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Break: The Most Important Part of Breakthrough

Patterns and rules can be good. But sometimes you need to break them to create a breakthrough business.
Matthew May, author of  The Laws of Subtraction

Matthew May, author of The Laws of Subtraction

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Many innovative companies create something new. Others stand out by subtracting--and in the process create more effective and engaging consumer experiences.

Here's another in my series in which I pick a topic and connect with someone a lot smarter than me. (Check out some previous installments at the end of the article.)

This time I talked to Matthew May, author of The Laws of Subtraction and founder of Edit Innovation, an ideas, innovation, and culture change agency.

One of your principles is that what isn't there can often trump what is.
We hear a lot about disruptive business models, but if you look at them what they essentially do is break a pattern of behavior, or break a piece off of an industry--and then do it better.

Take the auto industry. Years ago you did everything at the dealership: oil changes, new tires, etc. Dealerships did all those things so poorly they put themselves out of business.

Now there are businesses that specialize in oil changes, others on transmissions, others on tires...

Most disruptive business models are enabled by people who try to do too much instead of just doing one or two things really well.

Give me an example of how simple rules can create the most effective experience.
Instagram is one. Within four months I think they had more users than Facebook or Twitter did in their first four months. Before that Systrom and Krieger had spent a year creating the iPhone app Burbn.

Then they realized Burbn had too many features in an attempt to be all things to all users. So they started over, made it dirt simple, took out all but a few features, followed the notion of a few simple rules, and turned that failure into Instagram.

Find and develop a simple, minimally viable product first, then learn and iterate.

When you're a start-up, though, it's hard to specialize. It's tempting to take any work or sell any product that will pay the bills.
Absolutely, but breaking a pattern and sticking to it creates a platform for tremendous success.

Take Cirque de Soleil: They basically broke every pattern. They took every element of a traditional circus and did it the opposite way: It wasn't family-oriented only, there were no cheap tickets, no barkers, no animals, they have an ensemble cast rather than relying on a few stars. They just basically played opposite day with the traditional circus premise.

That's what breaking a pattern is all about. Someone takes a look at something and says, "Why should we do it that way? Why don't we do it this way instead?"

Almost all successful businesses are based, in some way, on breaking a pattern of behavior or practice.

Fine--but it's hard to stay "outside the pattern," especially as you grow.
For small companies the danger is falling into the big company syndrome. As you grow perspectives change: Suddenly it's no longer about breaking away or breaking through a pattern, it's about protecting your turf and protecting your position. And as soon as you sense things are not in your complete control it's natural to put rules and regulations in place.

Unfortunately you wake up one day and realize you regulated the innovation out of your company.

It's hard not to think you need to control everything. That's why all businesses, even the smallest ones, have stupid rules.

Instead take a break from all the rules. Give nature a chance. You don't need a sign in the office saying, "Don't spit on the floor." If you give people the right context and space to interact, it works.

Think about a skating rink: What could be chaos actually works. When you stand back and let nature take over, it just works.

In a world of nearly unlimited sharing, another break with convention is your premise that limiting information engages the imagination.
In-N-Out Burger is a great example of engaging your audience by limiting information. They have a basic menu that hasn't changed in 60 years. Then they have a "not-so-secret" menu with six burger options.

Then there's the secret menu that isn't really a secret but is not formally published by the company. You can order a "Flying Dutchman," or an "Extra Toast," or a "Tea-Aid." The item will appear on your receipt but it's not on the menu.

Allowing customers to innovate is a great way to engage them and it allows them to feel a little "inside."

By limiting information and allowing customers some room to imagine, they will fill in the blanks in ways you may never have considered.

Last updated: Nov 8, 2012

JEFF HADEN | Columnist

Jeff Haden learned much of what he knows about business and technology as he worked his way up in the manufacturing industry. Everything else he picks up from ghostwriting books for some of the smartest leaders he knows in business.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.



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