Q. Why is it so hard for people to clean out their closets or manage their bursting email inboxes? What holds us back from paring down?
Converse: Well, once you’ve set your mind to paring down, it’s probably just a question of motivation and resources. But our research on subtractive transformations is more relevant a step earlier in that process. Why are our inboxes overflowing in the first place? Probably because each time we think about our work portfolios, we’re quick to think of adding new projects that sound exciting and slower to think of subtracting old projects that are stalling out. Why are our closets stuffed in the first place? Probably because each time we think about how to improve our well-being, we’re quick to add new activities – and their associated stuff – and slower to think of subtracting the distractions that get in the way of having more downtime in the first place.
Q. Aren’t most people hard-wired to accumulate more – more money, more things, more experiences? How do you convince people to reverse that?
Converse: We’re not trying to convince people to have different preferences. We just want to remind them to consider all their options. Sometimes more is better. Sometimes less is better. The only problem is that people won’t identify subtractive improvements if they don’t look for them in the first place.
Adams: Of course, if an organization wants to encourage people to consider subtraction as an option, it can do more to celebrate it and it can do more to remind people of it. Leidy always says that subtraction has a “noticeability problem.” If you cut words from a paper, no one sees it. If you cut unnecessary costs from a future budget, people might not even know that you found them savings in the first place. So, one reason people may not be quick to think of subtraction is because it’s not usually valued. Leaders could certainly do more to celebrate valuable subtractions. And they can do more to remind people of the option.
Converse: Right. We’re always proud when Dean [Ian] Solomon asks in Batten faculty meetings if anyone has anything to add or subtract.