March 17, 2018 | 11:29 PM

Smart Spending

16.11.2012Six Simple Rules For Doing Better With Less

If subtraction is our weapon against excess everything, we need to know how to use it in battle.

Steve Denning, Forbes.com

In 1997, when Steve Jobs came back to rescue Apple [AAPL], he removed several thousand middle managers. He couldn’t see that they were doing anything useful for customers. Without those middle managers, Apple went from the brink of bankruptcy to the most valuable company on the planet. Apple demonstrated a central principle of radical management: by focusing energy on only those that added value to customers, and stopping doing things that didn’t, Apple did much, much better with less.

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Doing better with less is the theme of Matt May’s stimulating new book, The Laws of Subtraction, which offers six rules, and scores of examples, of doing better with less.

May, who has written several wonderful books on the role of elegance in management, argues that subtraction is the path that can allow us to create clarity from complexity and to wage and win the war against the common enemy: clutter and excess.  We need, he says, “a fresh take on how to rethink everything we do. If subtraction is our weapon against excess everything, we need to know how to use it in battle.”

Not more: better

That’s not easy, May says, because subtraction doesn’t come naturally or intuitively. “From the days of our ancestors on the savanna, we are hardwired to add and accumulate, hoard and store. This not only helps explain why the world is the way it is, it also lays out the real challenge: battling our instinct.”

That’s where The Laws of Subtraction comes in: how people can produce better results by artfully and intelligently using less. May emphasizes the word “better”. He says, “We hear a lot about doing more with less. You won’t hear that from me. You will only hear about doing better with less. Big difference. There simply is no limit on better.

Subtraction is the key to design and customer delight

Design is key to delighting customers. May quotes Roger Martin, dean of the University of Toronto’s innovative Rotman School of Management and author of several books on “design thinking,” who argues, “Businesspeople don’t just need to understand designers; they need to be designers.”

“It’s tough to create a compelling solution,” May says, “unless you thoroughly understand the problem your customer or user is trying to solve, which every mortal designer worth a lick aims to do by first immersing himself or herself in the world of those with the problem.”

May also quotes Kevin Hunter, who heads Toyota’s California design center who says: “People can’t tell you what they want in the future. And they often don’t even know what they want now. So you can’t just ask them, because they can’t or won’t tell you in a way that’s helpful. They often don’t know what they really need. They often can’t articulate it well. You have to discover to uncover the need. You do that not just by watching and interviewing them but by becoming them, infiltrating them almost like an undercover cop, and then involving them in the design.”

The laws of subtraction

May suggests six laws of subtraction, each with many striking examples:

Law no. 1: What isn’t there can often trump what is (E.g. get rid of the rotten apple from a team, because having just one bad apple in a small group can drag down performance by up to 40 percent.)

Law no. 2: The simplest rules create the most effective experience (E.g. Netflix found that the best vacation rules were no rules.)

Law no. 3: Limiting information engages the imagination (E.g. a true work of art is one whose imperfect beauty makes an artist of the viewer: Soetsu Yanagi)

Law no. 4: Creativity thrives under intelligent constraints (E.g. PechaKucha creates efficient, entertaining, elegant presentation by limiting presentations to 20 slides and 20 seconds each).

Law no. 5: Break is the important part of breakthrough. (e.g. making a break from the past, by re-labeling, re-attributing, re-focusing and re-valuing.)

Law no. 6: Doing something isn’t always better than doing nothing. (e.g. daydreaming can help solve knotty problems that defy direct attack.)

Most management books talk about doing more. Now you can learn how to delight your customers by doing less, by reading The Laws of Subtraction.


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