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Message From Julie: The Power of Subtraction

message from julie: the power of subtraction 1

I was talking recently with the executive director of a not-for-profit I work with. In 2013 the Board made the painful, but well thought out decision to close what had been the core program for the agency. The executive director reflected on how she is still amazed at the energy that decision released and the growth that the “released energy” has led to. The annual budget has more than doubled and the increase in people served has been exponential. 

It seems our default as humans is to add. We throw more money and more people at problems. Organizations add rules, policies, and procedures without deleting any outdated or unnecessary ones. Companies often add more products or services than they eliminate. And if you are like me, you add more clothes to your closet each year than you remove. 

The authors of an article in the Harvard Business Review, When Subtraction Adds Value, concluded that “subtraction has a noticeability problem”. As they point out, it is easy to see the results of additive behavior. However, evidence of subtraction is marked only by the absence of something. The authors contend that those responsible for subtracting, whether that is removal of a burdensome policy or the elimination of a service that no longer meets a market need, often do not receive “credit” for their actions. Even more troubling, there’s nothing to remind others of the value of subtraction. 

Consider the agency in my opening story that experienced significant growth and an exponential increase in impact because of closing a program. Those not involved with the organization in 2013 likely have no understanding of how the decision to close that program led to the success the agency is experiencing today. Many probably do not even know the program ever existed. What they see is the effect of adding a new service line – one that was only possible because of an earlier decision to subtract. 

Here are three ways (inspired by the authors of When Subtraction Adds Value) to help ensure your team considers subtraction when solving problems and making decisions: 

  • Keep the option of subtraction top-of-mind. Based on research, visible reminders to consider subtracting had a large impact. One way to create visible reminders is with prompts such as “less is more” or “the new order of operations – subtract before adding” posted in offices and meeting rooms, in email signatures, or at the bottom of memos and documents.  
  • Make subtraction a habit. Doing something regularly that does not come naturally requires making it a habit. And building a new habit is often more effective with support from others. In a twist on appointing someone to play “devil’s advocate” during meetings, appoint someone to be the “Chief of Deletion”. This person’s role is to look at the issue through the lens of subtraction and continuously ask the question, “How can we solve this problem or achieve our goal through subtraction?”. My recommendation is you rotate this role so one person doesn’t get pegged as “anti-addition”.  Eventually, asking this question will become second nature and you can eliminate the position of “Chief of Deletion.” 
  • Make subtraction a part of your culture. Behavior that is rewarded is repeated and repeated behavior eventually becomes ingrained as a cultural norm. Recognize and celebration effective acts of deletion. Keep the memory of success because of subtraction alive by repeatedly telling the story until it is woven into the fabric of the organization – so that even those who did not experience it, comprehend the value the act of subtraction brought.  

Here is my challenge to you (and to me): What problem will you solve or what goal will you achieve in the next 30 days by subtraction rather than addition? What unnecessary, redundant, or time-wasting task will you drop from your (or your team’s) routine? 

Let me know what you subtracted and what you achieved as a result.  

POSTED ON: Management