Our Thinking

To Do, To Don’t…Ta Da! 

In the past few weeks, we have noticed a shift in many of our clients as we embark upon the lead up to the holiday season. While the pattern of “this insert initiative / project / paper / submission here must be done before the holidays” frenzy is predictable, we have found that since the onset of Covid-19, this typical phase of the annual calendar has taken on an additional level of burden and appears to be starting earlier each year.

Many of our clients report feeling fatigued, pressured and under the pump to juggle the rituals of pre-holiday plans with colleagues and those in their personal and professional circles, with the need to hit specific KPIs and goals against what many feel is an arbitrary or artificial timeframe.

It has led us to ponder a few questions:

  • Ahead of the new calendar year and the resolutions that often come with it, is this also the time of year to examine how we are spending our time and energy before we commit to end-of-year deadlines?
  • If less is more, why are we so focused on addition?
  • Why do we need reminding of something we know to be true?

From Coco Chanel to Marie Kondo we are consistently prompted with messages of less being more. Chanel was famous for quoting “Before you leave the house, look in the mirror and take one thing off”, whilst more recently Kondo sparked a minimalist revolution by pressing us to rid ourselves of those possessions that don’t “spark joy” (after saying a sincere thanks to the object for its contribution to our life).

Most of us would likely agree with the premise, not just when it comes to fashion, possessions and interior design, but also how we choose to spend our time and energy.

It begs the question, are we effective enough at applying this lens to the professional spheres of our lives? If you reflect on the last team offsite or planning workshop you took part in, it is highly likely a number of new initiatives were put on the table or added to your personal and/or team-level or organisational “to-do” list, but how many were taken off?

While we don’t advocate the full Marie Kondo approach to all elements of the work our clients do (how many of us could say all our KPIs truly “spark joy” and what would happen if everyone was allowed to take that approach?!).  Rather, we seek to support and prompt our clients to consider what they can delete, de-emphasise or deprioritise before adding a new commitment, initiative, project or program to their end-of-year list and more broadly. For some we encourage them to think about the criteria they should apply for an initiative to be added and to reflect on / vote on the initiative they will drop before they add another.

When we encourage our senior team clients to reflect on the things they want to Stop, Start and Continue, we find the list of ‘Stops’ is almost always significantly shorter.

So if the old adage ‘less is more’ is so true, why do we need to be constantly reminded of it?

There is emerging evidence that we suffer from what researchers call Additive bias[1] That is, when we are in problem-solving mode, we tend to focus on solutions that involve the addition of elements, rather than considering subtractive transformations (those that involve removing some element or concept).

Researchers illustrated this phenomenon using Lego bricks. Students were given an uneven structure and asked to make it level in the fewest ‘moves’ possible. Almost all participants instinctively added extra blocks into the configuration, rather than removing the one block that was causing the imbalance.

Additionally, research indicates that we are particularly susceptible to additive bias when we are under a heightened cognitive load, (a state many of us inhabit almost perpetually but particularly by year-end!) This means that the harder we work at trying to solve a problem, the less likely we are to identify options that involve subtraction.

But there are other factors at play reinforcing our bias towards addition.  When we take something away, it becomes more difficult to tangibly show what we have done – even if we have created positive impact. Going back to the offsite or workshop environment, we can imagine the social pressure that can lead to curating additive ideas; they’re often seen as more creative and dynamic.  Some clients fear their suggestion to stop projects may anger, disappoint or embarrass their colleagues who created the idea in the first place or who have devoted significant energy to driving it.  Still others fear that by suggesting a ‘stop,’ it may be seen as admitting to a failure in their idea, innovation or program of work, favouring diminishing returns as opposed to a fail fast (and cheaply) iterative approach to innovation and execution.

Interestingly, Leidy Klotz, an engineer and author of Subtract: The untapped science of less,[2] highlights a number of design innovations that were borne out of this subtractive thinking. A particularly striking example is the pedal-less bikes that many toddlers race around on, that have been found to be much more effective at teaching kids to ride than the additive transformation of tricycles and training wheels.

Interestingly, though we think of this ‘invention’ as recent, with balancing bikes rising to prominence in 2007, they are essentially the same as the 200-year-old German invention the ‘Laufsmaschine’ – the precursor to the bicycle. This shows us that not only can additive bias make it more difficult for us to identify new ideas; it can also blind us to perfectly good solutions we already have!

The good news is that like all biases, our tendency toward addition can be overcome with awareness and practice, and the research shows that though we have a bias towards actively identifying additive transformation, we can generally still see the value in subtraction when prompted. On a personal level alongside your to-do list, Klotz employs what he calls ‘Stop Doing lists’ (Surely a lost opportunity to name it a ‘To Don’t List’…) using the logic that if he is at capacity, he needs to be constantly on the lookout for things he can stop doing.

So, with this reminder that less is more, what would you put on your ‘To Don’t List?’ and how can you create the ritual, habit and psychological safety on your team and across your organisation to go through this process more regularly?

[1] Adams, G.S., Converse, B.A., Hales, A.H. et al. People systematically overlook subtractive changes. Nature 592, 258–261 (2021). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41586-021-03380-y

[2] Klotz, L. (2021). Subtract: the untapped science of less. First edition. New York, NY, Flatiron Books.