Everyone knows the story by now: 3M invented Post-It Notes because a chemical engineer was looking for a superglue, and his colleague, a chemist, realized the value of the polymer that became Post-It Notes.
What failed as a superglue succeeded wildly as a staple of office work. And that’s how most people think innovation happens – by accident.
Intentional innovation using subtraction thinking
But what do you suppose would happen if you left out a part of a product on purpose? What if you pair the question we posted previously, does it have to be this way? with the question, what if I subtract this part of the product?
Artist Jackson Pollock subtracted brush strokes and resorted to drips, becoming a key figure in the abstract expressionism movement. Poet Walt Whitman used no rhyme and invented free verse.
These examples are not to be confused with “less is more” minimalism. Unlike minimalism, in which a subject or art form is reduced to its essential elements, innovators ask, is this element really essential? It turns out that brush strokes are not essential to painting, and rhyme is not essential to poetry.
A recent Forbes report lists several highly successful music-related innovations that came about by stripping away a characteristic previously thought to be essential, such as amplification, and even melody.
The Forbes report then goes on to show how stripping away a characteristic previously thought to be essential can lead to innovation in the business world, too. Two of the fascinating examples listed are ear buds (subtracting the earphones from headphones) and Dry-erase markers (subtracting the polymer from permanent markers).
Forbes introduces Andrew Boyd and Jacob Goldenberg’s book, Inside the Box: A Proven System of Creativity, which relates a story of getting engineers at Johnson & Johnson to envision the subtraction of a significant feature in a successful medical product. The initially resistant engineers, with encouragement from their boss, stopped seeing the product as it was and went on to develop the innovative anesthesia system, SEDASYS.
Pathway to subtraction thinking
As described in the Forbes report, Boyd and Jacob Goldenberg’s book outlines a pathway to innovative thinking:
- First: Any and every innovation shares several templates in common that “can be applied and leveraged in order to create new ideas.” This idea becomes clearer as you read through our blogs.
- Second: Identify solutions within existing constraints and resources.
- Third: Overcome “fixedness, or the tendency to see things in a particular way.” Asking the two questions, does it have to be this way? and, what if I subtract this part of the product? erases “fixedness” and starts people on the path to envisioning in an innovative way.
If you are moving to more of a product development or innovation role, or are responsible for leading development and innovation, please visit me at Product Mastery Now – the source for online training to learn how to transform ideas into market-winning products.