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The Laws of Subtraction: An Interview With Matthew May

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Matthew E. May is the author of three award-winning books: The Shibumi Strategy, In Pursuit of Elegance, and The Elegant Solution. A popular speaker, creativity coach, and innovation advisor to companies such as Toyota, Edmunds.com, Intuit and ADP, he is a regular contributor to the American Express OPEN Forum Idea Hub and The Rotman Magazine, and has written for Design Mind and MIT/Sloan Management Review.  He is the founder of Edit Innovation (EditInnovation.com), an ideas agency based in Los Angeles. He is a graduate of The Wharton School (MBA 1985) and Johns Hopkins University (BA 1981), but among his proudest and most creative achievements is winning the New Yorker Magazine Cartoon Caption Contest. He lives just outside Los Angeles.

I recently sat down with him to talk about his latest book, The Laws of Subtraction.

What exactly is 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.

Why is subtraction need now more than ever? What are some examples of companies that use subtraction effectively?

Most of the modern developed world suffers from excess. The simple life is a thing of the past. Everywhere, there's too much of the wrong stuff and not enough of the right. There is endless choice and feature overkill in all but the best experiences. There are two sides, or perspectives--consumer and provider.

Amazingly, as consumers, we seem to put up with it. We tolerate the intolerable: stupidly standing in some silly line, searching for what we want through the convoluted floor plan of the local mammoth warehouse store, or struggling through the maze of whatever automated voice mail system we're up against...opening a package of D-cell batteries, even.

You'd think that if we hate all the excess as a consumer, we would absolutely detest it as a producer. But we don't. The reason we don't is that we see no clear and immediate path to turning things around.

Twitter, Instagram, Southwest, Google, and Pinterest are all examples of disruptive companies that pared back an existing concept to defeat an excessive feature of an incumbent.

What new products are launching or are about to launch that are examples of subtractive design?

Under Steve Jobs, Apple was the poster child of the "less is best" mindset, but you're now seeing the effects of his absence--bigger iPhones, iPhones with defective software and non-standard hardware that adds visible complexity to the consumer's experience. The annual cost to consumers to convert to the iPhone5 has been estimated at almost $2000. That's just plain excessive. Rumor has it a new iPad Mini is coming our way, but just because something is smaller doesn't make it automatically subtractive.

How can individuals use subtraction to overcome everyday challenges in the workplace or their daily lives?

At the heart of every act or decision lie three choices: What to pursue versus what to ignore. What to leave in versus what to leave out. What to do versus what to don't. I have discovered that if you focus on the second half of each choice--what to ignore, what to leave out, what to don't--the decision becomes exponentially easier and simpler, and your results exponentially more impactful.

How do you know what is the right stuff to subtract or what to avoid adding in the first place?

The key is to remove the stupid stuff: anything obviously excessive, confusing, wasteful, unnatural, hazardous, hard to use, or ugly. If you don't know what that is, ask people on the receiving end of what you provide or produces. They are generally more than happy to tell you.

Why is subtraction the mindset most needed for our times?

Because all of us, whether we are a parent, a professional, or a president, face the same question: how do you stand out and stay relevant in a massively disruptive world in which everything is so overwhelming and distracting?

The fact is that our work is deeper and more demanding than ever. Our businesses are more complicated and difficult to manage than ever. Our economy is more uncertain than ever. Our resources are scarcer than ever. Everybody knows everything about us. Everywhere, there's too much of the wrong stuff and not enough of the right. The noise is deafening, the signal weak. Everything is too complicated and time-sucking. Excess everything is choking us.

Why is "less is more" the wrong approach and how is "do better with less" different? 

There simply is no limit on better. Most people can point out a handful of recent experiences where they've thought or said, "Please, no more." When was the last time anyone said, "Please, don't get any better"--unless of course you're referring to a competitor or adversary.

Think about it. "Less is more" implies that more is better! It's not. Better is better, and if you can get better by doing or using less--resources, time, money--there's real power in that. I'm all about new and innovative thinking that produces better results by artfully and intelligently using less.

How have companies used subtraction in their management and HR policies?

Many companies have moved toward what's referred to as ROWE--Results Only Work Environment. It's a policy that essentially says, "we don't care where you get your work done, all we care about is that the right work gets done." It's about performance, not presence. Some companies have gone as far as to let people set their own salaries, and moved away from complicated compensation policies. Many have allocated personal innovation and "pet project" time to break up the normal thinking grooves, or instituted downtime as standard operating policy. Perhaps the most well known are the 3M "sandbox" time that Google copied, the Netflix vacation policy--which is essentially no policy at all...take as much or as little as you want--and Boston Consulting Group's mandatory "time off," defined as one no-work evening per week.