Applying "The Laws of Subtraction"

by Mary Jacobs on November 7, 2012
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As a small-business owner, you’re probably always thinking about what more you could do to improve your business, whether it’s adding new products, services, features, employees, or locations.

But author Matthew E. May (pictured) urges you to think about what you should stop or avoid doing instead. In his new book, The Laws of Subtraction: 6 Simple Rules for Winning in the Age of Excess Everything, May argues that less is more.

The Intuit Small Business Blog recently spoke with May about how removing “excess everything” is the key to success in today’s world.

ISBB: What are “the laws of subtraction”?

May: In a nutshell, when you remove just the right things in just the right way, something good happens. Whether you’re talking about an idea, a strategy, a product, or a service, it’s a universal concept that has many applications.

Did you have an “aha” moment when you decided to write this book?

The moment came almost 10 years ago, when I was a consultant to Toyota. I was hired to help them flesh out ideas. I ran up against this wall on this project, and I was out of ideas. I guess my frustration showed, because a little piece of poetry, from the 2,500-year-old writings of Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu, made its way to my workstation. The essence of that was, “To attain knowledge, add things every day; and to attain wisdom, subtract things every day.” That was an “aha” moment. So I began to look at not what I should be doing, but rather what I should be thinking about not doing, or removing, or ignoring, or leaving out. That not only enabled me to complete the project successfully, but it launched me on an entirely different path in life.

What kinds of things might a small-business owner need to “subtract”?

“Subtraction” means the removal of anything that is obviously excessive, wasteful, harmful, hazardous, hard to use, unnatural, or even ugly. It could be a product or a service you’re providing. It can also mean having the restraint from adding something in the first place. The grand strategy is to be careful of adding things that lead to excess, that lead to waste, or that lead to disenfranchising your users or customers.

Can you give us some examples?

One of the rules of subtraction is that the simplest rules create the most effective experience. An example is the phenomenal growth of (the photo-sharing app) Instagram. The first iteration was a multiple-featured mobile app called Burbn. No one used it. It was too feature-rich, too complicated. So the founders went back to the drawing board and essentially removed all but just a few features, so it became dirt simple. In the first four months after their launching, they acquired more followers than Google or Facebook in those four months.

Another example I love is In-N-Out Burger. They were innovators of the drive-thru burger stand in 1948, and they’ve used one of the laws of subtraction — eliminating information to engage the imagination. They have a cultish following that surrounds their menu and the fact that, for more than 60 years, their menu has never changed. They’ve got the same four food items they started with: hamburger, cheeseburger, the “double double,” and fries.

By instituting a very simple rule, which is, “We will do anything you want to a hamburger,” they have allowed their customers to become co-creators of their product. So, if you order a “Flying Dutchman,” it will appear nowhere on any written menu, but on your receipt it will say “Flying Dutchman.” That mystique made it very successful. By restraining themselves from adding to that menu, they avoided that “feature overflow.”

How do you think “subtraction” works?

Neuroscience has been able to show us that most of our “aha” moments occur when we’ve immersed ourselves in something, then taken a break. That’s why, while taking a shower or walking or driving — when the default network is in place and the executive part of the brain is quiet — that’s when you get the ideas. A lot of work has been done to show that if you take a short break every 90 minutes, you avoid fatigue and you are generally more energetic and able to perform better at work. This notion of taking a break, taking a sabbatical, spending time in meditation, or taking long walks — that’s the idea that doing something isn’t always better than doing nothing.

Why does it take such an intentional effort to not clutter or add too much?

It doesn’t come naturally. We are hardwired to do the opposite: to collect, to cache, to add, to hoard. We’re not hardwired to subtract. The Eastern cultures are much more attuned to the notion of emptiness and sparseness. Most of the Zen-aesthetic design ideals revolve around subtraction. This is literally thinking differently.

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