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Fighting Complexity with Subtractive Change

Internal complexity seems to increase gradually over time in most organizations.

Earlier this year, a study was published in the prestiguous journal Nature that looks at the underlying causes of this tendency.

The authors conclude that there is a cognitive bias, which they call subtraction neglect.

As the name suggests, it leads people to add things and to ignore the possibility of subtracting things in order to solve a problem.

The authors mention some initial observations that led them to examine this issue.

For example, they analyzed improvement ideas that were submitted to a new university president. Of the 651 proposals, only 70 (11%) were subtractive, that is, involved removing something or stopping an activity.

To study this tendency more systematically, they set up a series of experiments.

In one of the experiments, they showed the participants drawings of a minigolf course and asked them for ideas about how to improve it. The experimenters coded whether the ideas were additive (e.g., “add a windmill”) or subtractive (e.g., “remove the sand trap”).

It turned out that only about 20% of the ideas were subtractive.

So with regards to organizational design, this may explain why we tend to add new roles, units, processes and reporting lines on top of the old ones, instead of removing and simplifying the organization.

Or, in our personal and professional lives, why we commit to too many goals and activities and end up with overburdened schedules (I am guilty of that myself.)

However, all hope is not lost.

In the minigolf experiment, they did another variation, where they offered cues, for example, reminding participants that they could “add or substract”. Offering a cue increased the likelihood that participants would submit a list with at least one subtractive idea.

This suggests that by raising awareness of the issue, we may be able to counteract subtraction neglect, at least to some extent.

In another recent article, Denise Rousseau suggests that this should be a key concern for everyone interested in organization development and change:

She adds that not all subtraction is good.

We need to distinguish between subtraction that adds value, by removing unecessary elements, and subtraction that removes elements that we actually need for the organization to function.

What are the appropriate organization design methods that we can use?

I think many of the methods and principles that I have discussed on my own blog in the past are relevant.

For example, the proposal by Prof. Nam Suh to periodically start from scratch and re-set the system. Or, in the words of organization development expert Paul Tolchinsky – do a yearly “Spring cleaning” of the organization instead of just assuming that everything should continue the way it is.

If we you have ideas for how “constructive subtraction” can be accomplished, I would like to hear from you – feel free to add a comment below.”