When Change Seems To Be About New Things and Adding More, Subtraction Might be Your Innovation Game

2 years ago
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“Making the simple complicated is commonplace; making the complicated
simple, awesomely simple, that’s creativity.”

– Charles Mingus, Jazz Musician

If you feel that change in our sector or your organisation seems to add more work and demands more of our attention, you’re not alone.  

When redesigning a service, we might add a new or unique feature. To improve workforce culture, we add training modules and accompany this with incentives. To create efficiencies in complicated operating processes, we look at investing in additional digital tools.  

There’s nothing wrong with addition. However, if an organisation’s intent is to change and improve, that organisation may inadvertently be increasing staff workloads, and missing out on other opportunities.   

Perhaps it’s an addiction to new shinny things, or the feeling that we’re not contributing anything valuable unless we’re adding something to the mix, but the truth is, most people overlook changes that involve subtraction.  

A study by Gabrielle Adams et al, which was published in Nature, identified that there’s cognitive bias in our inclination to add rather than subtract, which they call ‘subtraction neglect’. In short, people tend to add things, rather than subtract things, when solving problems.   

Nicolay Worren at the Norwegian University of Life Sciences says “with regards to organisational design, this may explain why we tend to add new roles, units, processes and reporting lines on top of the old ones, instead of removing and simplifying the organisation. Or, in our personal and professional lives, why we commit to too many goals and activities and end up with overburdened schedules”. 

In short, whether we are changing a present situation, ideas, initiatives, or processes, the dominant tendency is to accomplish this by adding. As Erin Tor offers, “leaders can encourage desired behaviour by adding incentives or removing barriers. Designers can advance technology by introducing new features or eliminating extraneous parts. Writers can strengthen arguments by adding or deleting words. Yet, despite the promise of streamlined processes, simpler products and honed arguments, people often fail to notice subtractive improvement opportunities because they are too quick to add”. 

This tendency to add can equally be applied to sector law-makers resulting in creeping complexity in sector regulations and policies.  

Elaborating further, Denise Rousseau at Carnegie Mellow University says that “learning how to subtract things is critical to overextended people and organisations—and a new frontier for change scholars and practitioners. I suggest that change scholarship and practice incorporate subtractive change into the suite of change processes they recognise, study or deploy”. 

The problem that subtraction faces is that it’s defined by the absence of something. Consider the following scenarios: a CEO who has been pivotal in removing soul-defeating red-tape at their organisation, or a presenter removed slides in their presentation to fine-tune their arguments.  

In both cases, these subtractions can go unnoticed. For aspiring careerists, such subtractions may lead to them missing out on due credit. Even worse, there is no visible artifact to show for their contributions. For others, it might just be a case of conflict avoidance.  

So, here are a few suggestions to foster a subtractive mindset in organisations: 

  • Make it prominent. Remind managers and staff that subtraction is an option through direct and specific reminders at visible locations so that people don’t overlook subtraction.  
  • Make it policy. Consider implementing subtraction in organisational processes. Some organisations have created a rotating Chief Subtractor role, or an organisation-wide push to identify subtraction opportunities. 
  • Make it evidence. Make it a point to publicly acknowledge and celebrate subtractions that add value to the organisation. 

The truth is, subtraction is not inherently good, and addition is not inherently bad. However, if we focus just on addition, then we’re once again missing out on other opportunities.  

We can all agree that the best solution is a simple one, but sometimes it’s also the hardest one to find.  

Merlin Kong, Head of Innovation and Industry Development, Aged & Community Care Providers Association

Published in Aged Care Today, Spring 2022