The power of subtraction

By: Matt Stocker

Much of the time, instigating change within a business is about new initiatives and new improvement projects. However, what starts as rapid and exciting organisational change can lose steam over time, slowing performance improvement down to a crawl.

In cases like these, the tendency can be to attempt to overcome resistance by redoubling efforts, increasing the number of improvement initiatives and hoping that, with enough management sponsorship, progress can be maintained.

In reality, once an organisation has reached a certain point on its improvement journey, the more you implement, the harder it can be to hold the gain—let alone achieve true transformation. When you get to this stage, adding more is no longer an effective solution.

What about a different approach? In order to catalyse change, why not take away rather than add?

What you choose to subtract will depend on the transformation you want to achieve, your specific business and your individual situation, but here are a few examples to give you a little inspiration.

Customer service

Do you want to achieve true transformation in customer service? You’ve written the guidelines, done all the training and worked with your staff to ensure service improvement, yet you still feel you lack a certain ‘wow’ factor in the service your organisation delivers.

Time to take away

Take away the restrictions that govern how your customer service staff support customers and move to an ‘If it makes the customer happy, do it!’ approach. By taking away restrictions, you shift focus onto the customer and the relationship that your staff have with them. If this approach feels risky and dangerous, it could reveal that you don’t entirely trust your staff and it is restrictions that keep the wheels turning rather than a great culture and core values. If this is the case, it’s not surprising that you don’t have the customer service wow factor! You need staff you trust, who value your customers as much as you do, and who have the power to make a difference.

Culture change and engagement

What if you’re looking for culture change? Are your staff tired, demotivated and fed up of the rules? Maybe you’re looking for an opportunity to shake things up and transform internal staff engagement.

Time to take away

Organisations can inherently communicate resistance, stuffiness and a lack of trust—often through rules, expectations and management looking over shoulders all the time. Want to communicate trust? Let people decide their own holiday quota as long as they get the work done. Bums on seats mentality? Let people work when they want to or allow them to work from home—you could even follow Plantronics’ example and take away desks so there are not enough to accomodate every one of your staff. Want to increase productivity? Do what Best Buy did—take away the work day and move to a results only work environment. Risky? Maybe. But if your staff stop working or you don’t know what they’re up to, this reveals a more serious performance management issue that needs confronting. Removing such safeguards would certainly motivate managers to focus on engagement and collaboration too!

Sales and profitability

Are you looking to increase sales and improve profitability? Often, in our attempts to make ours the company to buy from, we default to adding to product and service ranges or adding features. This isn’t always a sure fire route to increased profits

Time to take away

Maybe your extensive product range is getting in the way of client decision making. Too many options have been proven to reduce sales rather than increase them. What about product features—are your products overwhelmed and overflowing? Halve the number of features and focus on creating a small, high quality feature set that out shines that offered by anyone else. Are you making customers jump through hoops to buy from you that, if you’re honest, are just there to make your life easier or exist only as a legacy? View the buying process through the eyes of your customer—get rid of the hoops and make it as easy and frictionless to buy from you as possible. Try out an exercise in reduction: reduce options, reduce features, remove hoops. Risky? Sure. But you’ll soon find out if complexity is making up for quality or if abundance is hiding an uncompetitive offering.

Subtraction can give you more

What you subtract from your business is very much up to you but it’s important to understand that it’s not just the addition game that can result in the magic 2 + 2 = 5. Subtraction can also reward you with 5 is the magic number!

At the end of last year, Debbie took an in depth look at the art of simplicity and the idea that less can be more, both for your customers and your bottom line.  Whilst Debbie’s article focused on simplifying product ranges and services, less can be more in performance improvement and change initiatives too. Assessing what you could take away to achieve results (rather than what you could add) gives you a completely different perspective on problem solving and can help to reduce organisational friction too.

Although removing safety nets can feel dangerous, having the faith to trust your staff and your organisation can have surprising results. It can also give you a great insight into areas that may be functioning adequately but are in reality only propped up by the safety nets that hold them in place. Dare to embrace subtraction, to catalyse change, and to achieve added value in the process.

Article by:

Matt Stocker

Matt is founder and director of Stocker Partnership, a strategy and innovation consultancy. As a strategist, designer, innovator and geek, he's known for his creative thinking. Matt thrives in challenging environments and loves to push the boundaries of possibility. He's a big picture, visual thinker who is always running 5 to 10 years ahead. Find out more

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