3 Ways Leaders Can Subtract Their Way to Success

When you remove just the right thing in just the right way, something good usually happens.  ~Matthew E. May

subtractionThe Laws of Subtraction by Matthew E. May is one of the books that I periodically pull off my shelf because it just feels like I could benefit from some editing in my work and my life.  Excess has taken over and it is time to “remove just the right thing in just the right way.”

May says, “I believe subtraction is the path through the haze and maze, one that can allow us to create clarity from complexity and to wage and win the war against the common enemy of excess.”

Several months ago I facilitated a training class on effective presentations.  Over the course of two days the participants had to give a number of presentations, two of which were video-taped.  For a number of reasons (time, logistics, technology, etc.), I did not let them use PowerPoint for any of their presentations.  That frustrated some of the participants.  Not only had PowerPoint become a crutch, it enabled them to add more to their presentations, and more doesn’t equal better.  They could use flipcharts, the whiteboard, visual aids, etc., all of the old-fashioned stuff they had put aside.

When I forced them to subtract the excess because they couldn’t add slide after slide of text, information, data, etc. they created presentations that turned complex information into clearly articulated ideas.

This was hard work for these participants and there’s a reason.  Matthew May reminds us that “Subtraction doesn’t come naturally or intuitively.  We are hardwired to add and accumulate, hoard and store.”  He continues and quotes from The Laws of Simplicity, “Simplicity is about subtracting the obvious, and adding the meaningful.”

Here are three questions leaders can ask to determine if they need to do some subtraction.

  • What are you currently offering, doing, participating in, spending money on, etc. that is hindering your overall success instead of contributing to your success (organizationally and personally)?
  • When you communicate – whether in emails, speaking, reports, or plans – do you subtract the obvious and add the meaningful?
  • Can you identify the one priority that is most important for the next 90 days (organizationally and personally)?

May puts it this way.  “At the heart of every difficult decision lie three tough choices:  What to pursue versus what to ignore.  What to leave in versus what to leave out.  What to do versus what not to do.  If you focus on the second half of each choice—what to ignore, what to leave out, what not to do—the decision becomes exponentially easier and simpler.”

So leaders, why not subtract your way to success?

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