The Mini-Magnum Principle

22 February 2021

You stand in front of the ice-cream cabinet at the supermarket, intending to alleviate the Lockdown Blues with ice-cream. Do you buy the 4-pack of standard Magnum Almond or the 6-pack of Mini-Magnum Almond?

The answer, of course, is that you take the Mini-Magnums (resisting the temptation to show off and think “or is it Mini-Magna?”). This is because you realise that the more modestly sized version of the Magnum Almond has a higher ratio of chocolate to ice-cream than the standard item. It is no larger than it needs to be and has a balanced perfection to it.

As I reflected further I realised that this Mini-Magnum Principle, in essence less is more, has a number of applications in journalism, business, regulation, literature, the automotive world (sorry) and music.

I certainly don’t mean to say that length and depth are inherently bad - sometimes, of course, pieces of work need to be extensive to be fulfilling and achieve their goal. I’m just saying that there can be a particular pleasure in something that has a compelling beginning, middle and end and yet is concise.

So, here are some examples of the Principle in practice:

Journalism - The Economist is a remarkable publication and at the heart of its brilliance is the pithy, uncluttered, clear writing and the relatively brief individual pieces. You can travel the world in a couple of hours and end up feeling much cleverer than you did two hours ago.

The Economist Style Guide is much admired and leans on George Orwell’s 6 Rules for Writing which include the following three themes:

  • never use a long word where a short one will do;
  • if it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out; and
  • don’t say anything which is avoidably ugly.

Hold that last thought - don’t say anything which is avoidably ugly.

Business - much has been written over the years about the inefficiency of big meetings. Over the last 12 months attention has turned to the draining effect of endless multi-party Zoom meetings where contributions tend to be linear rather than interactive and the knowing glance to a colleague over there is, well, impossible.

Whether live or virtual, some meetings need to be big - a PLC Board Meeting for example. But too often Bartleby’s Law applies. This states that “80% of the time of 80% of the people in meetings is wasted”. There are also corollaries of the law such as the reality that after 80% of meetings any decisions will be in line with HIPPO - highest paid person’s opinion - which limits participants’ sense of whether there is much point in making a contribution.

With the Mini-Magnum Principle in mind, a few themes emerge:

  • participation should always be kept to the realistic minimum and chairs should be tough in determining who needs to be there;
  • a clear agenda should be set and the temptation to defer the debate of the most difficult topic resisted - do the tricky stuff first;
  • there should be a realistic finish time which is stuck to;
  • although it sounds a bit fad-ish, standing meetings should be considered when physical meetings are allowed again. They do maintain energy; and
  • never finish without a clear summary of what has been decided and who does what now.

Regulation - law and regulations often need to be detailed and long. But concise and well-expressed provisions aid understanding and observance. Two examples:

  • Section 172 of the Companies Act - it has its detractors, and is the subject of some debate in the context of corporate purpose, but I’m a fan. The essence is that a director should seek to promote the success of the company for the benefit of the members as a whole having regard to a series of factors which promote social, environmental and governance objectives. It expresses elegantly the goal of success (a term embracing financial and non-financial outcomes) for the owners, balanced by the need to take into account the interests of other key stakeholders; and
  • the 6 General Principles of the UK Takeover Code which, in one page, express the standards of commercial behaviour upon which the Rules of the Code are built.

A question though - how does the Mini-Magnum Principle fare more broadly in UK corporate governance? Not brilliantly I fear.

Whilst the Financial Reporting Council made a welcome move towards greater brevity in the most recent edition of the UK Code, the interaction between its Principles and Rules remains unclear and the FRC’s complaint that compliance is too often formulaic and box-ticky could also be viewed as a comment on the density of the undergrowth which PLCs need to tread through. Significant changes to be outlined in the much anticipated White Paper building on the Kingman and Brydon Reviews are, moreover, likely to add to complexity of reporting and the responsibility and potential liability of directors.

I do not underestimate the policy challenges faced by Government in light of previous corporate failures but the response should be proportionate. Undue burdens on directors of listed entities risk driving more and more businesses away from the public markets which is surely not in the national interest.

Literature - can the notion of less is more really work in the world of novel writing? Sort of.

The goal of the novelist is presumably to take the reader to another place and envelope - which does not fit readily with brevity. That said, the browsing customer in Waterstones will probably not be drawn to the 800-page tome. He or she loved A Suitable Boy but also remembers that it was a commitment and that there was a lot of time spent flipping back to the family tree on the inside cover to remember who was who. At the other end of the spectrum, is the term “novella” one which inevitably signals an unfulfilling experience?

Two thoughts:

  • Chris Saul, wanting to get “that book out of him” - and aside from all the other challenges - should probably view 250-350 normally spaced pages as the sweet spot. Long enough to engage and transport the reader but still approachable and not daunting; and
  • while novellas can struggle to take flight, some can clearly achieve impact where the relative brevity is powerful. Animal Farm is a mere 112 pages but the political satire is compelling (“All animals are equal but some are more equal than others”, of course) and The Old Man and the Sea, 127 pages, is a baleful but complete parable about the old man’s unequal battle against nature.

Cars - I was watching the Harry’s Garage YouTube video, as you do, in which he tests the all-electric Porsche Taycan. This is clearly an impressive vehicle but what really struck me was that it is enormous. It is 5 metres long and 2 metres wide. It barely fitted in the narrow Oxfordshire roads which Harry was weaving down. It must be massively unrelaxing to drive in city streets and country roads alike.

Which got me thinking. Why do cars just keep getting bigger? A modern VW Golf is 40cm longer and wider than it was in 1974 and 478kg heavier. A Ford Mustang is now a metre wider than it was in 1964 and 36 percent heavier. Steve McQueen would surely not approve.

If you ask Mr Google the reason for this you will learn that it is down to

  1. safety features, such as crash beams, airbags and crumple zones,
  2. a desire to appeal to families,
  3. a view that manufacturers can sell bigger cars for more money (see the relentless rise of the SUV) and that “bigger is better”. So this is the automotive equivalent of Grade inflation in exam results.

The key takeaway here is that, if you are thinking about changing your car, ask yourself whether the one you fancy is bigger than you really need. In particular, we tend not to think enough about the width of cars. Many of today’s roads were designed with skinnier cars in mind.

Music - I have been reacquainting myself with Beatles albums during Lockdown 3. Sergeant Pepper and Abbey Road, in particular, stand the test of time wonderfully well. And the song that I keep coming back to, and which always makes me pause and draw breath, is She’s Leaving Home.

It is a mere 3 minutes 35 seconds long, beautifully orchestrated and tells the touching story of a daughter’s decision to leave home and her parents’ grief:

Standing alone at the top of the stairs

She breaks down and cries to her husband

Daddy, our baby’s gone.

It’s perfection.

Christopher Saul

Christopher Saul provides independent trusted advice to senior executives and key stakeholders within publicly quoted and privately owned businesses and professional service firms. His areas of focus are governance, succession and the moderation of differences.

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