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John Bell


Twenty Reasons Why Companies Should Do Less Better

Good gardeners know that pruning is just as important as planting

Published: Thursday, May 25, 2017 - 12:01

Do Less Better is the name of my book (Palgrave Macmillan, 2014). Do less better is also a culture and a strategy of organizations and their leaders. Do-less-better practitioners are fanatical about focus and simplification; herein lies the secret of their success. Yet, do less better isn’t something most leaders 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.

More isn’t always more

Campbell Soup Co. has been doing more and more for decades. It has added a vast array of canned goods, juices, fresh and frozen foods, organics, and baby food to its core soup business. These additions account for 70 percent of Campbell’s sales. You’d think the company’s 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 percent of Nike’s revenue comes from apparel and sporting goods. Has it also lost its 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 its ways. The company 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-percent higher than they were just five years ago, and profits are up by 65 percent. Nike is a do-less-better company. So are Coca-Cola, Lego, In-N-Out Burger, and Patek Philippe.

Three words, one big idea 

In the simplest of terms, three words exemplify one big idea. “Do” represents resolve and action. It is 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.

20 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. When business complexity increases, managerial complexity isn’t far behind. Likewise, when managerial complexity increases, business complexity isn’t far behind.
3. 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.
4. Specialists beat generalists, but generalists who embrace and practice focus can be wildly successful.
5. 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.
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. More balls in the air do not present more chances of success.
8. Clout is the culture of giants. Surprisingly, the small guy doesn’t need deep pockets to coexist with powerful multinationals. Nimbleness, creativity, and culture go a long way, especially when contraction isn’t feared. That makes an organization operationally and strategically stronger.
9. Every challenging environment presents tremendous opportunities for leaders to excel. Maintaining clarity and cohesion through the tough times differentiates the victors from the vanquished.
10. Farsightedness is essential to effective leadership. Clear, compelling visions establish the foundation for exciting growth.
11. Transformational leaders sacrifice the security of the status quo. Is your organization leading or scrambling to catch up?
12. Carefully prepared, genuine manifestos tell everyone who you are, what you believe in, and why your cause is worth the sacrifice.
13. Whether an organization is sick or healthy, doing more of the same but better is never the means to long-term prosperity.
14. Whether you are a startup 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.
15. The glue that binds leadership, strategy, and execution is people—at every level of the organization.
16. Leaders must pinpoint and honor their unsung heroes. This is a transparent way to reiterate the organization’s purpose, its strategy, and culture.
17. 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.
18. 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.
19. 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.
20. The do-less-better strategy must affect every element of an organizationthat includes messaging, systems, recruiting, R&D, and employment. Sacred cows cannot exist.

The lessons in 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?

First published April 24, 2017, on the In the CEO Afterlife blog.


About The Author

John Bell’s picture

John Bell

John R. Bell is a retired CEO of a consumer packaged goods company, and a former global strategy consultant. Bell is the author of the book, Do Less Better: The Power of Strategic Sacrifice in a Complex World (Palgrave Macmillan, 2014), and the novel, The Circumstantial Enemy (independently published, 2017), a historical thriller based on true World War II events. A prolific blogger, Bell’s musings on strategy, leadership, and branding appear in several online journals including Fortune and Forbes.