peeling paint

Subtract to innovate

peeling paint

You have to shed some of your old skin to make room for the new one

While I don’t advertise it, I do give workshops on social media marketing and research. I give them on a “people/businesses ask me for them” basis. Why? Because I’m not really interested in telling you how to increase the number of Likes and/or followers. This is what the industry has become about. And businesses, like always, go head first without truly understanding what “this” is really about.

What I’m really interested in telling you, is what this “social stuff” means beyond marketing. What it means for how you organize, how you hire, how you deliver on your value proposition, how you work, how you communicate, etc. What it means to let real-time customer-insights direct your strategy.

As I told a buddy of mine recently, this is not an add on process where you just “install” a new feature to your business. My buddy wanted to know what the expected ROI was for these social media initiatives. This is a short sighted and correct MBA question. But that is not the question you should be asking because this is not an add on. It is not like adding new rims or a new intake system to your car, it’s the opposite.

It’s about subtracting some of what you already do to make room for the new.

It is not about adding more, it is about subtracting.

Don’t think about adding new rims. Think about why you need the ones you actually have. Heck, think about why you even need what you already have. Kick it to the curve and start over again.

Back to the shortsighted questions, here’s another way of looking at this. I just finished reading Nilofer Merchant’s new book “The Social Era” from which I took a small excerpt of what I mean:

But here’s the problem with asking, “does it scale?” as the first question: before you can know if it scales, first you have to know what “it” is. When I asked each of these successful and very smart executives that question—“What does the application of these Social Era Rules look like, for you?”—they had no answer. These leaders, however well intentioned, have started with the wrong question. (Now you know why I left out their names when I first started the story.) By asking first, “does it scale?” they have skipped past the more important question, which is, “what could it be for us?”

What I’ve found in these conversations and experiences, is that the main reason people and businesses reject these new ideas, is because what they are really are thinking is: I’ve got enough things on my plate and now you’re saying it’s all irrelevant!

Yes, that is exactly what I’m saying.

I think executives forget that you can’t keep up incrementing (more extension, more features?) your way to innovation, at some point you have to subtract some of what you do to make room for the new.

Subtraction is the road to replacing old habits with new ones

As Nilofer argues in her book, we are in a point in time where much of what we do is being or going to be rewritten. And making room for new ideas means letting go of old ones. And, the only way to let those  new ideas stay is to actually do something with them. For example, want to be more productive and innovative at the same time? You don’t add more things to do to your schedule, you subtract things you already do and make room for the new things.

That means doing less in-person meetings and more teleconferencing. It means working from undisclosed locations. It means collaborating through social networks, not email. It means saying no to your old ideas and yes to new ones. It’s not cost cutting, it’s developing amnesia of what you believe to be true.

Going back to Nilofer’s point, before rejecting and ignoring something, know and understand what it is. The only way to do that, is to embrace it. Take the time to understand what is driving change, what it means to your industry, how it will affect you and how you can use it.

Here two things you can do right now to begin subtracting the old to make room for the new:

  • Think big, start small, fail quickly, scale fast. Much like developing new habits, making room for the new isn’t expensive, it just takes discipline. Start with small steps, experiment and see what happens. If it works, scale it.
  • Start with a clean sheet of paper. Want to be liberated from your old thoughts and ideas? Kick them to the curb.

Remember: Don’t add, subtract to make room for the new.


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  • Loved reading this! I very much agree and would extend on it a bit.

    Remove a feature every week and optimize for happiness only! Basically there are 2 valid emotions to check on when removing features: Hate or Love… all others in between are not going to help you gain succes. (see slide 15-17)

    So if you start small, fail quick, scale fast (option 1 given) check for Love and optimize for happiness.

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts, always a pleasure to read.

    • Hi Jurgen,

      That is an interesting perspective. Similar to thinking about it as “must-have” vs “not-have”. Can you live without this feature? Does it make your life better? In what ways?

      Thanks for the sharing your preso, like the pirate angle 🙂



  • Easier said than done and you have to be pretty ruthless to subtract the old stuff.

    In most cases the old stuff just fades away but stays in there like junk DNA – Keven Kelly talks about this in “What Technology Wants” – Old tools never die.

    • Hi Martin,

      You nailed it with the word “ruthless”. That is exactly what it takes. It also takes understanding. Because like the look of old clothes, you have to be able to notice when it’s time to kick old ideas to the curve and make room for new ones.

      I haven’t heard of a go-to method for deliberately “killing old ideas”, have you?



      • Jorge,

        Google are getting more “agressive” in moving out older tech with Google apps and operating like a fast moving platform – the danger is that they may alienate the mainstream who may drop back to slower platforms.

        I guess we will be having the same conversation in decades to come just that the timeframes will be compressed – its a fundamental challenge in change.

        a go-to method for deliberately “killing old ideas” now that’s a idea – there are a few I would like to “retire”

        • Yes, it is a balancing act. Hey, that gives me an idea!

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