Less Is More 

Subtractive Solutions

Why Our Brains Miss Opportunities to Improve Through Subtraction


Less Is More. Subtractive Solutions.
Why Our Brains Miss Opportunities to Improve Through Subtraction. Diagram.

nature


Overview: Less Is More - Subtractive Solutions

The saying  "Less is more" is a phrase adopted by and attributed to architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe in 1947.

But if we truly believed that less is more, why do we overdo so much?

Why do we so rarely look at a situation, object, idea or a concept  that needs improving [in all contexts] and consider removing something as a solution?


    Why do we nearly always add something, regardless of whether it helps or not.

    Why do our brains miss opportunities to improve through subtraction?



A new study, featured on the cover of Naturein which researchers at University of Virginia explain the human tendency to make change through addition, explains why.

"It happens in engineering design, which is my main interest," said Leidy Klotz, Copenhaver Associate Professor in the Department of Engineering Systems and Environment. "But it also happens in writing, cooking and everything else -- just think about your own work and you will see it"



    "The first thing that comes to our minds is, what can we add to make it better. Our paper shows we do this to our detriment, even when the only right answer is to subtract. Even with financial incentive, we still don't think to take away."


Klotz collaborated with three colleagues from the Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy on the interdisciplinary research that shows just how additive we are by nature.

Batten public policy and psychology faculty, assistant professor Gabrielle Adams and associate professor Benjamin Converse, and former Batten postdoctoral fellow Andrew Hales, worked with Klotz on a series of observational studies and experiments to study the phenomenon.

There are two broad possibilities for why people systematically default to additive solutions: 

[1] We generate ideas for both possibilities and disproportionately discard subtractive solutions, or

[2] We overlook subtractive ideas altogether


We overlook subtractive solutions because they require more effort

The research focused on the second possibility.

"Additive ideas come to mind quickly and easily, but subtractive ideas require more cognitive effort," associate professor Benjamin Converse said.

"Because people are often moving fast and working with the first ideas that come to mind, they end up accepting additive solutions without considering subtraction at all."

The researchers think there may be a self-reinforcing effect.

"The more often people rely on additive strategies, the more cognitively accessible they become," assistant professor Gabrielle Adams said.

"Over time, the habit of looking for additive ideas may get stronger and stronger, and in the long run, we end up missing out on many opportunities to improve the world by subtraction."












How to reduce your subtraction bias?

  • Ask yourself “What are the things that I should avoid?” rather than asking “What should I do?
  • Ask your clients/customers what aspects of your existing services are cumbersome for them and that you could subtract?
  • Rather than relying on certain technology to be more creative,  identify sources of distraction, avoid interruptions and  have more time to work on ideas.
  • Rather than buying diet foods and pills to lose weight, eliminate specific foods for a healthier diet.
  • Optimise for minimalism/less is more -in some environments this will mean decreasing the amount of time available to create a solution, in other environments this will mean increasing the time available. But the key point is optimizing for less is more.


How to use the Subtraction technique to innovate:

[This process can be adapted to different and non-commercial environments]:

  • List the key components of your product or service.
  • Pick one component and imagine eliminating it.
  • Visualise the product or service without the key component you eliminated.
  • Identify potential benefits and value of the new situation.
  • If you see value in removing a component, see if you can replace the function of this component.
  • Turn your idea into a valuable new product or service.







    Knowledge grows by subtraction much more than by addition – given that what we know today might turn out to be wrong, but what we know to be wrong cannot turn out to be right, at least not easily.” [Nassim Taleb]








Return from "Less Is More" to: Mental Models



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