Addition by Subtraction

In Touch - Newsletter - #10

Welcome to the tenth edition of "In Touch." As always, I would love to continue the conversation so please hit "reply" and let me know what you think.

Story of the Week: Addition by Subtraction

I was with my 8-year-old son, who was watching the Netflix series Cobra Kai the other day, and I was drawn to a scene in which one of the karate coaches dismissed a number of his students because they had failed to follow his orders. When questioned about his surprise decision by some of those who had remained on his team, he justified it with three words: “Addition by subtraction”.

“Addition by subtraction" is a phrase used mainly by sports coaches and it refers to the idea that a team’s performance can often be improved, not through the addition of more talent but by shedding members or practices that are interfering with or inhibiting its success. Every football fan has seen what can happen when a player receives a red card: instead of losing their way, the remaining 10 players suddenly improve their game and win against the odds.

When I heard the phrase in the TV series, my curiosity got the better of me and I began looking into examples in other areas of our business and personal lives where “addition by subtraction" can be applied. There are many, from reducing a Twitter post to fit the maximum 280 characters to decluttering a desk so that we can work more efficiently.

Here are two real-life examples of how “addition by subtraction” can make people more efficient and effective:

1. Some years ago, my friend Thales Panagides was thinking about adding lingerie to his swimwear product range and he visited a number of producers to discuss the idea. That was when he discovered that virtually every piece of lingerie comes in 32 different sizes! The mere thought of the time and energy that would go into deciding what to order from thousands of products so as to add a new lingerie line every quarter was enough to make Thales, a one-man-show, realise that his efforts could be more profitably applied to improving his already successful swimwear-focused business.

2. In his 2003 book What Works in Schools, Robert Marzano notes the following: "U.S. mathematics textbooks address 175% as many topics as do German textbooks and 350% as many topics as do Japanese textbooks. The science textbooks used in the United States cover more than nine times as many topics as do German textbooks and four times as many topics as do Japanese textbooks. Yet German and Japanese students significantly outperform U.S. students in mathematics and science."

The conclusion is clear: More doesn’t always mean better.

I am also reminded of Vilfredo Pareto’s 80/20 Principle, which states that 80% of a company’s business tends to come from 20% of its customers, and so it’s better to focus on that small number than on the whole client base. Again, we need to introduce the "addition by subtraction" concept in order to be more efficient.

Evaluate how you use your time and dare to eliminate those things that aren't significantly moving your company, team or programme forward. “Addition by subtraction" is a valuable idea, even if – in my case – it came from a comedy/action TV series!

Words of Wisdom

Steve Jobs and the iPhone Subtraction:

Steve Jobs revolutionized the world’s concept of a cellphone by removing the physical keyboard from the iPhone.

W. L. Gore and eliminating job titles:

W. L. Gore, recognized as one of the world’s most innovative companies, eliminated job titles in order to release employees’ creativity.

The Art of Adding by Taking Away, by Matthew E. May

A Question to Ponder

How could your business improve by subtraction, rather than by addition?

Hit reply and let me know what you believe.


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Best Regards,

Michael R. Virardi