27 September 2023

The attraction of subtraction: Why less can equal more

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Roberta Matuson* says organisations that pile ever more tasks and responsibilities onto their workers are often producing little more than exhaustion and burnout.

Are you one of those leaders who thinks giving people more tasks and responsibilities is the key to increased productivity?

If so, you may want to rethink your strategy.

The opposite is true.

Leaders today keep piling on more meetings, training sessions, and software enhancements that are supposed to make life easier — instead it’s just a complication.

People are overwhelmed and exhausted just thinking about all that needs to be done, especially while doing the work of others, as positions remain unfilled.

As a result, their work suffers.

For many organisations the opposite — less, less, less — is the key to success.

When tasks are taken away, our minds are cleared, and we have time to focus on what actually matters.

Subtraction clears our minds and gives us time to focus on what really counts.

It sets the stage for innovative work, giving us the space to flop, fuss, discuss, argue about and experiment with seemingly wild ideas that can transform an organisation and make employees happier and more industrious.

In 2015, professional service firm, Deloitte added up the hours it was spending on performance management — writing up reviews and meeting employees to review performance.

It found this was taking up two million hours each year.

The organisation streamlined the process and shifted the focus from the past to the future.

Managers now invest their time discussing performance and career goals, which is way more productive than discussing things that can no longer be changed.

Addition seems to be the default mode of problem-solving.

Have a business challenge? Let’s call a meeting.

Can’t solve the problem in one session? Let’s schedule several more.

Sounds familiar?

Managers with large teams are rewarded more handsomely than those overseeing a smaller staff.

Inflated titles, and promotions that really aren’t promotions, add to the bloat.

Here are several ways to apply the rules of subtraction to your organisation and add more to your bottom line.


List everyone involved in interviewing to fill a particular role, with the names of those most critical to the hiring process at the top.

Then draw a line through the middle of this list and remove everyone below the line and tell them they are no longer part of the hiring process.


Ask team members what they’re currently doing that no longer makes sense.

Follow up by asking what’s adding frustration to their work?

Suggest they cut the number of people copied on a particular email by at least 20 per cent.

Ask people on your team to submit three subtraction targets.

Follow up in a month to see who implemented those targets and reward them for doing so.


Challenge employees to cut 60-minute meetings to 30-minute meetings and 30-minute meetings to 15-minute meetings.

Give employees permission to ask for clarification as to why they’re invited to a meeting.

Make it okay for people to un-invite themselves to a meeting without having to explain.

I’m sure you can think of many other ways to make subtraction the go-to move in your organisation.

Here’s the thing: The people who know best about inefficiencies are at the bottom of the organisation.

Ignite a subtraction movement in your organisation by inviting those closest to the problems to spearhead this effort.

A little cutting here and there will eventually make you see that less is more indeed.

What ideas do you have that can easily increase productivity with considerably less effort?

*Roberta Matuson is President of Matuson Consulting which helps Fortune 500 companies and high growth businesses create exceptional workplaces leading to extraordinary results. She can be contacted at [email protected].

This article first appeared at matusonconsulting.com.

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