(Thu01) My friend, +Matthew May
, recently published a new book called The Laws of Subtraction
). This is an interview in which he explained the power of subtraction and why less is better.
1. What is subtraction?
Subtraction is defined simply as the art of removing anything excessive, confusing, wasteful, unnatural, hazardous, hard to use, or ugly...and the discipline to refrain from adding it in the first place.
2. What are some examples of companies that use subtraction effectively?
We tolerate the intolerable: stupidly standing in some silly line, searching for what we want through the convoluted floor plan of the local mammoth warehouse store, or struggling through the maze of whatever automated voice mail system we’re up against…opening a package of D-cell batteries, even.
You’d think that if we hate all the excess as a consumer, we would absolutely detest it as a producer. But we don’t. The reason we don’t is that we see no clear and immediate path to turning things around. Twitter, Instagram, Southwest, Google, and Pinterest are all examples of disruptive companies that pared back an existing concept to defeat an excessive feature of an incumbent.
3. What advice would you give to politicians about subtraction?
My advice would be two-fold. First, take a lesson from Clare Boothe Luce, the playwright, journalist, and Republican Member of Congress, who in 1962, met the young JFK, and told him: "A great man is one sentence." Lincoln's sentence was: "He preserved the union and freed the slaves." FDR's: "He lifted us out of a great depression and helped us win a world war." I’d challenge politicians the the same way Luce challenged JFK: what’s your sentence?
4. What is a good example of subtractive product design?
Under Steve Jobs, Apple was the poster child of the “less is best” mindset, but you’re now seeing the effects of his absence—bigger iPhones, iPhones with defective software and non-standard hardware that adds visible complexity to the consumer’s experience. The annual cost to consumers to convert to the iPhone5 has been estimated at almost $2000. That’s just plain excessive.
5. How can I overcome everyday challenges in my daily life?
At the heart of every act or decision lie three choices: What to pursue versus what to ignore. What to leave in versus what to leave out. What to do versus what to not do. If you focus on the second half of each choice—what to ignore, what to leave out, what to not do—the decision becomes exponentially easier and simpler, and your results exponentially more impactful.
6. How do you know what is the right stuff to subtract or what to avoid adding in the first place?
The key is to remove the stupid stuff: anything obviously excessive, confusing, wasteful, unnatural, hazardous, hard to use, or ugly. If you don’t know what that is, ask people on the receiving end of what you provide or produces. They are generally more than happy to tell you.
7. Why is “less is more” the wrong approach?
There simply is no limit on better. Most people can point out a handful of recent experiences where they’ve thought or said, “Please, no more.” When was the last time anyone said, “Please, don’t get any better”—unless of course you’re referring to a competitor or adversary.
Think about it. “Less is more” implies that more is better! It’s not. Better is better, and if you can get better by doing or using less—resources, time, money—there’s real power in that. I’m all about new and innovative thinking that produces better results by artfully and intelligently using less.
8. Why isn’t a subtractive approach more prevalent in either business or society in general?
Subtraction doesn’t come naturally or intuitively—not to me, not to anyone. From the days of our ancestors on the savanna, we are hardwired to add and accumulate, hoard and store. This not only helps explain why the world is the way it is, it also lays out the real challenge: battling our instinct.
We need to acknowledge and understand that to employ subtraction is to think differently. I mean that quite literally: neuroscientists have shown, using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), that addition and subtraction require different brain circuitry.
9. How have companies used subtraction in their management and HR policies?
Many companies have moved toward what’s referred to as ROWE—Results Only Work Environment. It’s a policy that essentially says, “we don’t care where you get your work done, all we care about is that the right work gets done.” It’s about performance, not presence.
Some companies have gone as far as to let people set their own salaries, and moved away from complicated compensation policies. Many have allocated personal innovation and “pet project” time to break up the normal thinking grooves, or instituted downtime as standard operating policy.
Perhaps the most well known are the 3M “sandbox” time that Google copied, the Netflix vacation policy—which is essentially no policy at all…take as much or as little as you want—and Boston Consulting Group’s mandatory “time off,” defined as one no-work evening per week.
10. What are the first steps to applying a subtractive mindset?
First, create a “stop-doing” list to accompany your to-do lists, in the following way: give careful and thorough thought to prioritizing your various goals and projects and tasks, then eliminate the bottom 20 percent of the list . . . forever.
Second, play “World’s Worst.” It’s the “anti-elegant solution” game. Whatever you’re contemplating, whatever experience you’re working on or trying to create, first paint a picture of the world’s worst whatever-that-is.
Let’s say you’re trying to create the most effective and engaging new-hire experience at your company. What would be the world’s worst experience look like. When I do this with clients, they’re surprised not only at how much of that bad experience they presently deliver, but also how easy it is to identify what to eliminate or stop doing.
Third, constantly ask and answer three questions:
• What would my customers love for me to eliminate or reduce or stop adding?
• What is it that my competition would struggle with if I were to cease?
• What would those who matter most love for me to stop doing? (