerful that three times the number of people ended up viewing that final episode. The discussion lit up the Internet. The impact was far greater than anything that could’ve been achieved with a traditional story ending. That was a clear case to me of a missing piece making the impact much more powerful.

Something happened in our collective brain. Can you explain briefly why we get so engaged with that missing element here and in other instances?

MM: Yes. I had the opportunity to spend a significant amount of time with a neuroscientist here in southern California, Jeffrey Schwartz who developed a program at UCLA that dealt with the most debilitating patterns in the human brain and obsessive compulsive disorder.

He explained to me that our brains are essentially pattern-makers. All day long they record all the events and experiences—auditory, visual, and sensory—and instantaneously make patterns. Those patterns, also known as mindsets or biases, help us make it through the day, so that we don’t have to solve problems at a very deep level.

We see new things and our brain associates it with something we already know so that it can move on to something else.

MM: Exactly. And when something is somehow missing from what we know to be a pattern, it rivets our attention. It makes us curious and we want to fill in that gap to resolve our curiosity.

Do we want or need to fill it in?

MM: We need to. It’s very difficult for the human mind to embrace ambiguity and uncertainty for any length of time. When things aren’t presented in a complete pattern, we inject ourselves into it to make sure that the pattern is complete to our satisfaction, so we can resolve that dissonance in our brains. If we exert effort to complete the pattern, it has a greater impact on our lives.

There seems to be a great deal of discussion recently on how the brain works.

MM: Due to some technological advances, scientists have been able to determine that the scientific reductionist theory of the brain, which is to say that the brain controls everything, including how the mind works, is incorrect. We’re now finding out that our conscious thought can actually shape and change the way our brain is wired physically. That’s a complete reversal of old thought. By studying Buddhist monks who meditate for 10,000 hours, we’re finding out that they have significantly different brainwave patterns and their brains light up in different spots when functional magnetic resonance imagery is done on their brains. And lo and behold, the brain patterns that some of these Buddhist monks exhibit are the exact kind of brainwaves that precede the legendary “Eureka” moment.

Interestingly enough, Gestalt psychology, which is well over 100 years old, talked about the notion of closure. If you show someone a diagram of a square with a little gap in it and ask people what they see, 99.99 percent of the population will say it’s a square. Their mind has automatically filled in that gap for them, when in fact it’s not a square because a little piece is missing.

I know there’s a gap missing, I don’t see it as a square, but I don’t have any other name for it.

MM: So you call it a square. That was one of the primary elements of the body of thought of the gestalt psychologists, that our brains want to close the gap. And if you know that, you can use it and exploit it in ways that end up being a lot more powerful than if you just call it a square.

Such as?

MM: The Sopranos ending. Just think about what David Chase was able to accomplish. He had a difficult problem in front of him; he would’ve alienated half his audience, had he gone one way or the other. He avoided that completely, and satisfied everyone. Why? Because they were able to supply their own ending.

Look at the Mona Lisa. To this day the debate continues about her smile. Leonardo da Vinci happened to be one of the first artists to actually employ ambiguity and uncertainty as a technique. He purposefully made things ambiguous or uncertain so that they are open to interpretation, yet universally resonant with people. Look across any number of domains and you’ll find that when we are thoughtful about subtracting certain things, there’s a far greater impact.

You mention in the book that there’s a painting technique Da Vinci used with the Mona Lisa that’s responsible for this reaction.

MM: Contemporaries of Da Vinci’s were using some form of infinito, which means unfinished, but his specific painting technique was called sfumato, which basically means smoky or blurry or hazy.

As I was researching the notion of things being incomplete, purposefully uncertain, or ambiguous, I ran across some work by an art historian named E.H. Gombrich. He described the technique that Da Vinci used. Da Vinci was one of the first to solve a huge painting problem that many of the Renaissance and pre-Renaissance artists faced, which was to make their paintings of people and animals look real. Trying to make them too perfect resulted in figures that looked false, not vibrant and dynamic and alive. He discovered, and detailed it in his notebooks, that if you make it a little blurry, less distinct, using sfumato as a technique, that allows people to interpret and infuse the painting with life. He was one of the first to use that particular technique in painting.

But as I went back in history, I found that Michelangelo, Cezanne, and a number of Eastern artists and poets used incomplete techniques simply to engage the viewer in the painting in a more impactful way.

Your book describes your quest to discover what elegance is and how it’s achieved, there’s no simplistic five-step notion or specific to-dos. It’s more of a study in understanding that to subtract from what you have is the path to elegance. You explain that the problem lies with us as a species being hard-wired to accumulate, collect, and consume. So this notion of subtraction is very difficult for us.

MM: It is. Think about it—the very act of filling in a gap is additive. It’s a paradox. I don’t have a five-step formula, but the key to understanding and actually applying the notion of elegance in an everyday way lies in observation.

One of the things that struck me as unbelievably powerful was what they’re doing in Holland and other areas with what’s called Shared Space. They have, at high traffic intersections—I’m talking 20,000 vehicle, pedestrian, and bicyclist crossings a day—completely eliminated traffic controls.

They’ve gotten rid of signs, lights, lines, and they have designed the space in such a way that you have no choice but to look at other people and understand the risk at hand and then gauge your actions accordingly. They’ve achieved better traffic flow and lower accident rates as a result. That comes from observing how people work, how they interact, and actually observing nature.

Quite frequently, what we tend to do is leap to a solution because we want to control the outcome. Since October, I have read daily in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, and other places in the news media, what the solution to the current economic crisis is. Yet we remain without a solution. Solutions are offered very, very quickly, and they are almost always the addition of resources or regulations when, in fact, nature and history show us the opposite. If we are a little bit more patient, actually observe and don’t try to over-control the situation, we might actually achieve what we really want, which is greater security and safety. I watch it daily, and this notion of leaping to a solution and closing that gap very quickly leads to a lot of unsustainable solutions. It leads to unintended consequences, and potentially dangerous side effects.

Have you ever heard of the Montana Paradox?

Only in your book.

MM: For many years, Montana had a highway speed law that had no limit, but indicated that your speed should be “reasonable and prudent for the current conditions.” Now, that’s very nebulous, uncertain, and it seems to be out of control. But they had their lowest accident rates during that time period.

Well, one day a highway safety patrol officer gave a ticket to someone who he thought was going too fast. The case made it to the Supreme Court in Montana. They upheld the decision that the driver was going too fast and they slapped a speed limit on the freeways, like every other state has. Lo and behold, within a couple of years, accident rates increased over 110 percent. What we typically would think of as the safe way to go, which is to provide a lot of control, actually works in the reverse. When we put a lot of controls in place, we rely on those controls and we forget about the notion of risk.

That’s what happened with our financial crisis, right? We thought that the SEC, the Fed, and the government had all of these investments that people were creatively constructing well under control. As buyers of homes or securities, we thought there was no risk because we thought the risk had been handled by the people that know risk best. That wasn’t the case. If we had had a simple and nebulous going-in proposition that said, “This is a very risky investment, this is likely what could happen, buyer beware,” we would have done what people do when they come to these traffic intersections with no traffic controls. We would have stopped, or slowed down, to look very carefully around at what’s going on, to make sure that we didn’t get blindsided.

The traffic examples in Montana and Holland are about engaging the brain and being present. That’s counterintuitive to the idea of driving across the country. You get on a freeway, turn the music up, and drive with one hand on the wheel. But that turns us to personal responsibility, which I don’t believe is the direction you’re taking with elegance.

MM: Not necessarily. But that’s one outcome, that we become more personally responsible. Take Montana’s law that indicated you should drive at a speed that’s reasonable and prudent for the situation. If you’re on a freeway that’s deserted, 100 miles an hour might be reasonable and prudent. When you’re on a freeway that has even five or six other cars in different directions, that’s not reasonable and prudent. So, yes, you become more personally responsible, not just for yourself, but for others. You become a caretaker so that no one gets hurt.

Well, most of us see it that way.

MM: Most of us. It’s not just a matter of getting rid of those controls. In Holland, their urban designers purposefully and very carefully designed those intersections. They put certain things out in the middle of roads, used cobblestone, put café tables where they normally wouldn’t go, so that the space is designed in much the same way that David Chase designed his last episode.

The purpose of my book is to convey that our most elegant ideas and solutions, and the ones that have the greatest sustainability, are those that come from standing back, thinking more deeply, and carefully observing the situation before we leap to a solution. That does smack of being more responsible.

Your other claim to fame is having gotten a caption published in the New Yorker cartoon caption contest. How did that happen?

MM: To be honest with you, I thought I needed a bit of street cred when it came to the mastery of seduction, which is what that contest is all about. They purposefully leave out the caption and ask readers to submit them. Instead of just using the contest as an example of a seductive idea, I thought I’d participate. I had tried a couple of times over the years and nothing.

Here’s how I approached it. Based on what I’ve learned about observation and the need for asking a lot of questions to understand the situation, that’s what I did. I looked at the cartoon and asked five or six questions: who, what, where, when? I brainstormed against the answers to some of those questions before just tossing out a caption, and came up with one that I honestly didn’t think most people would find funny. The panel was of two people in bed in hazmat suits. Had I leapt immediately to a solution, it would likely have involved sexual innuendo.

I gave it deeper thought and let it sit with me overnight, and a caption came to me when I was on a bike ride the next day. And I won. It was, “Next time, can we just get flu shots like everyone else?”

You thought about it, asked some questions, went away, and while doing a totally unrelated activity it came to you. Your last chapter describes how elegant solutions appear.

MM: My premise in the book, until the last part, is that instead of acting right away and adding something to the equation, maybe what we need to do is to stop, look around, and think a little bit more. But then I wondered, “At what point have we thought too much?”

I had read enough about elegant solutions and “Eureka!” moments to know that a lot of the most famous solutions really came to people not when they were consciously working on the problem at hand, but when they had taken time away from the problem. Isn’t that what elegance really is all about? It’s about not doing. It’s about stopping exactly what you’re doing for a moment. And if that’s thinking, then so be it.

I alluded to this earlier, this notion of quieting the mind, which is what Buddhist monks do. They spend an awful lot of time meditating and being mindfully aware. I investigated that. Jeffrey Schwartz is an advocate of mindful meditation. He’s treated many of his OCD patients by teaching them what’s at the heart of mindful awareness, which is the ability to stand away from yourself and almost observe yourself in the way that Adam Smith talked about the impartial spectator. He taught me how to do it, and I couldn’t do it.

There are other neuro-mechanisms out there to quiet the mind, and as I began to investigate further, I found that all sorts of people in sports and business have started going to neurofeedback centers. Neurofeedback centers try to do exactly what mindful meditation does, which is to find that zone where you are of a quiet mind and you’re not consciously thinking of anything, which is when those connections actually get made.

They’ve shown that your great idea comes to you when you’re doing something far removed from the problem at hand, because something happens in your brain when you’re not consciously working on that problem. These connections take time. They mature, connect, develop, and all of a sudden you get this flash of insight. The precursor to that is a quiet mind. Almost all of these great and wonderful insights that we get are preceded by a break from the problem, be it a physical or mental break. The break exhibits a certain brainwave pattern.

It’s flow, right?

MM: Exactly. How do you engineer a breakthrough by being in flow? I went to a neurofeedback center here in Los Angeles. They hooked me up and gave me some exercises, and I came to understand that sometimes you can think too much. It circles back to elegance, which is a subtractive or “stop doing” strategy, and it even applies to thinking. Sometimes we can realize greater impact by not doing than by doing.

I think it’s a message that we should think more about, given the current state of the economy. People are making cuts in a willy-nilly fashion, and all of a sudden, the bar for success has been lowered. People want to achieve more within the constraints that they’re facing. The key to that is being more creative and innovative.

Constraints can be a very good thing.

MM: I could probably recite chapter and verse on the difference between a Toyota and a General Motors, but one of the things that I learned from Toyota was to constantly create a sense of near-crisis. I think because they had risen from the ashes of World War II from nothing and they never forgot that, they were constantly trying to keep their resource utilization at a minimum. They were being resourceful, creative, and innovative, because they had to compete on a global basis with nothing. They had little in the way of land, money, or people after World War II. What they had was ideas. And they kept that at the fore of their existence.

In the meantime, look at the success of Detroit in the ’70s, ’80s, and early ’90s. That success masked a lot of underlying problems, and they were never really addressed until that buffer of resources went away.

I’m guessing you’re not on the side of bailing out all of these companies willy-nilly?

MM: I’m not.

Do you think GM should go bankrupt, for instance?

MM: I have thought for a long time that there’s a lot of good that comes out of a Chapter 11 bankruptcy for General Motors, and I recently read an article that explained how a bankruptcy could actually benefit, say, suppliers, and allow GM to restructure.

I’ve known for a long time that what General Motors and the rest of Detroit really needs to do is to jettison a lot of what they’ve got going on. They have redundant brands, redundant people, redundant structures, and they’ve lost the ability to make their designs compatible with what people want to buy. Nothing short of a crisis in which they’re forced to rethink all of that is going to bring the kind of solution that we need, because they’re entrenched in the old ways of doing things and giving them money to continue a losing proposition is throwing good money after bad.

Thomas Friedman said if you’re going to give $20 billion to anyone, give it to the venture capitalists of the world. The blogsophere was lit up with venture capitalists saying, “Keep your money. We don’t want it. The good firms don’t need it. We don’t need the hand of government in this.” They explained why you should not add money to the venture capital world. It would fund bad ideas and you’d get another tech bubble. It’s a long answer to a short question, but in general, I’m not in favor of bailing out a losing proposition.

I think most people are coming around to that conclusion, but not knowing the reality of the alternatives, it’s frightening to try to extrapolate what GM’s disappearing would do to the rest of the economy. I think someone there recently said, “We’ve got to let things here fall apart and crumble if we’re going to create anything new and sustaining.” There, I used “sustaining.” I wanted to do that just for your benefit.

MM: Sustainability meaning not in the context of environmental sustainability, but the ability to have a solution that doesn’t consume the assets used to create it in the first place.

You have an interesting foreword.

MM: It’s probably the world’s shortest. Guy Kawasaki wrote a 140 character foreword for the book.

That’s very elegant.

MM: I think Twitter is an elegant thing. I love the constraint of 140 characters. It forces us to think about what we’re saying.

It’s been very interesting speaking with you, Matt.

MM: Thank you.

Email: matt.may (at) – verizon (dot) net