Our Surprising Problem with Subtracting

by | May 24, 2021

I like to ask overwhelmed executives and organisations what they will stop doing. It is a surprisingly difficult question for people to answer.

When asked to ‘subtract’ something from priorities and plans, most people tend to either avoid the question, change the subject or try explain why they can’t stop doing what they’ve been doing. 

Then, the conversation returns to speaking about something new that should be added. 

Strategies end up looking like shopping lists of worthy activities, ‘to do’ lists go for pages, ever more committees are formed and meetings, consultations and analysis continue long after the findings are patently obvious. 

It’s hard to fathom. 

How is it that leaders and teams will consciously choose for resources to be allocated inefficiently, and spread efforts too thinly to achieve impact? 

I was intrigued to read recent research that reveals that we’re much more prone than we thought to choose solutions that add features rather than remove them. 

It seems that we routinely apply ‘what can we add here’ as a strategy to simplify and speed up decisions. It takes much more effort to consider less intuitive solutions like ‘what can we subtract here’?

Getting rid of something also just seems less creative than coming up with something to add. 

There are also negative political consequences. Shutting down a redundant committee or removing priorities that appeal to vested interests takes courage. It takes good leadership.

Most people will happily talk about changing (and especially how others should change), but they will keep doing what they were before and hope for different outcomes.

Breaking out of the additive cycle requires us to put subtraction on the agenda. Schedule ‘what can we stop doing here’ into your meetings and come prepared. 

When you next ask what we will keep doing, start doing or stop doing, put more emphasis on the stop doing.

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