Sometimes the best way forward is a step back

The expression, “A camel is a horse designed by committee” is meant to poke fun at a design process in which compromise is more important than outcome. Of course, a camel is the preferred mount for the desert, but in most places, a simple horse will be faster, more comfortable and less ornery.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot since coming across the book “Subtract: The Untapped Science of Less,” by Leidy Klotz. “In our striving to improve our lives, our work, and our society, we overwhelmingly add,” he writes. “Subtraction is the act of getting to less, but it is not the same as doing less. In fact, getting to less often means doing, or at least thinking, more.”

Klotz, an engineer, worked with a psychologist to figure out why “more” seems to be our default setting. The experiments they designed — involving puzzles, LEGO structures and other challenges — quickly confirmed the hypothesis but also revealed a hack. Participants were more likely to choose a subtractive solution when subtly prompted, or when given a few rounds to practice.

“On the other hand,” reports Scientific American in its study coverage, “having to simultaneously juggle another task — such as keeping track of numbers on a screen — made individuals less likely to subtract elements to solve the same problem, suggesting that it requires more effort to think up subtractive solutions than additive ones.”

At Nottingham Spirk, our work, at its most fundamental level, is about creative collisions — linking ideas from different products, industries and disciplines to create something new. This is inherently additive. So is collaboration, which is the heart of our Vertical Innovation process. But the process also includes steps to ensure we’re not going overboard with research, design and engineering. Partner-clients want to get to market fast, and their customers want products that are easy to use.

“Invent and Simplify” is one of Amazon’s leadership principles. “Leaders expect and require innovation and invention from their teams and always find ways to simplify.” Think about that. One of the most successful companies in history values simplification as much as innovation. There’s a lesson in that for every company, no matter how small.

But culture change begins with individuals. In his book, Klotz asks, “Do you spend more time acquiring information — whether through podcasts, websites, or conversation — than you spend distilling what you already know? … Do you have more stuff than you used to? Are you busier today than you were three years ago?” He doesn’t ask if you’re happy about these developments. Very few people would say they are.

This is why I’m working on a “not-to-do list,” an exercise in prioritizing and delegating to improve productivity. The list includes tasks that you think you should do, or might be asked to do, or even want to do. But if doing these things doesn’t move you toward a bigger objective and are really unnecessary tasks, then let them go.

I’m reminding myself daily of this insight from hyper-productive entrepreneur and author Tim Ferriss: “What you don’t do determines what you can do.” I’m betting (metaphorically) on horses, not camels.

Bill Nottingham is Managing Partner & VP of Growth at Nottingham Spirk