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NASA staff celebrate the landing of Mars Pathfinder venture in 1997. Author Matthew May says they were drawn to the project because of its ‘impossible goals’ – including a tight budget and a modest budget.Mike Nelson/Reuters

The Laws of Subtraction

By Matthew May

(McGraw-Hill, 224 pages, $26.95)

Imagine you were playing Scrabble and the rules were changed to allow you to pick nine letters instead of seven, use proper names, or employ foreign words. That would make the game easier, and your scores would go up, right?

On the other hand, if you could only add four-letter words, build each new word onto the previous word, and had to work under a time limit, those constraints would reduce your scores, right?

Not really. When Tina Seeling tried those rule changes in a Scrabble experiment during her Stanford University course on creativity, the students cheered when she reduced the constraints and groaned when she increased them. But the results were the reverse of what was expected: The students were more creative and garnered more points when there were tighter constraints.

It's an example of one of the laws of subtraction advanced by creativity coach Matthew May: Creativity thrives under intelligent constraints.

He cites other examples in The Laws of Subtraction, including TED talks, in which speakers have to distill their messages into 18 minutes; the modest $150-million budget and three-year time period for the Mars Pathfinder venture by NASA; and the challenge to Toyota's Lexus team to develop the best car in the world in a tight time frame.

"What is interesting in both [the Mars and Lexus] cases is that it was the impossible goals that attracted … people to the project in the first place. And although those individuals were exceptional, they are not exceptions to the rule – they are the rule," he writes. "The rule is this: Creativity thrives under intelligent constraints."

That's not the only rule, of course, and Mr. May's book is broadly about striving for more simplicity. He points to designer John Maeda, whose book The Laws of Simplicity ended with a maxim: "Simplicity is about subtracting the obvious and adding the meaningful." Mr. May distills that notion into six rules:

1. What isn't there can trump what is

Composer Claude Debussy said music is the space between the notes. In design, often an important message is hiding in plain sight, such as the arrow between the "E" and "x" in the FedEx logo, emerging from the white space. "In the Zen view, emptiness is a symbol of inexhaustible spirit," he observes.

2. Simpler rules often work best

Mr. May recalls being panicked before he first drove past the Arc de Triomphe, where 12 well-trafficked avenues feed into a scary roundabout. But he found the simple rules Parisian drivers follow made it easy to navigate. Usually, right of way goes to drivers already in a roundabout, but in Paris those entering the flow have right of way, contributing to a smooth flow. He argues that when dealing with movement through time and space, we must remember that the simplest rules create the most effective experiences.

3. Limiting information engages imagination

Artfully incomplete or limited information nurtures intrigue and piques curiosity. Our imagination is stretched to fill in the dots, as with The Wall Street Journal illustrations pioneered by Kevin Sprouls, the "hedcut" portraits created by dots. Innovation consultant Helen Walters has come to appreciate the 140-letter limitation in Twitter: "The brevity forces you to focus on what's truly important and to harness the restriction as a challenge."

4. Intelligent constraints foster creativity

Along with examples cited above, add haiku and improv comedy.

5. Break is the important part of breakthrough

Innovations come by making a break from the past. Clarence Johnson, the legendary Lockheed chief engineer who led its Skunk Works program of aircraft designs, had a series of rules. One was that the program manager should have almost complete control of it (to separate it from the rest of the company); he also restricted the number of people who had any connection with the project in an "almost vicious manner," again to break from corporate orthodoxy.

6. Doing something isn't always better than doing nothing

When we take a break from our work, often the best ideas magically appear in our brain, through our subconscious. Mr. May encourages you to try purposeful daydreaming.

His rules are provocative, although I found his essays around the ideas often floated into areas that didn't seem relevant.

However, that was compensated for by short, practical contributions after each rule by other writers.

Simplicity is a virtue, and for most of us elusive; this book may help you grasp its power and conceptualize how to utilize it.


Joe Girard, who has been called the world's greatest salesman, offers tips in Joe Girard's 13 Essential Rules of Selling (McGraw-Hill, 278 pages, $19.95).

Investment strategist Michael Mauboussin tries to untangle the role of skill and luck in business, sports, and investing in The Success Equation (Harvard Business School Press, 293 pages, $30.00).

Real estate salespeople Joseph and JoAnn Callaway offer three keys to putting your Clients First (John Wiley, 228 pages, $25.95).

Special to The Globe and Mail

Harvey Schachter is a Battersea, Ont.-based writer specializing in management issues. He writes Monday Morning Manager and management book reviews for the print edition of Report on Business and an online work-life column Balance. E-mail Harvey Schachter