Originally published in Forbes.
What do these innovations have in common?
- Four members of a rock band get on stage stark naked, duct tape sealing their mouths and feedback blaring behind them. They stand facing the audience in silence for the entire performance. This is Rage Against the Machine at Lollapalooza 1993.
- Led Zeppelin make an album with no writing on the cover. No band name, no album name, no song titles. It came to be known as Led Zeppelin IV and is their best-selling album.
- A full orchestra sits down and begins a piece written by composer John Cage. They sit in silence, immobile. After four minutes and thirty-three seconds, they get up and take a bow. This is 4’33’’ by John Cage.
- A television network launches a series of live performances by rock bands in which they have to keep their music quiet. Introducing the Peabody Award-winning MTV Unplugged.
- A woman in her forties finds three smooth-talking young men and brings them into the studio to record a song with no melody. The result, Sugarhill Gang’s “Rapper’s Delight,” takes the radio waves by storm.
What these innovations all have in common is that they subtract an essential feature of a product as we know it to create something exciting. Rage Against the Machine subtracted their music and their clothes in a powerful protest against Parents Music Resource Center’s attempts to censor their music. They showed, in the words of lead guitarist Tom Morello, “that you can’t always take it for granted that you’ll be able to hear music that challenges the status quo.” Led Zeppelin’s choice of cover diverted attention from the band’s brand to its music while simultaneously advancing its mystique. 4’33’’ by John Cage’s subtracted music from a musical performance and challenged a generation of listeners to question what is the nature of music. By taking away amplification, MTV Unplugged showed audiences a different side of their favorite musicians. And “Rapper’s Delight,” announced the arrival of rap, a wildly successful musical genre that demonstrates that you can have powerful music without melody.
Now consider these innovations in business: earbuds, contact lenses, iTouch, dry erase markers, online retailers, and Southwest Airlines. They also innovate by subtraction. Ear buds subtracted the earphones from traditional headphones. Contact lenses subtracted frames from glasses. The iTouch subtracted the phone from the iPhone. Dry-erase markers subtracted the polymer from permanent markers. Online retailers subtracted salespeople from the sales transaction. And Southwest airlines subtracted assigned seats and other frills.
A team of researchers inspired by Russian scholar Genrich Altshuller compared hundreds of successful and unsuccessful products and found that inventive solutions share certain patterns, or templates. This research is summarized in Andrew Boyd and Jacob Goldenberg’s Inside the Box: A Proven System of Creativity. Many of the examples in the book come from the work of Systematic Inventive Thinking, or SIT, a global innovation agency that uses insight from this research to facilitate innovation in companies such as Bayer, General Electric, Siemens, and Kraft.
The SIT method is based on a few guiding principles. First is that all innovations, whether in products, services or work processes, share a few common templates that can be applied and leveraged in order to create new ideas. This means that innovation doesn’t require special gifts or a stroke of genius, merely the disciplined and structured application of these templates. Second is the importance of thinking “inside the box,” or identifying solutions within existing constraints and resources. Third is the importance of overcoming fixedness, or the tendency to see things in a particular way.
Subtraction is one of the templates for innovation. Used as an exercise, it helps eliminate fixedness by asking people to take out an essential component of their product and imagine what they could do with it using their existing resources.
It’s a lot harder than it sounds.
As described in Boyd and Goldenberg’s book, when SIT implemented subtraction at Johnson & Johnson’s anesthesia development unit, the engineers nearly walked out of the room. They were trying to increase profit margins on a piece of equipment used in the operating room. When they were told to try to imagine subtracting the unit’s biggest component, the back up battery, they protested. “It is a violation of federal law to sell this machine without a backup battery,” noted one of the engineers. Everyone laughed; clearly this was an exercise in futility.
“We are all fixed,” told me Alon Harris, an innovation facilitator at SIT. “We’re used to doing things in certain ways, we have our habits, we have our culture that instills in us certain codes and, in most cases, it’s a very good thing. It enables us to be fast in our decision-making, it turns us into experts.” But it gets in the way of innovation.
With a nudge from their boss, the Johnson & Johnson engineers decided to play along with the subtraction idea. Without the battery, someone pointed out, the anesthesia unit would be lighter. It would also be cheaper to manufacture and less complex, noted another. “Come to think of it,” said another engineer, “the backup battery takes up most of the space in the unit.” Space is a scarce resource in the operating room and a smaller machine would provide a competitive advantage. When pushed, the engineers realized that federal regulation required that the units have power but didn’t specify the source of the power. So someone suggested connecting the machine to the back up battery of the defibrillator. There would be enough power for both machines, if needed, and since all operating rooms have defibrillators, this was a plausible solution. The engineers set to work on a new prototype.
The result of this process of subtraction is Johnson & Johnson’s SEDASYS anesthesia system, which allows patients to regulate their own levels of anesthesia. Ironically, J&J now faces an even greater subtraction challenge: the SEDASYS has been generating resistance from anesthesiologists for subtracting them from colonoscopy and other procedures.
“We’re in the age of adding, adding pluses, adding features, adding services, adding more,” said Harris. “When I take away an element, the most essential element, now I’ve got something that is perceived to be broken. And if I can find the value in that broken thing, in that accident, then actually I’m probably going to surprise the people around me with something they weren’t expecting.”
In 1966, when the Beatles decided to be a rock n’ roll band that does not perform live for audiences, their act of subtraction opened up the possibility of doing things in the studio that no band had done before. Freed from the need to create music that could be re-created live, they climbed new artistic – and commercial – heights.
Next time you feel blocked, try doing like the Beatles and take out something you used to think was essential.