When looking to improve something, it seems like people always want to add more.

At least, this is what an interesting new piece of research by Adams et al suggests, just published in the journal Nature.

This has major implications for innovators in all types of companies, trying to find ways to make their products and services “better“.

The study aimed to study how people approach solving challenges, and whether they would prefer doing this by “adding more” (additive transformations) to the object which needed changing, or whether they would find ways to improve it by “removing things” (subtractive transformations).

The results were clear:

Across eight experiments, results show that people systematically default to searching for additive transformations, and consequently overlook subtractive transformations.

For example:

  • When an incoming university president solicited ideas for improvements, only 11% involved getting rid of something
  • When asked to improve a travel itinerary, only 28% of the participants did so by eliminating destinations
  • Essay improvements led to an increase in word counts in all but 17% of the cases
  • In an experiment that involved making patterns out of coloured squares, only 20% of the participants removed squares in order to achieve a pattern, even though either option was equally viable. To probe this question further, the researchers did the same experiment but gave the participants additional tasks to distract them. This added cognitive load seemed to decrease the likelihood that participants would come up with subtractive solutions, suggesting that it takes some mental energy for people to overcome a natural tendency to ignore subtractive options.

It seems like we as humans are hardwired to think that “more” is required to make something better. And that under cognitive load, we are even less likely to think of removing something to improve it.

However, this can become a real problem with innovation. Often, if something is not working yet, the answer is not to keep adding more of what is not working.

Sometimes, you need to remove things that are not working, to allow focus on the parts which are working, and then improve from there.

So how can we overcome this bias?

The researchers indicated that by doing something as simple as telling people they could think about subtracting made this significantly more likely:

A couple of additional experiments looked at the original topic that got the authors interested in the subject: the little nudges we use to get people to consider that less might be more. Here, the researchers used a control set of instructions that simply laid out the task at hand and a second set in which the instructions specifically mentioned the option of deleting something. It turns out that these nudges work. In a typical experiment, the number of participants who suggested subtractive solutions went up by 20 percentage points relative to the control instructions.

So if you want your innovation team to consider all the possibilities, sometimes it just takes a clear instruction to think about whether anything could be removed.

After all, as famous designer Dieter Rams said: Good design is as little design as possible.

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Did you know that scientific evidence shows your creativity decreases over time
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Creativity & Innovation expert: I help individuals and companies build their creativity and innovation capabilities, so you can develop the next breakthrough idea which customers love. Chief Editor of Ideatovalue.com and Founder / CEO of Improvides Innovation Consulting. Coach / Speaker / Author / TEDx Speaker / Voted as one of the most influential innovation bloggers.