Improvement Through Subtraction

by | Jul 12, 2021 | Thoughts | 0 comments

Our human instinct is often to solve a problem through addition:

  • What can I introduce that will fix this?
  • What can I buy that will make this easier?
  • Who else do we need to hire to achieve our goals?
  • What feature should we add to this product to improve the user experience?
  • What exercises should I add to my routine to improve my fitness?

Humans tend to default to using addition to solve problems. But this natural instinct to add is not always the best strategy.

In many cases, the magic happens when we use subtraction.

When faced with a problem, what if reframed our instinctual response to solve through addition, and instead asked the following question:

💡 What might I subtract from this equation that may help me achieve my desired outcome?

The answer is not always intuitive. For example, take the following question:

How do we make our streets safer for pedestrians, bikers, and drivers?

Throughout time we have answered this question through addition: We have added streetlights, stop signs, speed bumps, more lanes, crosswalks, bike lanes, and so on and so forth.

What might our solutions be if we applied the improvement through subtraction framework?

What might we subtract to help us create safer streets?

It turns out that Dutch traffic engineer Hans Monderman asked this very question and came up with a highly counterintuitive hypothesis: If we remove all the traffic lights, signs, curbs, and lane markings from roads, then people will share them more effectively.

shared street in europe

This concept, which has been adopted in many intersections throughout Europe, is known as Shared Spaces. By removing signage, we shift the responsibility for our collective safety more to individuals. People actually have to be mindful when they move about, rather than mindlessly following signals. Cooperation increases. And people use intersections in ways that top-down planning couldn’t conceive of.

If you look for them, are many great examples of improvement through subtraction:

  • The balance bike (subtraction of training wheels and pedals)
  • The original iPod (subtraction of most buttons)
  • Simple foods, like the four-ingredient open-faced sandwich with mayo, in-season tomato, salt, pepper (subtraction of superfluous ingredients)
  • Virtual meetings (subtraction of unnecessary air travel)
  • Trading a great player to another team (subtraction of negative attitude, bad chemistry, etc)
  • A rhubarb pie (subtraction of strawberry)
  • The index fund (subtraction of expensive active investment management)
  • Asynchronous project management tools such as Basecamp or Asana (subtraction of unnecessary meetings and emails)
  • Ending toxic friendships (subtraction of bad energy)
  • Squats and deadlifts (subtraction of unnecessary and expensive machinery and protocols)

As with most things, it is not either/or, black or white. We are not saying that improvement through subtraction is the correct approach to all problems. Improvement through addition may indeed be the better answer in any given situation.

We do believe, however, that improvement through subtraction is underrated and underutilized. Our minds naturally come up with additive solutions, and we systematically overlook subtractive solutions.

Thus, in order to take advantage of this timeless mental model, we must train ourselves.

Your challenge this week: As you go about your days, every time you are faced with a problem or question, consider how the principle of improvement through subtraction might apply.

If you can think of any other good examples in the natural world, in business or government, in your work, or your personal life, please reply and share – we’d love to compile a longer list.

Sources and inspiration:
Scientific American

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