In today's world, we are pre-conditioned to believe that more is always better. But that is not always the case. Sometimes, improvements are made by removing things that people would not miss or which already hinder progress.
Psychologically, it is often easier to consider what we could add to improve a situation rather than what we could remove.
Situations where subtraction is better than adding
Although there is nothing inherently wrong with adding, businesses could be missing out on a whole range of other opportunities by neglecting to consider the benefits of subtraction in certain circumstances.
For instance, by considering subtractive measures, a manager might;
● Remove barriers to workforce inclusivity. For instance, if a business creates a new team but doesn't remove the obstacles that keep the majority of the workforce from participating in that team (like rules about hours or hierarchies), they will not make much progress.
● Drop a loss-making product line. Sometimes when a business sees that a product is losing money, the instinct is to channel even more money towards the project due to the so-called sunk-cost bias, in which people continue investing in things because of the money or effort which has already been spent. However, discontinuing the product can sometimes be the more beneficial option after careful consideration and number crunching.
● Exit a problematic shareholding. Businesses will often hold passive investments in other entities. However, there is a risk that the investments included within their portfolio may be underperforming financially, operating in risky industries or located in politically unstable locations, to name but a few possibilities. By exiting such shareholdings, the business would be able to invest the capital back into its own operations and reduce strategic and reputational risk too.
Practical ways to encourage subtraction in the workplace
A team at the University of Virginia studied 1,585 people across eight different experiments. The volunteers typically defaulted to addition and, in many cases, didn't even consider subtraction as a viable strategy. The researchers found that the preference for adding was particularly noticeable in three specific scenarios:
● When people are experiencing a highly stressful situation.
● When there is insufficient time to consider the other options.
● When people aren’t reminded that subtracting is an option.
Therefore to encourage subtraction, we should look to address these areas in particular.
Subtraction reminders and policies
Given that most of us have a habit of adding rather than subtracting, visible reminders that subtraction is indeed an option can be helpful.
In one test performed by the University of Virginia researchers, participants were asked to improve a Lego structure so that it was able to take more weight. Half of the volunteers were reminded that they could subtract, and half weren't – in the former group, 61% solved the problem by taking a brick away from the structure, while only 41% did the same without reminders.
Something as simple as some quotes on posters pinned around an office may be enough to prompt this more critical thinking. These constant visual cues could pose pointed questions such as, 'Do you need to add this?', 'Can two things be combined?', or 'Have you considered subtraction?'.
If more subtle prompts and reminders do not suffice, businesses can build subtraction into more fixed and permanent business processes. For example, a team could dedicate five minutes of each product development meeting to considering what features could be removed. By introducing this, you will force the meeting members to take the time to consider subtractive possibilities specifically.
Visible evidence of successful subtractions
Trying something new or different can often scare people if they perceive the risk of failure to be higher than that associated with the status quo. Therefore, it is helpful to provide evidence of past instances where subtraction produced positive outcomes to give these people the comfort and confidence to pursue a new path.
Visible proof of previous valuable subtractions can be hard to evidence as, by the very nature of subtraction, the subject matter presumably no longer exists! However, company blog posts or group email updates detailing subtraction success stories can be effective ways to encourage people to try subtraction in the future.
Reduce distractions and stress
When we feel stressed or overwhelmed, we are more likely to revert to our default ways of doing things, ignoring other options which may also exist.
This tendency can be applied to almost all areas of life. However, ironically, we are only adding to our already full agendas by ignoring the possibility of subtraction.
Therefore, by making a conscious effort to reduce angst and pressure in the workplace, whether through mentorship, communication, meditation or any other stress-relieving initiative, we can increase the likelihood of people at least considering subtraction.
When subtraction might not be the best response
Famous French writer Antoine de Saint-Exupery says, "Perfection is achieved not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing left to take away". So whilst minimalists would argue that subtraction is always the best option, there are some critics of this approach.
The path to improvement is not straightforward. With this in mind, getting to an optimal outcome may involve more than simple subtraction alone. Perhaps some combination of addition and subtraction together.
At its best, a decision-making process should involve addition and subtraction, not addition or subtraction.
When we try to solve a problem, we often focus only on what we could add and rarely consider what we could take away. Yet subtracting is powerful! It could help to cure the ever-growing 'infodemic' and toxic productivity culture. By implementing some of the above tips into your professional (or personal) life, we could all gain more insight, efficiency, and maybe even some peace and calm.