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When Less is More

So 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 Nicholas Taleb


Imagining ways to introduce change is an essential skill, regardless of occupation, role, or rank.

To distinguish an app, a designer envisions a unique new feature.  To enhance workplace culture, a manager considers new training modules or incentives.

Notice that each of these changes would add something to what already exists.

There is nothing inherently wrong with adding.  But if this (adding to) becomes a business’s default path to improvement, that business may fail to consider a whole class of other opportunities.

One recent study found that when stakeholders suggested hundreds of ways to improve an organization, fewer than 10% of those improvements involved taking something away.

But subtraction has untapped potential.

So, with subtraction in mind, the designer in the earlier example might rid the app of unnecessary features, and the manager might remove barriers to a more open culture.


The problem is addition is too tempting.

Houses are getting bigger despite the fight against urban sprawl.  Cars are getting more gadgets that no one uses, and PowerPoint presentations seem to go on forever.  No government ever gets smaller, even though many politicians run to reduce taxes.  How many brands of identical blue jeans do we need (would rips at the knees count as additions or subtractions)?

The American business model is a relentless impulse to add more: more bells, more whistles, more choices, more services, more hours, more convenience, more product extensions, more everything.

The temptation to add more is great, but business leaders must understand that, in many instances, more can be accomplished with less.

More with Less

Subtraction has a noticeable problem as well.

A company may be flourishing because the CEO removed some red tape – but no one sees the removal.  They see the flourishing.  Likewise, a PowerPoint is mercifully short – the audience doesn’t notice the reduction.  They simply enjoy the presentation.

Subtraction Suggestions

Personally, we all need to focus on subtraction.  We need to unsubscribe more, say “no” more often, and hold more garage sales to reduce our clutter.

For businesses, we also need to encourage subtraction.  Here are some suggestions.

Try regular reminders and questions.  – What’s extraneous?  Can two things be combined?  What would it cost us to subtract?  How can this interface/process/product/service be made simpler?

Reduce distractions. – When we are under stress or juggling many things, we’re more likely to default to familiar cognitive habits.  In this case, default thinking is to add things and ignore subtraction.  Ironically, this can add more to our overfull plates rather than finding ways to simplify.

Celebrate the creative thinking behind “less.” – Tout simplification in design thinking.  Make sure the organization can effectively market innovations that reduce energy consumption, use less paper, and eliminate confusion — both to the decision-makers and the public.

The Bible

The Bible is full of stories about doing more with less.  Five loaves and two fish (Matthew 14:13-21), one jar of oil (2 Kings 4:1-7), and a small boy with a handful of small stones against a giant (1 Samuel 17) all come to mind.

My favorite Bible story about more with less is the story of Gideon.

God wanted Gideon to bring an army to take on the enormous Midianite army (Judges 7).  So he recruits 32,000 men, and although it’s not as sizeable as the Midianites, it’s enough for Gideon to be comfortable with leading the charge.

But God has other plans, so he has a series of tests for Gideon.  First, he makes Gideon send home anyone who is afraid.  It turns out 22,000 people in the army have doubts and head home.

Now, with 10,000 left, God makes them drink water.  Apparently, only 300 of the men drank water by putting their hands to their mouths.  The other 9,700 who knelt to drink were sent home.

With just 300 men now to combat 40,000, Gideon knows he has to rely on God to provide a miracle.

But God has an even odder plan in place.  They won’t even have to invade or attack to wipe out the Midianites.  Instead, he has them create as much noise as possible by blaring trumpets and smashing jars.

This confuses the men in the Midianite camp, and they end up killing each other in the chaos.

A truly more with less story.

God has given us many images of doing more with less.  Business leaders and entrepreneurs need to take note and lead the way by doing more with less.  They will, in turn, have more success.