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Subtractive Insight: What Is It and How Can It Help You?

If you have ever worked on a project, typically the main goal is to solve a problem. Whatever the case may be, most folks approach projects and problem-solving by adding things. New enhancements! More communication! And before you know it, your project has a mind of its own and is now on the hunt for John Connor.

Very rarely do we look at the other side of the coin and think … What can we get rid of? What if the problem is just too much junk? Too many meetings, too much information. This can all get overwhelming pretty quickly. This brings us to the idea of subtractive insight.

Remove the training wheels … and then some

Subtractive insight, albeit not a new phenomenon, really didn’t have a name until scientists began studying Ryan McFarland, the founder of Strider bikes. Ryan was frustrated by how cumbersome it was to teach a child how to ride a bike, between grasping the physical concept and the various contraptions to try to help them stay up. So instead of saying, “Hey, maybe we should add another set of training wheels,” Ryan took them away. And took away the pedals. And the chains.

Essentially, the Strider bikes are purely focused on helping the rider learn one thing: balance. Instead of trying to focus on the multiple components of bike-riding, you can take a progressive approach – and have a lot of fun doing it!

This methodology isn’t just limited to bike riding. I teach a fitness class dance that can be a bit, well, complicated. Whenever I have a new student in my class, I always tell them to first focus on the legs. If they can master the legs, then they can start working on the arms, the head, etc. If you try to focus on everything at once, it can be confusing and downright discouraging. It starts with just one step.

Why didn’t I think of this before?

In thinking back on my own career, I realized that many of my project teams equated improvement with addition. We just never thought about the idea of taking things away or doing less. Why is that?

For one, you may have thought that taking things away may exclude some people. For example, my team had to provide webinars on a system update that affected over 70,000 employees. We tried to include as many offerings as we could given our team’s workload and our own work hours. And yet, we still managed to leave out some people based on their time zone. So why the heck would we offer fewer webinars?

The solution? A video! Record it once and reach anybody any time they’d like! Overall, less work and less stress, but still the same amount of benefit for our customers.

You may also feel a duty to cover as many bases as you possibly can. You want to make sure you take into account everything that could go wrong, teach the students on every nook and cranny in the system, etc. While that is all well and good … it’s impossible to account for everything. Very few students are going to need to know how to code attrition rates in SQL. So why would we waste precious energy and stress ourselves about these one-off scenarios? That’s not to say we should ignore these weird instances, but worrying about them to the point that the rest of the work suffers because of it services no one. As Ron Swanson once said, “Don’t half-a** two things, whole a** one thing.”

Slow and steady wins the race

Many studies have been done on concepts that tie back into subtractive insight. Remember when multi-tasking was debunked? A lot of researchers have determined that subtractive insight isn’t necessarily an issue because people don’t want to do it. They just don’t often think to do it. It’s kind of like the idea of functional fixedness; we’re only going to see that cup as a cup until someone tells us they use that cup as a speaker for their phone.

When we’re presented with a different way to approach the problem, or better yet given the time and the permission to explore other possibilities, we may often find that subtracting items is a more effective approach.

A few years ago, I surveyed a group of my students to determine how effective our training was in our data reporting tool. Several students provided feedback that they were confused and didn’t grasp the material. Instead of trying to add more exercises to explain, I took exercises away. I took the pedals and the chains off and focused purely on the basics of the data reporting tool. The feedback we’ve received since then has been extremely positive, and we don’t run into nearly as many students who simply give in and refuse to use the system.

Had I not been given the time to really talk to my students and determine the true issues, I wouldn’t have taken this approach. More organizations are realizing that being thoughtful in their problem solving can lead to greater benefits, versus just getting as much done as possible in the blink of an eye. Government is focusing on concepts like Plain Language to become more accessible and straightforward. So think about it … What are the pedals and chains in your organization?

Myranda Whitesides is a Performance Support Specialist for the Interior Business Center, the Department of Interior’s Shared Services Center. She conducts personnel and payroll systems training for over 50 federal agencies, as well as providing training in Diversity and Inclusion for her peers. Myranda also volunteers for the Mile High Society for Human Resources Management (SHRM), working with the chapter to provide educational content for Human Resources professionals in the Denver Metro area. Myranda also enjoys singing, camping, and exploring local breweries and restaurants with her husband, Daniel.

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Pearl Kim

This can be a really transformative approach! Love the example of how you used subtractive insight for better training opportunities.