The appeal of subtraction

Erasing a path You may have heard the self-help gurus talk about how paralyzed people have become by all their stuff, jammed into their houses, garages, storage units.  It's overrunning people's lives and making them miserable.

The same thing is happening at work. We have so many programs, processes, special initiatives, goals, strategic mandates, task forces, and focus areas that people are overwhelmed.

I recently met with a company task force that was trying to figure out a way to communicate  the brand messages, corporate vision, company purpose, employee values, and four new "pathway to success" programs, all with their own titles and acronyms.

"What should we do," they asked.

"Subtract," I said.

No one cares about all your messages and programs.  It's too much.  What are the one or two, maybe three things, that will guide and possibly inspire your tens of thousands of employees in their work?  What matters for what you're trying to achieve?

The kill your babies message is never popular, but to move forward we have to look at what we can let go -- and do far less of.

This is especially important when rebels are trying to introduce big new ideas.  Leaders are reluctant to keep adding without some subtracting.  There's not enough budget and the "add add add" mentality creates bloated bureaucracy that slows everyone and everything down.

A new library director at a major United States university presented an inspiring vision for what the library could become.  The vision, the value, the thinking were superb. The funding needed to realize the vision was $12 million.  The provost said, "No."

The library director went back and found a way to cut $7 million from the existing budget. When she went back to the provost he said, "Here's the other $5 million you need."

If your big change idea is stuck in budget approval limbo, ask yourself,

"What can we subtract to get the support to do what's most important?"