New Research Suggests That Humans Struggle With Subtractive Thinking

Subtraction is the simplest, most common path to innovation. Whether it’s products, services or writing, simplifying is one of the greatest abilities of innovators. Do only certain people hold a monopoly on this very valuable skill? It seems so. New research suggests that humans struggle with subtractive thinking.

A paper published in Nature suggests that humans struggle with subtractive thinking. When asked to improve something—a Lego-brick structure, an essay, a golf course or a university—they tend to suggest adding new things rather than stripping back what is already there, even when additions lead to sub-par results.

From my experience coaching people on creativity and innovation I’ve seen that when solving problems, people prefer adding things to getting rid of them. Why? I don’t know but I have my ideas. Maybe it’s the belief that adding stuff makes something better. This belief was developed by advertising; more stuff must mean better. They beat that message into us when it’s not necessarily true for most people.

Just look at our mobile phones, full of features we never use. This “featuritis” was driven by competition, and the need for manufacturers to find ways to stand out. The same holds true with other industries such as automotive, clothing, technology, logistics, and on and on.

Addition by subtraction

So how do we overcome this tendency to add more stuff? Start by recognizing when to simplify.

If your intent is to make things better, a good rule of thumb when it comes to spotting opportunities for innovation is recognizing when a system, industry is stuck in a way of thinking and doing. All industries, and organizations, mature to do more stuff, and with it comes complexity. It is this complexity which presents the opportunity to simplify; to innovate.


Bottom line: Subtraction drives creative thinking, which drives innovation. Thus, subtract to innovate.