The Subtraction Technique: When Less is More

Why Apple Will Maintain Its Innovation Momentum
September 20, 2016
Verbify Your Innovative Brands
October 4, 2016

The Subtraction Technique: When Less is More

Take a look at these four items and tell me – what do they have in common? Here, you see an exercise bicycle, a package of powdered soup, a contact lens, and a child’s high chair, the kind that slips over the edge of the table.

Do you see it? Most people would answer that they’re all consumer goods, or that they all provide convenience to the consumer. And while that’s true, that’s not what I’m looking for. Take a look at how they were constructed? Compare them to an early form of the product. Now do you see it?

Each of the items has had something subtracted from an original form of a product. The exercise bike has had the rear wheel removed. The powdered soup has had the water removed. What about the contact lens? It’s had the frame removed. And the child’s highchair has had the legs removed. All four of these products are examples of what can be created using the Subtraction Technique. Let me show you how to use it.

First, we define Subtraction as the elimination of an essential component rather than an addition of new systems and functions. To use the technique, follow the steps of the Function Follows Form principle. First, list the internal components. The internal components are those that are directly on or connected to the product.

Then, apply Subtraction by removing a component. Don’t be bashful here – pick something that you think is essential to the product or service. Next, you visualize the resulting virtual product. Remember that the virtual product is an abstract configuration at this point and it may seem rather odd, and even absurd.

At this next stage, you ask yourself two questions, and you do it in this specific order. The first question is, should we do it? Does this new configuration create any advantage or solve some problem? Is there a target audience who would find this beneficial? Does it deliver an unmet need?

If you identify some benefit, then you ask yourself the second question: Can we do it? Do we have the technical know-how to make this concept? Is it feasible? Do we have the intellectual property? Are there regulatory or legal barriers?

Once you complete this first round, the Subtraction Technique allows you to replace the function of the missing component. We first try to replace it with something from the Closed World, something in the immediate vicinity of the where the consumer uses the product. If not, we think of how we could import some technology or other component from outside the closed world.

Subtraction is a powerful technique because it breaks fixedness and forces you to mentally imagine all the remaining components delivering some new benefit.