When Subtraction Adds Value

When Subtraction Adds Value

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Imagining ways to introduce change is an essential skill no matter one’s occupation, role, or rank. Across a series of experiments, the authors found that people systematically overlook subtractive changes, instead following their instincts to add. 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. With subtraction in mind, a designer might rid the app of unnecessary features, a manager might remove barriers to a more inclusive culture, and an advisory board member might suggest divesting from fossil fuels. The good news is that an understanding of the psychology behind subtraction neglect reveals some ways to avoid it.

Imagining ways to introduce change is an essential skill no matter one’s occupation, role, or rank. To distinguish an app, a designer envisions a unique new feature. To enhance workplace culture, a manager considers new training modules or incentives. To increase corporate social responsibility, an advisory board identifies green-energy investment opportunities.

Notice that each of these changes would add something to what already exists.

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. In one study of organizational change, for example, we found that when stakeholders suggested hundreds of ways to improve an organization, fewer than 10% of those improvements involved taking something away. Across a series of follow-up experiments, we demonstrated that people systematically overlook subtractive changes.

But subtraction has untapped potential. With subtraction in mind, the designer might rid the app of unnecessary features, the manager might remove barriers to a more inclusive culture, and the advisory board member might suggest divesting from fossil fuels. The good news is that an understanding of the psychology behind subtraction neglect reveals some ways to avoid it.

Why People Overlook Subtraction

The paltry rate of subtraction in our organizational-improvement study was no fluke. We observed similarly low rates of subtraction across multiple tasks. To improve a redundant piece of writing, few participants produced an edit with fewer words. To improve a jam-packed travel itinerary, few removed events to allow them to savor the ones that remained. To improve a Lego structure, almost no one took pieces away. Whether people were changing ideas, situations, or objects, the dominant tendency was to do so by adding.

Observing this trend, one of our first questions was whether people simply liked solving these problems by addition — maybe adding words to the first draft, events to the itinerary, and blocks to the Lego tower was simply the way that people preferred to improve each of them. If change makers consider both options and decide that additive approaches are better, then so be it. But what if change makers fail to consider subtraction in the first place?

To test this possibility, we set up problems in which subtractive changes were objectively superior to their additive counterparts. In one set of studies, for example, we presented grid patterns like the one below and challenged participants to make them symmetrical from left to right and top to bottom, using the fewest mouse clicks possible. Clicking any white square turned it green, and clicking any green square turned it white.

Did participants jump to the additive 12-click conclusion, adding green squares to the three empty quadrants, or did they notice the superior four-click subtractive solution, deleting the extraneous green box from the top left? In these and other experiments, it seems like many participants followed their first instinct — an instinct to add — and then moved on before even considering the option to subtract. We also found that people who were distracted by completing a second task at the same time were more likely to produce the additive answer. This suggests that when people are distracted, they’re more likely to rely on shortcut answers that come to mind first.

Subtraction Has a Noticeability Problem

From growing organizations to built-up cities to bloated rule books, evidence of additive history is all around us. Evidence of subtraction, however, 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.

If we’re not careful, the CEO or the slide-deck editor may miss out on due credit. Even worse, there’s no visible evidence to remind others of the possibility — and value — of taking away. How, then, can businesses get better at remembering to subtract?

Overcoming the Tendency to Add

In our research, we tested how participants’ ideas were influenced by cues: simple reminders to consider subtracting or adding. Reminders to consider adding had no noticeable effects; they were superfluous because people were already thinking of adding. Reminders to consider subtracting, however, had big effects. They brought ideas to mind that would have been overlooked otherwise. As a result, significantly more participants identified advantageous subtractions.

To add may be human, but there are still ways to cue subtraction:

Remind people that subtracting is an option.

Reminders that subtracting is an option can help in practice. Pithy quotes in visible locations about “elimination of the unnecessary” and pursuing “less, but better” help designers imagine subtractive options. Reading The No Asshole Rule (or even just the title) helps managers remember not to overlook one path to better workplace culture. When prompted to consider the time and morale-sapping burden of process sludge, administrators think of new ways to improve shared institutions. The preponderance of direct and specific reminders like these is terrific evidence that people otherwise overlook subtraction.

Make subtraction policy.

Consider building subtraction into day-to-day business processes. For example, after learning about our research, a large management consulting company started assigning a rotating “subtractor in chief” to project teams. This person’s job is to come up with a list of ways to achieve the group’s goals by subtracting, and they can also remind their team members to think of subtractions. And at a San Francisco-based technology company, the CEO challenged the leadership team to come up with a list of everything the company might subtract or stop doing in the new year. Both of these examples represent attempts to encourage subtractive thinking by integrating it into group processes and norms.

Specific initiatives like these make it much harder to overlook subtraction as a possible solution. 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.

Make evidence of good subtractions visible.

Reminders and policies get us started, but no matter how beneficial any subsequent acts of subtraction are, they still won’t leave as much visible evidence as adding. To address that pesky noticeability problem, consider how you might introduce one last type of cue: visible evidence of good subtractions.

For example, one of us, Leidy, now keeps an “excerpts” file in the electronic folder for each piece of writing — rendering visible the needless paragraphs and words that were removed to improve the finished product (and making him less nervous about trying out a subtraction he can’t easily take back). And one of our wisest colleagues puts a placeholder in her calendar every time she subtracts an unproductive trip or meeting. Instead of a weekly time-sink meeting, the calendar now shows priceless thinking time and a visible cue that subtracting made it possible. The cover of Leidy’s book, Subtract, was even designed to serve as a visual subtraction queue.

Like anything people systematically overlook, subtracting has untapped potential. Hopefully this article already has you thinking about cues, and about divesting, removing barriers, and stripping extraneous features. If so, then you’re on your way to tapping into the power of the other way to make change.

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