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Leonardo da Vinci defined perfection as when there is nothing left to take away

Roberto Machado Noa/Getty Images

Leidy Klotz, a professor in the schools of architecture, engineering and business at the University of Virginia, was once building a Lego bridge with his three-year-old son when he learned a lesson that applies to those three disciplines – and probably to you. As the bridge’s two support towers were of different heights, he and his son couldn’t create a span between them. So Prof. Klotz reached for a block to add to the shorter tower, making them equal. But before he could complete that intention, his son had taken away a block from the taller tower.

That may not sound like much – but it’s profound. Taking away from the tall support was faster and a more efficient solution to the problem, but it goes against our adult instincts. We have been trained to add, not subtract, as Prof. Klotz learned when he tried that puzzle and similar ones in a series of experiments – from writing to cooking to scheduling vacation itineraries – and studied the world around us.

When we create change, he observes, “one option is always to add to what exists, be it objects, ideas or social systems. Another option is to subtract from what is already there. The problem is that we neglect subtraction. Compared to changes that add, those that subtract are harder to think of. ...Even when we do manage to think of it, subtracting can be harder to implement.”

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We have come through a period of subtraction in many aspects of life. But as the pandemic recedes, the urge again is to add. Organizations are looking to add new programs, locations, customers and resources. In the federal election, political parties court our favour by offering more policies and programs. Climate change calls for subtraction, but we have trouble – individually and collectively – with that need. Prof. Klotz has just added one new book to the world, Subtract, even as he argues for the less-is-more paradigm.

He notes that Leonardo da Vinci defined perfection as when there is nothing left to take away. The Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu advised: “To attain knowledge, add things every day. To attain wisdom, subtract things every day.” But we confuse “better” with “more” – think of the last 10 meetings you attended, and compare what you added with what you subtracted, if anything.

Prof. Klotz urges us to try less before more. Less can come by attrition – not doing anything. Subtraction is an action – a valuable one, he argues – and when you are contemplating changes, put subtraction first. Even when expansion seems necessary, think “add and subtract.” Those are complementary approaches in nature. In my tai chi practice, expansion leads to contraction in a continuing, helpful cycle. Can it be the same at work, for the organization but also your own workload? What can you subtract?

This connects, of course, to simplicity. “The business cost of complexity is huge, in both financial and emotional terms,” Julia Hobsbawm, author of The Simplicity Principle, wrote in Strategy + Business. Although we know and intuitively understand what simplicity is, she says we need new language to define it and new behaviours to reclaim it in the digitized world. We have to recognize and honour that although machines may be limitless in their capabilities, humans are not. “Humans need boundaries as much as they need sleep. Humans need meaning and connection, and they need these things – as working people or consumers of business products or leaders of businesses themselves – as much as they need convenience, speed or scale,” she says.

Simplicity is a worthwhile goal – and it sells, she notes. Political slogans like “Make America Great Again” and “Get Brexit Done” were powerful. “Wash Your Hands; Stay at Home” helped guide us through the pandemic. Indeed, we grumbled when things got increasingly complex and reopening guidelines harder to decipher.

Ms. Hobsbawm points to the Finnish customer satisfaction startup HappyOrNot, which introduced a simple set of emoticon buttons (red for angry, green for happy) that are now common at most airports and many public buildings around the world, allowing customers to give feedback on experiences such as trips to the bathroom and getting through security checks.

Much has been made of the power of three for simplifying strategy, policies and communication. A classic is the phrase “Veni, vidi, vici” – Julius Caesar’s “I came, I saw, I conquered.” Churchill talked of “blood, sweat and tears.” Three is easy to remember – simple, but not too simple. Jaleh Rezaei, chief executive of B2B personalization firm Mutiny, asks direct reports at monthly one-on-one meetings to reflect on the three things that went well in that period and three things they’d like to go differently in the next month, before sharing her own threes.

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But Ms. Hobsbawm argues for six – which in math has been considered the perfect number, and which, more practically, is a touch less than the number of things we can keep in our working memory (seven). For instance, bees, a highly organized social species with complex communications systems, build honeycombs made up of many six-sided cells.

She points out that Maltese physician, inventor and philosopher Edward de Bono created a colour-coded “six thinking hats” approach, with colours for different kinds of emotional behaviours and thought patterns that companies and their workers can emulate to help guide creative decision-making. “Or you can prioritize working with six or fewer things at any given time: No more than six teams; teams made up of six or fewer people; looking ahead six months in six territories to pilot a project. You can embrace the idea of cognitive limits – if you give people too much to do in too complex a way, they tune out and lose out,” she says.

At a moment of expansion after the pandemic, amid an era of more-more-more, it’s important to keep these alternatives of subtraction and simplicity firmly in mind.

Cannonballs

  • What can you subtract from your life that nobody would even notice? What meetings or reports can you subtract at work? What rules, official or unofficial, can be junked? Can you reduce the requirements of your next job posting to make it more clear and sensible?
  • Simplifying communications has led many leaders to repeat one key message, squandering an opportunity to broaden thinking and connect with more people, as well as making them seem obfuscatory when questioned at meetings or by the media. Try three main points – which you can combine into one crisp sentence like Churchill – or elaborate on each individually.
  • Pukka Herbs capitalizes on the power of three in many of its teas, using three types of cinnamon or three types of chamomile, for example – simple enough to remember the distinctions, but decidedly more than other brands with only one type of cinnamon or chamomile.

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