What if we did less?

The power of minus.

The power of “and” has been well documented.  Best selling author Martin Sharp has spoken about the power of a “life of combinations”.  He exhorts people to replace “but” with “and” for a richer existence.

Recent business book, “The Power of And: responsible business without trade-offs” by Edward Freeman, Parmar and Martin argues that the business of business is “responsible action, not simply profit seeking”.

“Yes AND” is a creative technique born in improv comedy and translated into idea generation where you build on each idea rather than dismissing anything.

But what if instead we did less?  If instead of “Yes, And” we said “No, subtract”?

Top designer, Thomas Heatherwick, (creator of the epic 2012 Olympic Cauldron, and the lovable new Routemaster bus), thinks subtraction can be as powerful, if not more so, than addition.  He recently said that in his design studio they always ask “Do we need this element?” and that subtraction and simplification have huge effect.  Less, for Heatherwick, is frequently much more.

When you are working on a project, critiquing and quality controlling, how often do you remove elements?  I would observe that most people’s tendency is to use their experience and smartness to ask for more, dig further and add work, rather than have an instinct to strip things away and do less.

It turns out that this is a quirk of human nature and is statistically substantiated.  The Economist points to a study in Nature which suggests that humans struggle with “subtractive” thinking.  When asked to improve something, anything, from a lego model to a golf course, their tendency is to add more things rather than strip things out.  In one test of a lego model, most people added to it and only between 2% and 12% of respondents removed bricks.  When asked to improve a piece of writing 80% added more words and only 16% cut the article back.

The research shows that when there is an increased cognitive load (which could be the stress of a new business pitch or big approval meeting), people are even less likely to remove features to improve the work.

In the spirit of keeping this article short, simple and without extra features, I will end by saying that it is very useful to be conscious of this newly identified cognitive bias.  If your tendency is to add more complications and features then don’t.  Ask instead what the minimum viable plan is (this is a key feature of Agile ways of working), and remember that when Dr Frasier Crane said: “but if less is more, then think how much more more is”, he was almost certainly wrong.


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