A series of conversations are rippling through the work world right now that are likely to feel familiar to you. How do we return to the office? is one. To what extent do we continue to support efforts in diversity and inclusion? How should we embrace the reality around productivity laid bare by the pandemic that some people work better remotely, others in person, and huge majority that say they want a mix of both?
In most organizations, the prevailing response is to explore what can be added to how we do what we do in order to improve, advance, and grow. But what if success in an uncertain world requires exactly the opposite view? What if it's about what we subtract?
Last spring, researchers at the University of Virginia published a study in the science journal Nature about our typical response as humans to any questions around improvement or advancement. Nature isn't a news source often read by organizational executives, though perhaps it should be. The title of the paper alone should be a head turner for leaders: "People systematically overlook subtractive changes."
For business leaders, the translation is this: When we want to problem-solve, innovate, or grow, we tend to focus on what we can add, or at least swap evenly for, than on what we can get rid of. Yet bigger is not always better. And more means more to manage, get confused by, or even expose ourselves to greater risk through. At the very least, we ought to weigh those downsides of growth more than we tend to do in our enthusiasm to just add to solve.
The researchers found that this question of "add versus subtract" should be more than just a passing curiosity. While they acknowledge that the idea of taking away something isn't unfamiliar, and is even sometimes touted in our language ("less is more"), when it comes down to our actual actions, the science makes clear that we humans are not in the habit of considering taking something away, even if we are made aware that doing so would aid our flexibility, resilience, and innovation.
When asked how people might improve their writing, as one example of the kinds of experiments the researchers tested, a mere 17 percent of subjects offered edits that took away words. The overwhelming majority added prose. In a different test, an incoming new leader of an organization sought ideas for improvement in the way things were done. The researchers tracked the suggestions. Just 11 percent of the ideas involved getting rid of something -- a step, a process, anything. Even when an experiment made it explicitly clear that subtracting was an option, and in some cases one with better payoff, subjects' first inclination was to add something new instead.
Why do we most often downplay the value of subtracting? The study suggested that, to some degree, it's a simple matter of what we practice doing, or in this case failing to practice asking how taking away might improve things. Indeed, when they pursued this question by giving participants repeated chances to practice solving the same problem, the researchers found that eventually people did get around to ideas that suggested that less might in fact result in more of what was truly being sought.
But absent the directive, or indeed even the space to solve in more than one way, the default was to look for ways to add. That proves problematic, especially in an environment that is volatile, uncertain, complex, or ambiguous. Emphasizing the point, the research clearly showed that the more uncertain their surroundings or greater their load of tasks, the more likely subjects were to default to ideas that added on. And that adding on included adding more complexity, which often leads to more uncertainty and volatility.
In this context, think back to the questions dominating your work environment right now. Ask yourself to what extent the solutions being batted about suggest pursuing ideas that add versus subtract. Ask too whether these conversations are strategic and taking a long view, or tactical and emphasize the quick fix.
Listen to the language of those discussions -- the words offer clues to the prevailing mindset. Then reflect: Are you pursuing a mythological return to a past normal that you hope will quickly get you back to recovery and growth? Rather than seeking a return to the old normal, should you instead be looking to shed it? The pluses and minuses you consider on the way to such discussions have a direct impact on the pluses or minuses you are likely to experience coming out of them.