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Rethinking Workplace Transformation: The Art of Subtraction

Joost Minnaar
Written by Joost Minnaar October 01, 2023

Why you should always ask employees to delete things, not to add things. 

The art of subraction

During workshops with our clients, we often do this simple exercise: We ask people what they want to stop, start, and continue doing in their workplace to change it to a more progressive organization.

We ask them to write all those things down on separate post-its, and then stick those post-its to one of three flip charts we have distributed throughout the workshop space:

  • One flip chart for the post-its with all the things people want to stop doing.
  • One flip chart for the post-its with all the things people want to continue doing.
  • And one flip chart for the post-its with all the things people want to start doing.

The distribution of post-its over the three flip charts is always the same wherever we are. And whoever is attending our workshop. Always the same.

The flip chart with 'starts' always has the most post-its. And the flip chart with 'stops' always has the least.

It seems that people tend to think that they need to add new things to what already exists in order to change instead of subtracting the things that they are already doing.

Missed opportunities

This (common) outcome is a shame—and a missed opportunity on the journey to change your organization, according to MIT professor Zeynep Ton.

In her latest book, The Case for Good Jobs, she writes:

"Subtraction is seldom considered a big change lever. In large organizations, people know they'll be noticed for what they add, not for what they subtract. Subtraction also doesn't come naturally to most people."

Ton then introduces an interesting 2021 paper by Gabrielle, Converse, Hales, and Klotz that was published in Nature, titled, People systematically overlook subtractive changes.

She explains that in the study, the researchers asked participants to make various changes to Lego constructions. The researchers then found that people were much more likely to make these changes by adding pieces rather than removing them—even when removing them was the simpler and more effective solution.

In other studies, the same researchers consistently found that people are changing ideas, situations, or objects, with a dominant tendency to do so by adding.

This tendency to default to adding things rather than deleting them might be the reason that many organizations still struggle with steep hierarchies and institutional red tape—despite the many "reorganizations" and "change initiatives" they may have launched in the past.

“Subtraction is seldom considered a big change lever. In large organizations, people know they'll be noticed for what they add, not for what they subtract. Subtraction also doesn't come naturally to most people.”
MIT professor Zeynep Ton

Untapped potential

Let me be clear. There is, of course, nothing wrong with adding things. To add is human. But when it becomes your default path for improvement or change, you might soon be overloaded with countless new things to do.

There just seems to be so much untapped potential in the act of subtraction. That is, with removal in mind, employees might be able to think about removing all the barriers to improve their work and to get rid of all kinds of unnecessary features of the current organizational setup.

The researchers give us some ideas on how to reach into this untapped potential. In one of their studies, they tested how people's ideas are influenced by simple reminders to either consider adding or subtracting. Reminders to consider adding had no effect, as people are already naturally thinking about adding. However, reminders to consider subtracting had significant effects. People now came up with ideas that were overlooked otherwise.

The researchers themselves came up with two cues to influence people to subtract things (instead of adding things):

1. Remind people

People should be constantly reminded that subtracting is a valuable option (as the study above showed). You can do this through exercises like 'stop, start, continue,' and by enforcing the habit via organizational values and guiding principles. For example, the main principle of Viisi (one of our Bucket list companies) is 'Less is More.'

2. Make it a policy

A more institutional solution would be to bake the art of subtraction into your day-to-day business processes. For example, there is one Bucket list company we visited that had one particular rule: whenever somebody wanted to introduce a new company policy, they first needed to delete at least one existing policy.

Whatever you decide to do, make sure you improve your workplace by doing less, not more.

Need more inspiration?

Do you want more inspiration on how to improve your workplace for the better? Make sure to subscribe to our newsletter below to regularly receive tips and tricks on how to make your own work more fun.

Written by Joost Minnaar
Joost Minnaar
Co-founder Corporate Rebels. My daily focus is on research, writing, and anything else related to making work more fun.
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