The Subtraction Technique: The Creative Power of Taking Elements Away

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October 19, 2020

The Subtraction Technique: The Creative Power of Taking Elements Away

Subtraction is the removal of an essential core element rather than the addition of new systems or functions. 

Like all the other techniques of the Systematic Inventive Thinking or SIT method, the subtraction technique is designed to break cognitive fixedness, which is the mental bias we have of how we see things.

It trains you to use your brain in a different way and see new possibilities. 


Steps in Applying the Subtraction Technique


  1. Make sure you define your closed world and your starting point.

What is your closed world environment? Then within that closed world, what is the element of it that you want to innovate? What is your starting point?

  1. Define all the components.

Break it down into its constituent components, which are the things directly attached to the product or service. Write them in a numbered list so you can see them and internalize the process that you’re going to go through. 

  1. Pick one component and remove it from the system.

Pick one that you think is essential or something you can do without. Now, imagine the component you picked is gone. You have all the other elements, just not that component. 

  1. Visualize the virtual product.

Remember that in a cognitive process, function follows form. So go backward from there. Figure out the problem that it solves or the benefit it delivers. 

  1. Ask yourself these two questions (in order):
  • Should we do it? – What would be the benefit?
  • Can we do it? – Is it feasible? Do we have the know-how and processes to be able to do this? Are there any legal or regulatory barriers that prevent us from doing it? 


Applying the Subtraction Technique


Let’s take the TV as an example here.

  1. The TV itself is the closed world. 
  1. Components or things in the immediate vicinity:
  • things in the living room or the office depending on where the TV is
  • screen, speakers, frame, TV base, remote control, power cord
  • input jacks, HDMI antenna
  1. Let’s pick the screen as the component we need to remove. 

You can’t have a TV without a screen, right? And this is the whole point of this technique which is to recognize that as fixedness. 

  1. Now that we’ve removed the screen, visualize all the remaining components which we now note as the virtual product. And what we get is a screenless TV.
  2. Answering the questions
  • Question #1: What are the benefits of a screenless TV? Well, it’s going to be cheaper, smaller, and a lot more portable.
  • Question #2: Can we do it? In fact, screenless TV already exists! It’s in the form of satellite radio like Sirius XM and others around the world. Those satellite services broadcast live TV channels such as news and sports. And they’re actually broadcasting in the actual TV broadcast. 

To hear more about how to break fixedness through subtraction, listen to the full podcast episode here: Episode 011: The Subtraction Technique: The Creative Power of Taking Elements Away.