The Power of Subtraction

Culture  Productivity
03 March, 2022

Driven by our bias towards addition, we tend to overlook the untapped potential of simplification.

Last week, I came across the following version of Occam’s Razor: “That which can be done with less, is done in vain with more.” Another version goes: “Entities should not be multiplied beyond necessity.”

Whichever way you put it, this is a principle that really resonates with me. One of the big problems faced by many companies today is the endless proliferation of projects and practices, which can have an overwhelming effect on employees, placing their wellbeing at risk and dragging down productivity. Relentless addition also bloats organisations, making them slow, sluggish and vulnerable to external shifts.

This week, my message focuses on harnessing the power of subtraction. Why are we naturally drawn to addition as a strategy? And what steps can we take to bring subtractive approaches centre stage?

The addition bias

Pruning existing features, structures or regulations is often wiser than bringing in new elements – yet, we naturally associate improvement with addition. When trying to change something for the better, people almost invariably decide to add things. This was the finding of a study by the University of Virginia, published last year in Nature. When asked to improve a piece of writing, people added more words. To improve a Lego construction, they added new pieces. To improve an already-crowded travel itinerary, they piled on even more activities. 

It seems human beings are hardwired for addition, regardless of its relevance or usefulness in a particular situation. In fact, the addition bias often ends up creating more complications! In an article published in the Harvard Business Review, the researchers who led the above study observe:

There is nothing inherently wrong with adding. But if it becomes a business’s default path to improvement, that business may be failing to consider a whole class of other opportunities. 

Sadly, since addition is our first instinct, most of us don’t even consider subtractive approaches.

Think about the last time you were asked to make something better. Did your mind immediately jump straight to an additive strategy? For example: creating a new feature, launching a fresh initiative, hiring another team member, or making an additional investment.

If this rings a bell, you’re certainly not alone. A study on organisational change, which analysed hundreds of improvement-related suggestions from various stakeholders, found that less than 10 percent were subtractive changes. 

Shine a spotlight on subtraction

Subtractive strategies have a lot to offer. The removal of barriers, simplification, divestment – all fall in the domain of subtraction. Its “razor-like” effects can go a long way towards eliminating organisational bloat and excess bureaucracy, hence sharpening efficiency, agility and productivity.

However, since subtraction isn’t as tangible or visible as addition, one may not realise its value that easily. As the HBR article mentioned above notes: 

Evidence of subtraction is less observable – it’s marked only by the absence of something. A company may be flourishing because the previous CEO removed burdensome red tape. A slide deck may precisely showcase the main point because its editor got rid of distracting secondary arguments. In both cases, subtraction is to thank, and in both cases, the subtraction is out of sight and out of mind.

Interestingly, in recent years, we have seen a cultural and lifestyle shift towards subtractive principles. From minimalist design to Mario Kondo-style decluttering to zero-waste restaurants, the philosophy of elimination is garnering advocates around the globe.

Corporate leaders can definitely draw inspiration from this theme and leverage subtraction for the benefit of their organisations. Fortunately, our natural affinity for addition isn’t written in stone. If we motivate ourselves to think just a little longer and harder, we are more than capable of identifying subtractive changes.

Here are six suggestions to help you incorporate subtractive thinking into your decision-making process:

1. Create reminders.

Research shows that a simple reminder to consider the value of subtraction works wonders. A nudge in this direction can spark ideas that would otherwise never come to mind. If fact, such reminders are encoded into language itself – think of phrases like “less is more”, “keep it simple, stupid” or “simplify, simplify”.

Placing some of these quotes in visible areas is a great way to encourage yourself (and your team) to imagine options centred around subtraction. Remember to keep the reminders as direct and catchy as possible – resist the urge to “add” length and complexity!

2. Eliminate distractions.

Studies have found that multitasking makes you even more likely to default to addition – because when you’re distracted, the brain tends to take shortcuts. So, when you’re trying to solve a problem, give it your undivided attention. This makes it much easier to explore subtraction as a pathway to improvement. This learning can also be applied to group situations. For instance, team members could agree to a no-phones policy during brainstorming and problem-solving sessions.

3. Set limits.

A piece published by Thrive Street Advisors suggests placing limits as a way to force choices. This way, we have to differentiate between “must have” and “nice to have”:

Whenever I’ve seen it, the conversation about whether project #5 or project #6 is more important only happens when there’s a rule like “We’re only going to take on 5 projects”. Without limits, prioritization is just a theoretical concept. 

4. Build in subtractive thinking.

Integrating the possibilities of subtraction into day-to-day business processes can yield long-term benefits. One company, for instance, assigned a “subtractor in chief” to every project team; their role was to come up with subtractive ideas and remind co-workers to think along these lines. These types of policies makes it almost impossible for employees to overlook subtraction altogether. And, as the UVA researchers point out:

They also provide implicit social support for employees who may otherwise avoid offering helpful subtractions, especially if people are withholding subtractive ideas because everyone else is adding. 

5. Highlight positive evidence.

As mentioned above, it can be tough to notice and recall the positive effects of subtraction. So, next time you or your team enjoy a subtractive success, highlight it!

For example, a tech team might get rid of an outdated feature, making their app faster and more responsive – why not capture this success in a poster? Or perhaps you’ll cancel unproductive meetings to free up time for deep work – why not mark these slots on your calendar? The more easily we are able to see the impacts of subtractive thinking, the more likely we are to embrace it.

6. Adopt positive language.

One reason it’s tough to eliminate things is the feeling of loss aversion. Even the word “subtract” seems to carry negative connotations. To overcome this reluctance, try employing more positive language. Kate Orff, an urban planning leader, organises her subtractive approach around four keywords: reveal, clean, carve, and connect. 

In addition to the above, leaders can also apply the law of subtraction in four vital ways: 

1. Subtract priorities.

When everything is a priority, nothing is a priority. Leaders can harness the power of subtraction to curb “priority drift”. Ideally, CEOs should set priorities on an annual basis. For this exercise to be meaningful, you should have no more than 5 priorities at any given time – which means paring down long lists of 10-15 items to 5 distinct focus areas. Resist the temptation to group 2 or more items together – that defeats the purpose! 

2. Subtract customers.

In his Harvard Business Review piece, Anthony Tjan emphasises the wisdom of pruning your customer base. As he explains:

It is a fallacy that you need to keep all your customers because many of the small customers will become large ones. Look at your data to see if that has really occurred. What you are more likely to find is a stubbornly consistent 5% of your customers who buy in small volumes and require higher maintenance as a cohort than other groups. You want to give the most time, energy, and service to those who will provide the greatest long-term reward and loyalty. This means realizing that just because you can sell something to someone today does not mean that you should. 

3. Subtract ideas.

Whether you’re pitching to the board, meeting an investor or shaping public perception, subtraction is your best friend. Clarity of concept is vital if you want to convince people and get them on board. Using multiple ideas and supporting points is not very persuasive – but a simple, compelling story is. Trim away the excess and the peripheral, so you can bring your most salient idea into the spotlight.

4. Subtract decisions.

A leader’s role is to make the toughest, trickiest decisions in the organisation. To do so successfully, it’s vital to conserve your attention – your most precious resource. That means subtracting day-to-day choices that can be handled by someone else, automated or even eliminated altogether. The decisions you need to prioritise are the decisions that only you can make.

Whether we call it alignment, editing or streamlining, subtraction offers a brilliant business approach – and it’s waiting for us to tap its full potential. Instead of opting for complexity as the default, let’s strive harder for simplification and efficiency. Not only can subtractive strategies improve organisational productivity and profitability but also boost employee morale and facilitate innovation.


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