We Should All Delete More Work

At my organisation, during a cyber incident which meant no access to any computer system for several weeks, some teams reported becoming more effective not less.

Many other people noticed this at the beginning of the 2020 lockdowns. Deprived of their usual tools and processes, creativity took over, and the work still got completed.

Subtraction and removal play a crucial role in innovation. Many of us associate the process with adding new features or ideas, despite the fact that subtraction and simplification can be equally transformative. Subtraction forces us to scrutinise existing designs, processes, or products. It paves the way for more elegant solutions.

And yet, in the workplace we often have a focus on adding things, making ourselves busier, but arguably more disconnected from what customers value.

As Joost Minnaar writes, you should always ask employees to delete things, not to add things. He quotes MIT professor Zeynep Ton:

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.”

Doing more stuff gets people noticed and promoted.

Doing more with less stuff – is what we should now recognise and reward.

Elon Musk talks about deleting just a bit more than you feel comfortable with.

You may have to add [parts or processes] back later. In fact, if you do not end up adding back at least 10% of them, then you didn’t delete enough.”

Many innovations you see everyday have come about by subtraction rather than addition.

The invention of the tea bag is credited to Thomas Sullivan, a New York tea merchant, around the early 20th century. The story goes that in 1904, Sullivan decided to send tea samples to his customers in small silk bags. However, some recipients misunderstood the intended use. Instead of opening the bags to transfer the loose tea into a separate infuser, they steeped the entire bag in hot water. Surprised by this unintended but convenient method, Sullivan saw the potential and began producing tea bags commercially.

This unintended removal of a step solved three problems:

  • No more messy leaves going all over the place.
  • The elimination of a complex brewing process.
  • A form of easy disposal – just throw the bag in the bin.

The Book With No Pictures became a New York Times bestseller when BJ Novak, an actor and comedian, had the idea of writing a children’s picture book – without any pictures. The book was designed to be read by an adult to a child with the rule ‘everything the words say, the person reading the book has to say. No matter what.’

Someone reading a book with ‘a monkey mouth and a monkey voice’ might not sound very funny to you, but you’re not four years old. By removing the central element of a picture book – visual stimuli for a child – he forced the adult reader to become a performer.

Adults acquire their bike-riding skills during childhood, often starting with tricycles and then progressing to proper bikes with stabilisers. In 2007, Ryan McFarland became frustrated with the biking products available for his young son, deeming them “too large, too heavy, and too complicated.” His bright idea was that kids would learn more effectively not on devices resembling bikes with added components, like extra wheels for stability, but on ones with fewer parts. After some experimentation, he opted for a low-set two-wheel bike devoid of pedals or chains. By removing pedals and chains, the manufacturing process became cheaper plus the kids learned faster.

The power of subtractive insights lies in the art of simplification and refinement. It requires you to force constraints on yourself. As Matthew E. May said creativity thrives under intelligent constraints – constraints amplify creativity. 

Subtracting elements that complicate or hinder a process can lead to streamlined solutions and heightened efficiency. Steve Jobs famously encapsulated this philosophy, stating that “innovation is saying no to a thousand things.”

Our cultural inclination to equate productivity and success with quantity should no longer be seen as a reliable indicator of progress.

The more things you provide for employees to read, fill in, join or meet about promotes a culture of doing more.

The more steps you add for customers – more services, tasks, features, or components – often just dilutes the value you offer or gets in the way of what they are trying to do.

Any chef will tell you that if you don’t taste it, or if it doesn’t effect other ingredients in a positive way, then you dispense with it.

If we all set about deleting a task, a process, an extraneous part every week of our working lives, we might be just as productive, but far happier and much less wasteful.

Related: Efficiency Isn’t Always Effective