Bullish on Books Blog

Want to Grow Your Business? Don't Add - Subtract: Author

Matthew E. May | Author of "The Laws of Subtraction"

Lao Tzu was on to something 2500 years ago when he wrote, "To attain knowledge, add things every day. To attain wisdom, subtract things every day." His prophetic words might mean even more now than then.

We live in an age of excess everything—an era of overwhelming choice, crippling complexity, and feature overload.

Standing out in the age of excess everything demands a singular skill: Subtraction.

Subtraction is defined simply as the art of removing anything excessive, confusing, wasteful, unnatural, hazardous, hard to use, or ugly...and the discipline to refrain from adding it in the first place.

The world's most original innovators all know this: less is best. They know that by removing just the right things in just the right way, they can achieve the maximum effect through minimum means and deliver what everyone wants: a memorable and meaningful experience.

Subtraction is the scalpel of value—the method by which the simplest, most elegant solutions will be created, now and in the future.

But if subtraction is the new creative skill needed to win in the age of excess everything, we need a guide to developing it.

Enter the laws of subtraction, which when taken together can help everyday people at levels in all kinds of positions create more engaging experiences using a few simple rules:

What isn't there can often trump what is.

Designers of the automotive youth brand Scion used this strategy in creating the fast-selling and highly profitable xB model, a small and boxy vehicle made intentionally spare by leaving out hundreds of standard features in order to appeal to the Gen Y buyers who wanted to make a personal statement by customizing their cars with trendy options.

It wasn't about the car. It was about what was left out of it.

2: The simplest rules create the most effective experience.

At Netflix, vacation policy is as simple s it gets: take as much time off as you want for as long as you want, as long as you cover your work and your manager knows where you are. Nobody tracks vacation days.

In other words, the Netflix vacation policy is to have no policy at all.

3: Limiting information engages the imagination.

The best innovators know what neuroscientists know: there is nothing more powerful than the ability of the human mind to create meaning from missing information.

Take comic books, for example, for which the global market is billions. The magic of comics is not contained within the panels, but in the gutter—the white space between the frames. It's here that the story is left open to interpretation, here that the real story takes place: in the imagination of the reader filling in the blanks and connecting the dots.

These simple rules can inform and guide us in make the three critical choices inherent in every difficult decision in business, work and life:

  • What to pursue versus what to ignore?

  • What to leave in versus what to leave out?
  • What to do versus what to not do?

Nearly every other piece of business advice focuses on the first half of each of these choices—rarely on the second half. The laws of subtraction all point to a single but powerful idea: When you remove just the right things in just the right way, something very good happens.

Matthew E. May is author of the new book, The Laws of Subtraction: 6 Simple Rules for Winning in the Age of Excess Everything, and founder of EDIT Innovation, a Los Angeles-based ideas agency.

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