The Value of Subtraction in the Workplace

When organizations attempt to solve problems, they default to addition being the go-to method. Whether the problem is with people, policies, products, or something else, our brains are wired to tend to want to add to arrive at a solution instead of thinking of what can be subtracted to arrive at the same result.
In a series of experiments, researchers looked to answer whether people are as likely to consider changes that subtract components from an object, idea or situation as they are to consider changes that add new components. In these experiments, they found that people are more likely to systematically default to searching for solutions to problems by adding and overlooking solutions that subtract. Our brains can only consider a limited number of ideas at once, otherwise our brains would be overwhelmed trying to come up with every possible solution. This limiting process can lead us to accepting inadequate solutions if we aren’t aware of some of the default pathways our brains are choosing, such as our predisposition to adding instead of subtracting.
You can integrate thinking about subtraction in the workplace by looking at a few key areas.
Consolidate your priorities
If everything is a priority, then nothing is a priority. Narrow down your list of personal and organizational priorities into a manageable and concise list, think five or less. Not five buckets with multiple priorities underneath them, truly get down to the core priorities. Having a list of top priorities identified will help you focus on what is most important and give you guidance when you’re deciding how to spend your time.
Evaluate your people
Sometimes it is obvious when it would be easier for everyone if a person in the organization is let go, they create that much chaos and disruption. However, there are many more nuanced cases where subtracting people would be for the betterment of the organization. Whether it be due to relationships or tenure, it can be difficult to want to make those choices, especially if you think they’re a good person even if they just aren’t good at their job. If you are still on the fence about whether to let someone go, you can try putting them in an entirely new role within the organization that better equips them to succeed based on what they bring to the table. Subtract everything that they are currently doing, look at what they are wired to succeed at, and put them in a new role and try seeing if that helps them be a more valuable member of the team by leveraging their strengths.
Remove barriers, and celebrate those wins
Whether it is designating a particular person to be the advocate of subtraction, or asking everyone on the team to participate in thinking of what could be subtracted, it needs to become a part of your organization’s day-to-day problem-solving toolbelt. Don’t forget to give as much recognition and praise to solutions that involve subtraction as the ones that involve addition, by making those wins visible it helps reinforce the behavior and shows the value that subtraction can bring.

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