The Art and Discipline of Subtraction

An interview with Matthew E. May, founder of Edit Innovation and Author

Matthew E. MayMattthew E. May

"If you want something new, you have to stop doing something old"  Peter F. Drucker

According Matthew E. May, our guest on this Big Picture Channel podcast, "We live and work in an age of excess everything. Our businesses are more complicated and difficult to manage than ever. There is endless choice and feature overkill in all but the best experiences. Everybody knows everything about us. Everywhere, there's too much of the wrong stuff, and not enough of the right. Everything is too complicated and time-sucking. The noise is deafening, the signal weak."

"Savvy innovators have picked up on the desire for people to tune out the noise, and a key strategy is offering less, not more. They know that delivering a memorable and meaningful experience hinges on user engagement, best achieved through a subtractive, "less is best" approach in which anything excessive, confusing, wasteful, unnatural, hazardous, hard to use, or ugly is intelligently and cleverly removed...or refrained from adding in the first place."

Interviewed by producer/host of TotalPicture Radio, Peter Clayton, Matthew is the author of The Laws of Subtraction, 6 Simple Rules for Winning in the Age of Excess Everything.

A popular speaker, Matt is active on the lecture circuit, and conducts workshops and seminars at a number of Fortune listed companies, here and abroad, including Microsoft, 3M, Mattel, Lockheed Martin, Qualcomm, ITT, Pfizer, Fidelity Investments, Reed Elsevier, McGraw-Hill, Razorfish/Avenue A, Computer Associates, Forrester Research, Red 7 Media, Stena Group, Fletcher Allen Healthcare, Lexis-Nexis, and the National Reconnaissance Office.

He is a columnist for the American Express OPEN Forum Idea Hub, and a regular contributor to University of Toronto's The Rotman Magazine. His articles have been published in frog design's Design MindMIT/Sloan Management Review, USAToday andThe Wall Street Journal.

Matt's work has been featured or mentioned in The New Yorker, The Wall Street Journal, USA Today, Bloomberg BusinessWeek, Time, Forbes, INC magazine, Fast Company, Wharton Leadership Digest, CIO Insight, American Enterprise Institute, The Miami Herald, Tom Peters! and The Los Angeles Times. He has appeared on NPR, CNBC, and a host of online shows.

He won the Shingo Prize for Research, the 2009 BusinessWeek Best Books in Design and Innovation list, and The Axiom Award for Best Business Fable, but he considers winning the The New Yorker cartoon caption contest as one of his proudest and most creative achievements.

Matt received his training in design thinking from the Stanford d school. He holds an MBA in Marketing and Organization Design from The Wharton School, and a BA in Social and Behavioral Sciences from Johns Hopkins University.

"Interview Transcript"

The Laws of Subtraction Matthew May TotalPicture Radio Interview Transcript

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And now, on to our show.

In his new book The Laws of Subtraction: 6 Simple Rules for Winning in the Age of Excess Everything, author Matthew E. May shows not only how the world's most original innovators win in the age of excess everything, but also how everyday people in all works and walks of life use subtraction to think differently, come up with breakthrough ideas, and find better, simpler, and more creative solutions to the complex problems they face.

Matthew is the founder of Edit Innovation Consultancy.

Matt, welcome to TotalPicture Radio.

Matthew: Thank you, Peter. I'm glad to be here.

Peter: In reading your website and reading your book, it seems like your consultancy is really based on all of the principles you've put forth in The Laws of Subtraction. Is that right?

Matthew: It is. And as a matter of fact, I think my personal life is based on that as well. So I try and run both sides of my life in that frame of mind where I'm looking for ways to just achieve the maximum impact or effect with the minimum possible means.

Peter: So let's start by having you tell us what exactly is subtraction from your perspective.

Matthew: I define it fairly simply. It's the art of removing anything that is just obviously excessive, overwhelming, wasteful, hard to use, confusing, hazardous, gosh even ugly. Or it's the discipline I think to refrain from adding it in the first place when you have the opportunity for a new idea.

Peter: In The Laws of Subtraction, you present a mind shift in the way we make the three tough choices that lie at the heart of every difficult decision being: from what to pursue to what to ignore, from what to leave in to what to leave out, and third, from what to do to what to don't. So can you deconstruct this for us a little bit and perhaps give us some examples of what you mean?

Matthew: Those three choices I think we either subconsciously or consciously run up against anytime we have to decide on something; whether it's a new strategy or a new product, a decision in life. What do we do versus what do we not do, as you say, and what do we put in versus what do we leave out.

And I think that we are hardwired. By nature, we are hardwired to focus on the first half of those choices. In other words, what do we do, what do we put in. That kind of emphasis is by nature, what we're geared to do. Just from the days of being on the savanna, we're hardwired to cash, to store, to hoard, to collect. Very rarely do we focus on the latter half which is what do we not do, what do we leave out, what do we ignore.

When we're working in an organization, for example. Heaven forbid that our manager - our boss walks by and we seem to be staring off into space doing nothing, when in fact that could be one of our very most productive time. So appearing unproductive is almost taboo. So it goes against both nature, and I think a lot of times, organizational culture.

I learned a very, very valuable lesson from a gentleman by the name of Boyd Matson who is an adventure journalist for National Geographic. We were speaking at the same event. And the title of his speech was How to Stand Still When the Hippos Charge. And I thought wow, that is the most elegant solution I've ever heard of; because it's about doing nothing in the face of a 2000-pound barreling beast coming down at you.

And that's an example but it's also a good metaphor, I think, for what we all face. We all have that 2000-pound beast coming at us; whether it's a huge decision in business, whether it's a new business we're starting, whether it's a bad economy. And frequently, it's very difficult to reverse the age-old 'hey, don't just stand there; do something,' to 'don't just do something; stand there.'

Peter: You're right. People get caught up especially at work in this idea that they constantly have to be doing something, you know.

Matthew: Yeah. If you don't look busy, people assume - and I think it's part and parceled to our Western culture because we have such a bias for action. We've got 10 days sales report, we've got quarterly ins, we've got annual reports to Wall Street. We have that bias for action. And if we don't look like we're in action, then we aren't. But that's not true. I mean our best ideas come to us when in fact, we're not really doing anything of a truly productive nature.

Peter: Can you give us some advice on what to know is the right stuff to subtract or what to avoid adding in the first place?

Matthew: Yeah, and that's a great question. When I wrote this particular book, there's no one right answer to that. So I asked some of the most brilliant people I know to weigh in on that because I think it depends on the person and their relationships, whether it's work or personal. And it's their career.

So there's no one right answer. But I can tell you that the place to start is to ask those - on the work side of things that are indirect receipt of what you do. What would they love for you to stop doing, or not do, or refrain from doing in the future? And quite frankly, many times, you have to ask them to please be quiet because they'll go on and on. There are so many things that we don't know that we're doing that get in the way of delivering value.

And that's what this is all about. It's about how do you deliver compelling value to those that are in receipt of what you do on a daily basis on the work side of things; and on the personal side of things, to those that you care most about. Ask those that you are closest to on the personal side of your life - what are the one or two things that gosh darn it you'd love for me to stop doing - and I guarantee you they'll come up with easily more than one or two.

That's the place I think to start is to ask the questions of others because they have a better view to those kinds of things.

Peter: Why is 'less is more' the wrong approach and how is 'do it better with less' different?

Matthew: To my mind, less is more, is quite a cliché.

Peter: Right.

Matthew: And you know, when it started out...

Peter: It reminds me of Steve Jobs in Apple, you know, when you talk less is more because his products are so simplicity-based, right?

Matthew: They are. They're clean, they are simple, they're easy to use, they are not excessive.

I think that more is often just more. And it depends on what it is whether more is actually better. You know, more laundry isn't exactly better. Less is better, as a simple example.

So I think that there's no limit on better. I mean think about it. No matter what you're talking about - a product, a service, a company, people that you know - there's been a time that you have said "Please, no more. I can't take any more." Very few times in your life do you say "Please, don't get any better."

So that's what I'm after - it's the better. Unless, you're talking about obviously a competitor, someone in business, or even on a tennis court. You really don't want them to get better. But everything else, you want to get better. So there's no limit on better. We always really want to get better. So that's what I'm after. It's the notion of better versus just simply more.

Peter: Why do you think Matt that so many companies go after excess rather than simplicity?

Matthew: Well I think it's two reasons: one is that it's our nature, and it's quite often easier to add something than to have the discipline to get rid of something.

Years ago - I think the year was 2003 - and this is when I sort of had this epiphany, if you will. A number of influences hit on me. But one of them landed in 2003, just before the new year, and it was an essay in USA Today, the forum section by Jim Collins - you know, the author of Good to Great, How the Mighty Fall, Built to Last. We all sort of know who Jim Collins is, and the name of his essay was Best New Year's Resolution: a Stop-doing List.

And he concludes that essay (which I thought was just so profound and meaningful to me) with a statement. Something like:

A true work of art is marked not just by what is in the final piece, but equally what is not. And it is the discipline to discard what may have taken months or even years to build that truly identifies a masterpiece.

Whether you're talking about a book, a symphony, a business, or most important of all, a life, and we just don't teach that discipline in a companywide way.

There are lean movements out there, lean thinking. I worked for a company by the name of Toyota, which was sort of the founder of lean thinking. So I grew up for about 8 years in that and breathe the air. So it's a little easier for me than most. But we don't teach that discipline.

Peter: Matt, can you perhaps tell us how have companies use subtraction in their management and HR policies?

Matthew: I think that the famous one - and everyone I think or most of us saw the PowerPoint that flew around the internet a few years ago from - it was an internal PowerPoint from Netflix. And so the familiar example is the no-vacation policy that Netflix has employed.

Very quickly - Netflix at the time and I think to this day, most of their employees worked at home, worked on the phone. No one was tracking their hours, yet they were tracking their time off, which sort of didn't make sense you know. If you're not tracking my working hours, why would you track my non...? It just logically didn't make sense.

The people that brought it to management's attention were the associates, were the employees. Management said "Well good point." So they got rid of their vacation policy. The only thing you really need to do now is - and you can take as much time off as you want - you don't need to do anything but make sure your work is covered and make sure your supervisor is aware of it.

There are other examples. One of the organizations that I work with has what's called a ROWE environment (results only work environment). In other words, you do not need to come into the office to do your work. We have very clear goals, we have a very clear set of framework if you will in terms of our vision and our purpose and what we need to achieve. If you don't feel that you need to be in the office, that's fine, as long as the work gets done, gets done correctly, we're fine if you're not here. Technology makes it abundantly easy, as you and I are experiencing right now, to have a conversation that doesn't require us to be in the same room together.

So that's another example of an HR policy that management is using that's very subtractive in nature. I've even heard rumble of a few companies allowing their employees and managers, their entire staff, to determine their own salaries.

Peter: I imagine those types of policies are extremely interesting to the gen-Y folks out there, especially very appealing from a standpoint of you don't need to come into the office if you feel like you can get your work done somewhere else.

Matthew: Yeah. It is. And the company that I'm referring to actually is very, very young. The management isn't young. They're sort of gen-X-ers like myself, but a good part of their constituency is the younger population. It's a web-focused organization. But what makes it work is transparency.

The thing that makes simple rules effective is the risk, if you will, or vulnerability is made transparent. So if, for example, you decide that you would like to have people set their own salaries, the proviso is that everyone can see what your salary is. That's a complete mind shift. From the way most organizations operate, not everyone knows what every other person makes. The only public companies you know what the senior executives make because they're, by regulation, forced to disclose that. But in private organizations, we don't know what other people make. So if you want people to set their own salaries, the only way that's going to work is that everyone else gets to see what that is.

That's what makes Netflix policy work; there's transparency involved. And what happens is that because you know other people are watching, you're quite conservative, you're quite fair. And quite frankly I think salaries are probably going to be lower than they would be otherwise because of that.

Peter: That's a really interesting mind shift right there.

Matthew: Yeah.

Peter: Yeah. What are some of the principles that you write about in your book that someone could use to their advantage in say a job interview?

Matthew: Well that's interesting because no one has asked me that. I have to think about that. Well, what's the genesis of that question? What's on your mind?

Peter: Well because from my perspective, and of course, I interview a lot of people on this show who are experts in career development and in management and leadership. And I talk to recruiters all the time and their main complaint about people coming in for interviews is (A) they don't research the company and (B) it's all about them, it's not about the company. And of course, from the company's perspective, it's what can you provide us that is going to - whatever this position is, make this a really great hire for us. So you know, they kind of flip it and talk about...

The successful candidates are ones who come in who have done great research on the organization, know the company, know the culture, perhaps have even spoken with some of the people who work at the organization, work at the company (Obviously, referrals are the best way to get a job with any organization), and really have a sense of what the specific needs of that organization are and what their skills can do to solve those.

Matthew: Well then that's a perfect segue to the answer to your question. One cannot be subtractive unless they know very well what a customer truly wants, needs, and desire. And we all have customers whether that is someone who is hiring us - they are potential customers if you think about it, because you're going to be delivering value to that entity at some point in the future. If you don't know with the laser-like focus what it is that they want, need, and require and how you fit into that picture, it's impossible for you to be as effective and efficient as you possibly can be. So it's the notion of fit and it's the notion of focus.

And when you go into a job interview, yeah, you should absolutely have a very clear understanding of where you might fit in - not in a specific way but in a general way. And I think that there are a couple of organizations out there that have made a practice of bringing people in that are not geared to a specific job requirement, but as much as a general fit that they could move around and find where they fit with respect to a project or a team.

A couple of organizations come to mind. One is W. L. Gore. They are notoriously void of job title in the organization. When you get hired there - yeah, you're hired because of how you might possibly fit and you need to know what that company is all about - how you might possibly fit into the overall picture. And then once you're there, you have to sort of hunt around to find where you might fit with respect to a specific project team.

The same thing I actually experienced at Toyota. You are required to dig your own job at Toyota, and that's actually the language that they use. Yes you're hired into a very low-level position, but it is your responsibility to find problems, to seek them out, and to find where your particular skill set might be able to solve problems facing the organization.

So in the actual interview itself, I think you're absolutely right. I think the key is to treat your interviewer and the entity - the organization that the interviewer represents as a potential customer. Put yourself in the mindset of a service provider, not a potential employee, and understand that you are in a competitive situation that is going to allow you to get that job if you will, or get that project is the kind of thinking that will allow a business to secure a customer. You have to be able to provide compelling value at the lowest possible burden.

Does that help answer that question?

Peter: Yeah, it does. I just have one more question for you, Matt. What is the first step to apply a subtractive mindset? Where do you start with this? And what are some of the pointers you can give us for really putting this into practice?

Matthew: Well I think there are a couple of things, and that's a great question. A couple of them I alluded to before which is to ask people. But not all of us have the opportunity because we are sometimes at an arm's length to ask.

And quite frankly, I'll borrow Jim Collins' stop-doing list strategy. I did it. It's very difficult to do. But the way that you construct a stop-doing list is to start with what you already do quite well probably, which is your current to-do list. And whether you're talking about daily tasks, whether you are talking about your weekly work (things that you must accomplish), or you're talking about your (and we're coming up to the new year) new year's resolutions if you will - your big stretch goals of 2013, list them as you normally would. That's step 1.

Step 2 is do as you normally would, which is to prioritize them. What are the most important tasks? And you put those at the top. Those that have perhaps the greatest impact or that are perhaps easiest to implement. Whatever your criteria are for prioritization. That's step 2.

Step 3 is the tough one. You take a look at your list and you knock out the bottom 20%. If you've got 10 goals, you knock out 2 of them and you discard them. And I'm talking literally. I'm talking put them on a piece of paper, number them in rank order, and then take a pair of scissors and cut out those bottom two, and simply throw that piece of paper in the waste basket and don't look at it ever again. That is a discipline that is extremely difficult to do, but it is a great first step in applying the subtractive mindset.

Why would you do that? Because most of us don't get to those bottom two anyway. And when we do, our impact is so diminished by that point that it's pointless to even try and do it in the first place.

Peter: And then it's always in the back of your mind, right?

Matthew: And so there comes the mental discipline to put it out of your mind. Like any other habit, it takes a little bit of practice to do. But once you get into the habit of doing that, it becomes enormously freeing. It is very liberating.

Peter: Thank you, Matt.

Matthew: Thank you, Peter. I enjoyed it.

Peter: Thank you so much for tuning in to our podcast today.

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