The best way to solve difficult problems is the one that we don’t think about.
Imagine you’re faced with a problem at work. Perhaps your presentation isn’t working, your new design is lacking something, or your hiring strategy requires some tweaking. What can you do to solve the problem?
Asking a dozen people for their advice might yield a dozen suggestions. Everyone will have something to offer, whether it’s a new recruitment strategy, a new slide, or a new product feature. But do you know what no one is likely to recommend? You can learn something from how you do things now.
A recent Nature study found that humans are more inclined to add to problems than to find solutions. This can lead to us missing out on many great ideas.
1. The human brain loves to add but neglects to subtract.
There are many biases that can affect our decision-making, and as Diana Kwon reported recently in Scientific American, researchers from the University of Virginia might have added to the list.
Engineer Leidy Klotz noticed that people add extra features to solve problems. He enlisted the help of Gabrielle Adams, a psychologist, to study this phenomenon. The researchers conducted a variety of experiments, including those that stabilized Lego structures and those that mirrored abstract shapes. They found that people tend to add elements instead of removing them.
Even though subtraction may be the fastest and most efficient way to solve the problem, this is still true. This was especially true for those who were distracted or in rushes. However, participants were more likely to choose minimal solutions if they received monetary incentives.
Benjamin Converse, co-author of the study, said that additive solutions “have a special status: they tend not to come to your mind quickly and easily.” Subtractive solutions can be more difficult to think about, but require more effort to find.
2. How to reduce our subtraction bias
If you are left alone, your team and you will likely do what is natural to you when confronted with a problem. And what comes naturally for humans is to add complexity. Your company may be losing more simple, cost-effective and innovative solutions. You are also creating unnecessary bureaucracy and bloat in your products.
This bias can be corrected by putting people under less pressure and helping them to focus. Smart business leaders have innovative ways to encourage people to think about subtractive solutions. Steve Jobs was a minimalist enthusiast. Stripe cofounder Patrick Collison also tweeted his response to the investigation about his own solution to the problem.
It is possible to wonder if optimizing speed might lead to the time pressure that researchers suggest encourages people to prefer addition over subtraction. But, more important, smart leaders recognize the trend toward people adding complexity and consider how they can ensure that minimal solutions are considered fair.