Matthew May

A Simple Formula

Mastering subtraction may be the answer to solving today’s business challenges

by Kate Pavao, November 2012

Matthew May has always had trouble with the “less-is-more” concept. That’s because it assumes that more is better, he says, which isn’t always the case. May, a Toyota veteran and founder of Edit Innovation, an ideas agency, says today’s leaders should try a different approach: Smart subtraction. “It is all about understanding exactly what a customer or user wants, needs or requires and moving from that backwards, removing everything that gets in the way,” he tells Profit.


In his new book, The Laws of Subtraction: 6 Rules for Winning in the Age of Excess Everything, May challenges leaders to apply constraints, simplify rules — and even encourages them to spend time doing nothing. Here, he explains how his approach drives innovation and project success.

Profit: How can your approach help project managers?

May: By and large the reason most projects fail is because they are over-scoped. They are just too large. We love killer apps and the grand slam home runs, but we should be using an almost scientific approach to problems and searching for smaller, quicker, leaner solutions. Challenge your assumptions like any good scientist would, come up with a hypothesis, and then conduct a very low resolution, low fidelity experiment to see if you’re even on the right track. Project management becomes exponentially easier when you don’t have 20 to 30 people attached to a big budget and big timelines. It becomes more about trying to get an actual result to a user somewhere, rather than logistical management of people through time and space.

I learned this at Toyota, where I worked for about eight years. At Toyota, teams implement 1 million ideas a year. Most of these ideas are very small. The projects are tied to resource constraints rather than big budgets. They can be tested out, sometimes in a matter of hours or days, rather than months and years.

Profit: How do the rules apply to talent management and working with millennials?

May: Some of the policies and procedures that may have made sense years ago, don’t necessarily make sense for Gen Y. They want meaningful work and bit of autonomy in how that work gets performed. I have a couple of clients for whom millennials make up a vast majority of their associate base. They have gone to a Results Only Work Environment (ROWE), and it has been very, very effective. There seems to be no real valid reason to demand that people come into a particular place of work, tied to a particular chair and desk, just to look busy.

Also, how do you get the right people in the door in the first place? One of the trends is to let people dig their own jobs. This means, you’re not hired into a narrow niche. You’re not given a job title. Instead, you have to find where your particular skill set matches a given challenge in the organization and work with that team. And you’re commitment is to the team and that particular goal. This creates a flatter kind of organization. Employees will develop skill and expertise along more of a horizontal development path than a vertical one.

Profit: How can your approach inspire more creativity and innovation?

May: God forbid our manager or CEO walks by and sees us daydreaming, dozing or looking idle. Everybody’s busy, but what are we busy about? My last rule tells readers that doing something isn’t always as good as doing nothing.

Pulsing means stopping work on purpose so that you are more effective. I learned about pulsing from Tony Schwartz, the CEO for the Energy Project, who wrote the book Be Excellent at Anything.

There’s science behind it: After 90 minutes of work, our stress builds up, our creativity ducts become a little more taxed. Our sugar level drops so we go hit the Red Bull and lo and behold, our stress is that much more increased. Our productivity just goes out the door.

I used pulsing to write this book. I worked every 90 minutes and even if I was sort of in the middle of a flow, I stopped. And sometimes it was merely to refresh a cup of coffee or walk around the block or go for a mountain bike ride depending on how much time was in the remainder of my schedule. It took me six weeks to write the book versus the six months it took me last time.

Profit: How should leaders start to use the laws of subtraction?

May: The practical, personal way to begin is to ask a key question to those that you’re closest to, whether that is someone you work with or someone in your personal life. Ask that person what it is they’d like you to stop doing. You might have a hard time shutting them up.

From a business stand point, you can start with the flipside of that question: What are you doing that your competitors love because it gives them an advantage? We rarely ask these kinds of questions, because it’s easier for us to do something new or something more than it is to stop doing something. We have a habit and habits are hard to change.

Another approach is to create a Stop Doing list. The way you do that is you come up with your to-do list the way that you normally would, and do your normal prioritization — and then very simply cut the bottom 20 percent out. Years ago, business guru Jim Collins recommended this and I repeat his advice. We do too much, and that 20 percent is really not going to add that much impact anyway. Just discard it. Forever.