People systematically overlook the subtractive changes

It seems like another cognitive bias has arrived: a research article by Gabrielle S. Adams et at., (DOI: 10.1038/s41586-021-03380-y, 2021) shows that people systematically underestimate the strategy of change through substraction, usually the typical approach is another one “if something needs to be changed, let’s add something new”. This blindfolding leads people to ignore more advantageous solutions.

There were 8 experiments, let me describe you two of them: participants were given a text to improve – most of them rewrote it in different words, not just shorter. Another example, they were given a Lego construct and asked to improve the strength. Most of the participants reassembled the design, but did not throw away the parts that were actually put in, just to implicitly (so that it wasn’t obvious) create that imperfection in the design.

People act the same way in business: communication problems? let’s have more zooms, not fewer. Presentation didn’t sell? Let’s add more slides. Process became slow? Let’s add more milestones and deadlines to control that we’re slowing down. Or maybe it’s better to remove unnecessary and outdated steps from the process: not 2 approvals, but one. Or even better – not a mandatory approval by the stakeholders, but rather “if no one objected within a week after the announcement, we implement it”.

What should we do to make sure people don’t ignore subtraction strategies? The authors of the study suggest that explicit cues are needed. For example, if it’s a weekly meeting and everyone has already expressed ideas (which are most likely about adding new things), you should additionally ask to suggest “Lets come up with 5 more ideas of substraction which help us to achieve the desired changes. Here’s time to think for 20 minutes, then speak up.”

This could also be a larger “subtraction day” practice (as a part of strategic planning or other cadencies) where managers, leads and employees are asked to look at current goals/metrics/OKR and bring back with ideas on “What can be removed to achieve them?”


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