Is “Essentialism” necessary?

Ivan Oung
In this article...

A brief thought I had when I was being told by a senior to apply "Essentialism" to my work.

My reflection on Jim Semick’s “The Essentialist’s Way to Building Better Products”.

Many of us live our lives doing 100 things at the same time. Trying to please everyone. Trying to do it all.

As a victim of doing too much with too little return, I now support “less is more”, and “do one thing and do it well.

The article itself did a great job at explaining why we should reduce noise, and how will that make those who follow it a good PM. However, after reading, this leads me to think, “what is the difference between noise and essentials?”.

“Is ending one’s life the right thing to do?”

“No” would be the answer for most of us. Yet, I would imagine how much more of a struggle would it be if someone was asked to unplug the life-supporting machine on their beloved family member with terminal cancer who is suffering from massive pain.

The definition of right/wrong is like the definition of noise/essential: they are situational. Depends on who’s point of view we decide to take on.

But, there’s something fundamentally different between right or wrong, and noise or essential. Life has no ultimate goal measurement of value, but business has. We measure the growth of a company through revenue and profit, and instead, we measure the value of life with meaningfulness.

We take can take this with a different question. Is “Essentialism” essential to product management?

When a business operates under the premise, that the return on investment is the foundation of any successful business, would it be more helpful to focus on “what would be the ROI of such actions”, rather than pondering on what is “essential” and what is not?

Or the idea of “non-essential” is simple things that yield little to no significant impact?

Rather than a mindset or a principle to follow, Essentialism is a state, a sign of mastery.

Essentialism is a state of mastery

Let’s take something as simple as writing as an example.

When we first learn how to write, we tend to buff up our writings with “very”, “extremely”, or “super”, or to turn simple things complications by turning a simple self-introduction into a “rap”.

Over the years, after reading Stephen King’s memoir on writings, and publishing a few case studies through online publications, I’ve come to learn that filler words are nothing but softeners that weakens the integrity of the sentence. They do not add value to the story, and a skillful writer should avoid them whenever possible.

My current writing is far from perfect. However, compared to my writing from 5 years ago, my writings are much leaner now. Only focusing on what is essential to the story rather than creating distracting noises. Also known as; reaching the state of “essentialism”.

Rather than starting my writing journey with trimming everything down in mind, I placed my bet into nothing else but one: “How to write good writing”. Through making countless mistakes, and learning what is helpful and what is not, I got much better at keeping the essentials.

Hence, making the point; “Essentialism is a state, a sign of mastery”.

Jim, as the author of the article and the founder of a relatively successful product (ProductPlan), I do not believe he would be able to build a successful product with nothing but idealism.

As such, a better interpretation of Jim’s work would be rather than stressing the idea of “trimming”, to encourage taking double thoughts on committing to thinking out loud ideas and being thoughtful about how we spend our time and effort while prioritizing important things.

Theory is theory

The bottom line is, I have no problem with “Essentialism” itself. The problem I have is not having a clear, agreeable understanding of the difference between what is essential and what is not.

Share this with your friends if you think is helpful!!

Ivan Oung

Born in Hong Kong and grew up in Canada, Ivan is a husband and a board game lover. After spending 10+ years building digital products, he is now committed to helping SMEs get more leads by building effective websites that turn attention into opportunities.

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