Imagine you're facing a problem at work--maybe your big presentation isn't quite working, your new design lacks something, or your hiring strategy needs a tune-up. How do you proceed with solving the problem?
Ask a dozen different people for advice and you may get a dozen different suggestions. From a new recruiting strategy to an additional slide to a new product feature, everyone will have something to add, but you know what no one is likely to suggest? Taking something away from how you currently do things.
According to a much buzzed-about new study recently published in Nature, humans have a pervasive bias to add things on when searching for solutions--and that's causing us to miss out on a whole lot of great ideas.
Human brains love to add, forget to subtract.
There's already a huge number of known biases that mess up our decision making, but as Diana Kwon recently reported in Scientific American, researchers at the University of Virginia may have discovered yet another to add to the list.
After engineer Leidy Klotz noticed that people tend to add additional features when trying to solve problems, he recruited his colleague, psychologist Gabrielle Adams, to investigate the phenomenon. Through a series of experiments involving everything from stabilizing Lego structures to making abstract shapes symmetrical, the researchers confirmed that, whatever the problem, people tend to add elements rather than take away existing ones.
That holds even if subtraction was the faster, easier way to solve the problem. And it was particularly true if study subjects were rushed or distracted, although giving out monetary incentives for subtractive thinking made participants more likely to choose minimalist solutions.
"Additive solutions have sort of a privileged status--they tend to come to mind quickly and easily," sums up study co-author Benjamin Converse. "Subtractive solutions are not necessarily harder to consider, but they take more effort to find."
How to reduce our subtraction bias
In short, left to your own devices you and your team will probably do what comes naturally when faced with a problem--and what comes naturally to humans is to add more complexity. That means your company is probably missing out on simpler, cheaper, and more innovative solutions, and creating unnecessary bloat and bureaucracy in your products and systems.
The research suggests that putting people under less time pressure and helping them focus should help correct for this bias. But smart business leaders already have other innovative approaches to nudge their people to consider subtractive solutions. Steve Jobs was a fanatical minimalist, and Stripe co-founder Patrick Collison tweeted about his own approach to the problem in response to the research:
One might wonder if optimizing for speed might generate just the sort of time pressure the researchers suggest pushes people to favor addition over subtraction, but the larger takeaway is that smart leaders are aware of people's tendency to add complexity and think through how to ensure minimalist solutions get fair consideration too.
Just being aware of this bias and discussing how best to create a culture that values simplicity is probably a good place to start. And if you're looking for more ideas, Klotz's new book, Subtract: The Untapped Science of Less, probably has plenty of suggestions.