Less is more: why additive solutions aren't always best

Less is more: why additive solutions aren't always best

⏰ 4 min read

The Lego Challenge

Take a look at this image. How would you make this Lego structure more stable?

Did you choose to add more bricks to one side of the bridge? Or, did you choose to remove a piece instead?

If, like me, you chose to add more bricks, you wouldn’t be alone.

A study published by Nature, has shown that we are far more likely to add new things to solve a problem rather than stripping back what is already there. ⚡ Exposing a glitch in our thinking — we are wired to find additive solutions.

The majority of participants in the study chose additive solutions, even when subtractive solutions would have been more effective. A co-author of the study and social psychologist, Benjamin Converse, acknowledged that ‘additive solutions have sort of a privileged status — they tend to come to mind quickly and easily’.

Additive solutions are often viewed as higher value, due to the perceived time and effort that has gone into them.

However, if we took more time considering which elements are actually causing the problem, and reflecting on whether we could subtract to solve, then we could be far more effective at problem-solving.


When additive solutions can go wrong, they can go really (really) wrong

In a system, there is inherent complexity. By adding more elements to a system, you are adding complexity. When you read ‘complexity’, think ‘more things can go wrong’. More complexity = more risk.

Complex systems have many elements that interact in unexpected ways — a rainforest is a complex system. Epic disasters happen as a result of complex systems. Everytime you add a feature, even if it is designed to prevent a problem, you are adding complexity.

Take for example, the 2017 Oscars fail. La La Land was announced the winner of Best Picture when Moonlight should have been presented the award. Warren Beatty paused before Faye Dunaway, convinced Beatty was milking the moment, stepped in and confidently announced ‘La La Land!’ But Beatty had been given the wrong card. How did this happen?

Just a few moments before Leonardo DiCaprio was holding the card to announce Emma Stone as Best Actress for her role in La La Land, so how did Beatty end up with this same card?

In an effort to never make this mistake, The Oscars produced 2 identical cards for each award and Beatty had mistakenly been passed the duplicate card. The safety precaution had caused the problem.

By having 2 identical cards, The Oscars had added complexity to the process. By adding complexity, we add more opportunities for a system to fail. Safety systems don’t always make us safe.

Fortunately, the Oscars have responded with a solid 9-step plan (yes, 9) to avoid this mistake happening again. With a failsafe solution of adding a 3rd identical card.

At some point adding more complexity to solve problems creates bigger problems than the ones it solves, additive problem-solving offers diminishing returns.


Improve or remove: the power of subtractive solutions

This glitch in our thinking adds limitations to our creativity, often leaving us totally blind to the smart subtractive solutions that could be right in front of us.

The power of subtractive solutions is demonstrated in the effectiveness of Steve Jobs’ famous ‘3-click’ rule; the reason why all features on the iPod were accessible in just 3 clicks.

Or when unable to explain why Apple had so many different products he asked one simple question: ‘which one do I tell my friends to buy?’. When given no clear answer, he cut the number of Apple products by 70%, forcing Apple to focus on quality and innovation.

‘Deciding what not to do is as important as deciding what to do’. — Steve Jobs

Subtractive problem solving is the art of getting to less, and not the same as doing less. In fact, it often takes more thinking and doing for us to find that subtractive solution. ‘What can I add’ is a shortcut we use to get to a solution quickly, or employing ‘fast thinking’ as popularised by Daniel Kahnneman, by employing ‘slow thinking’ we may be more likely to ask ‘what could I add or subtract?’ to get us to the most effective solution.


Take 5

  • Be aware of taking shortcuts that result in additive problem-solving.
  • Additive problem solving can add complexity and risk, and offers diminishing returns.
  • By removing/improving the obstacle you are faced with you will reduce friction in a system, situation or process.
  • Subtractive problem solving can provide more effective smart solutions
  • Take time to generate more ideas, give the problem your full attention and look to subtract to solve.

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