Almost two decades ago, a book by Clayton Christensen popularized the concept of a disruptive innovation as a product or service that completely changes the balance of power within existing markets.  When the disruptive product first appears on the scene, existing market leaders usually regard it with scorn as lacking the features and functionality of the dominant offerings.  But slowly, the disruptor grows in features, reach, and power to become the new market leader.


Certainly the personal computer in 1980 did not seem to seriously threaten business computing giant IBM, nor in 2007 did the iPhone seem to challenge RIM’s Blackberry (“It can’t do email – it has no keypad!”).  Of course, both devices took hold and gradually evolved to become the dominant life form. Now it turns out that certain Zen practices may enlighten us as to products and services that might become disruptors, and could inform the work of would-be product designers and process improvers.

TreeThe most powerful Zen practice is that of seeking simplicity and restraint by subtracting clutter from one’s experience, and by focusing attention in a singular way.  In his 2011 article in Rotman Magazine, author Matthew May describes how the Zen principles of koko (austerity) and kanso (simplicity) can inform the work of product designers.  May maintains that design is more about what you leave out of the product.

Clayton Christensen and his co-authors in a Spring 2007 article in Sloan Management Review support this view in describing market disruptors.  These game changers occupy distinctive anchor points in their markets because they provide they provide “only the basic functions that customers need.”  They do those things well, and nothing more.  Matthew May calls this the Zen element of subtraction, a clear case of where less is more.

Examples of Simplification

Consider the first personal computers and digital cameras, the first Walkman, the first iPhone, retail medical clinics inside drug stores, or attending college via “distance education.”  All of these products or services were simpler, with less features than competing products at the time they were introduced. PCs lacked the power of business computers.  Digital cameras had poor image quality compared with film, and you couldn’t record live audio on a Walkman.  Walgreens “Take Care” centers lack the amenities of a hospital emergency room, and of course, online courses forego the friendly face-to-face connection of the classroom.  Yet all of these products became iconic and foundational in the new markets they created.  The last one – online education – promises to transform learning on a global scale, with some “Massively Open Online Courses” (MOOCs) pulling in over 100,000 students at a time.

The Art of Simplifying

So how do we simplify a product or process?  If you just start removing product features and services, customers may quickly revolt and defect to competitors.  So the best place to start is with ourselves.  Zen practitioners tell us we need to free ourselves from mental clutter. They practice zazen, a form of meditation that entails sitting quietly and focusing attention – sometimes for hours – on a single object or point in space.  This practice enables the meditators to see a familiar object in new ways, to be centered in the “here and now”, and escape the prison of past perceptions and learning.

Clayton Christensen and his co-authors (in a 2007 Sloan Management Review article) tell us to escape the time worn trap of analyzing market data by price, product features, and market demographics.  This kind of analysis is a trap because it only leads us right back into adding more features and cutting price. Instead, Christensen tells us to focus on one single point: the core job to be done by the product or service.  This is harder than it looks, because it entails stripping away our past knowledge, assumptions, product expertise and learning to see the product as the customer sees it: something hired to do a specific job.

Close-up-of-marble-chess-set-with-knight-advancing-205x300Christensen shows how this kind of singular focus helps us see the product in new ways, with competitors we didn’t know we had.   For example, a quick service milkshake for a commuter might be competing with other one-handed breakfast snacks, not with other milkshakes.   A pickup truck outfitted like an office might compete with a home office, a company workspace, or even with Starbucks.

Could Simplicity Work in Health Care?

One of the most challenging areas for applying this simple, singular focus on the job-to-be-done is health care.  It’s tough because health care processes are dictated by evidence-based medical practice and regulated by a complex spider web of federal, state, and local agencies and professional organizations.

Nevertheless, the staff at Virginia Mason Medical Center took the novel approach of looking at a cancer treatment process from the perspective of the patient. They prepared a cardboard diagram with a massive tangle of blue yarn showing the path that a patient had to travel through the treatment center to receive care.  This tangled path resulted from a facility layout based upon the convenience of physicians and technicians who treated the patient.  As recounted by authors Kenny and Berwick in their book about Virginia Mason, reorganizing and simplifying patient flow from the perspective of what patients wanted from their visit produced some dramatic changes. These included a huge jump in patient satisfaction to over 90%, along with significant increases in productivity and capacity for the treatment center.

So as the science of marketing grows ever more dependent on “big data”, we can gain advantage by learning to pay attention and simplify.  Like the artist who sees the sculpture embedded within the block of marble, we can observe and interact with our customer and learn to see the basic job she wants to be done.