Addition vs Subtraction
“Organizations are horrible at subtraction.”
Someone said that to me a couple months ago, and I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it since.
It is so true. Organizations are so much better at adding things than they are at taking things away. We’re better at setting goals and talking about what we’re going to do than we are at talking about what we’re NOT going to do. It's easier to add process than it is to ask why we're still doing that thing that worked great two years ago but mostly isn't relevant anymore. We’re better at adding meetings than we are at removing them.
In the early years of Facebook, Sheryl Sandberg always made us set “non-goals” in addition to goals. The company had a list of the things we weren’t going to do in addition to the things we were trying to do. Even if it sometimes felt perfunctory, I loved that ritual. When I work with start ups, I push that conversation during goal setting: let’s not just set a list of things we’re going to do, let’s also make a list of things we are explicitly NOT going to do this quarter/this half/this year.
Setting non-goals is a ritual that helps with focus. It should make priorities more clear. It is a great way to decide NOT to start things.
But it is not subtraction.
Subtraction is the decision to stop doing something — to take something away.
Subtraction is usually quite painful to think about for organizations. Inertia is powerful. It is scary to disrupt things that are in motion. We worry about offending people. We worry that the process that feels useless is actually useful.
I’ll give you an example that has come up 100 times in my work.
“We have this meeting. It's got 30 people in it. It started because we needed to coordinate across departments. And then we just kept adding people. And now it's like a weird 30 person stand up every week. I'm not sure we need it any more but I'm nervous to be the one to say - what if we stop doing this?”
This is just the story of one meeting but some version of it is happening inside every company right now.
My answer: remove the meeting for a month and see what breaks. Chances are that nothing will.
If removing it feels to scary, then turn it in to an email. Or at the very least, give it a clear owner who has to make it useful.
Meetings are a symptom of a larger problem, but time is one of the most important things to watch like a hawk. Everyone who has worked at a bigger company has done the “salary math” for big meetings — this one hour meeting is costing us $100,000+, is it worth it?
I actively coach CEOs that how they spend their time should reflect the priorities and emphasis they want to drive inside the company. The best CEOs I know are religious about how they spend their time. In some ways, the same should be true of each of us — we should jealously protect our time and if something feels like a waste of time, we should demand that it either be better or go away.
So if you're wondering what to subtract, start with the calendar. What are the things that take up the most time inside your company? Here's a starter list:
Performance reviews: ok so how can you make them faster? What would it look like to do them in half the time?
Goal setting: same questions as above
Budget / headcount process: see above
All hands: what's the purpose of these? Do they fulfill their purpose? How can we use this time better? Should they be less frequent?
Business reviews: are these efficient and powerful? Are the right people there?
Those are just some examples but in any company over 100 employees, these are probably accurate.
I have five tools and ideas for how companies can get better at subtraction:
1) Make a practice as a leadership team of asking: do we actually need to do this? What would break if we didn't? You can do this through a “start / stop / continue” exercise but the most important thing is to both do the exercise AND follow through on it. Actually pick 3 things to stop doing that feel meaningful. Create a culture that rewards people who remove things or even just people who ask the question. There should always be a clean, clear answer for why something exists and why we do it the way we do it. Ask why multiple times and if/when you get to the answer “because that's how we do it,” then you know it's time to subtract.
2) Even just as a thought exercise, ask how you can do things in half the time. I will never forget the person in IT at Facebook (when it was 10,000+ employees) who told me that they measured productivity inside the company and that it very clearly ground to a halt during peer review season. I know multiple companies that have asked how to make performance reviews less time suck-y and ended up blocking the entire company calendar for one day to write peer reviews versus having it spread over 2 weeks. There are pros and cons to every process design, but even if you ask all the questions and end up redesigning the same thing, at least you feel completely confident on why you're doing it that way.
3) Calendar bankruptcy: at the end of the year each year, wipe the calendars. I did not come up with this, but it is a great practice for forcing people to evaluate every meeting and whether it truly needs to exist. Yes it is painful for EAs (sorry!) but with subtraction comes pain because you are fighting inertia. It's easy to leave the meeting on the calendar because the room is booked, etc, etc., and it is painful to remove it but it forces you to ask: do we need this meeting? If so, who REALLY needs to be there? Does it really need to be 60 mins?
4) Re-evaluate and refactor all major processes / meetings every 3-6 months. I realize this feels too frequent but given how much collective time things like business reviews take up, you need to think of these processes as iterative not fixed. Try a new agenda, making it shorter, making it asynchronous, remove it and see what breaks, etc. Let me say it again: ALL major processes inside of start ups should be iterative. Your business evolves, your understanding evolves, your priorities evolve... your meetings and processes need to evolve with it!
5) This last one is wacky and only makes sense for bigger companies but... put someone in charge of subtraction. Eng teams often do this (see: eng efficiency initiative) but what if it happened for the whole company? Someone told me a story about a person who was tasked with reducing time-load on employees and ended up designing things like auto-approving vacation requests of less than 7 days. Imagine how many small things there are like that that eat up time and mental energy? Imagine how many big things go unexamined because people are too afraid to ask the question. It would be an interesting experiment for every company of over 1,000 employees to have someone where half or all of their job was just to look for things to stop doing, someone whose whole job is to ask “why are we doing this?” Someone who was empowered to look for subtraction.
I'm genuinely curious about what other practices folks have seen at companies that promote subtraction. Comment or send me an email (email@example.com) - I'd love to learn from you.
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While many of the meetings on my calendar feel unavoidable, I have found great power - and free brain space - in jettisoning out of recurring status calls once my input is no longer needed. The invitee list doesn't obligate me to be there forever and keeping in mind an objective to, at each meeting, ensure that I actually need to be at the next one, has been very helpful in keeping the accrual of standing meetings in check.
What I find fascinating is how good we are at describing what is out-of-scope for a given sprint and being vigilant about scope creep on client projects but have such a hard time applying those principles to the project of the company.
I see so much organizational debt as companies grow, and sometimes this "debt" is measure in the amount of unnecessary processes that the company has outgrown