The hardest math of all

It's September 1981 and I'd walk into and sit down at my first class at the University of Waterloo, in Waterloo, Ontario. It's algebra, taught by Professor Lee Dickey. After he introduces himself, he walks to the large blackboard and proceeds to write Fermat's Last Theorem on the board – a world famous mathematical theorem that Fermat had claimed he'd had a brilliantly wonderful proof that he hadn't written out before he unexpectedly passed away.

It's a theorem that had eluded the brightest minds in mathematics for 350 years. Professor Dickey told the class that if anyone could prove this, they'd be immortalized in the mathematics community. After class, I considered looking at it, but instead decided to go to the bomb-shelter (the campus pub) with some new friends for a dozen or so pints.

Mathematics is a wonderful discipline, providing foundational constructs and for engineering, computing, and architecture, to name only a few. But mathematics is hard. Differential equations, calculus, algebra, probability distributions, number theory, string theory, etc. – the list of branches of mathematics is amazing.

And, of course, mathematics plays a huge role in business, especially in management.

In business, one math concept stands out as the most influential, but also the hardest to instill and master.

That concept would be “subtraction”.

Whether you're designing new products or business processes, everyone worships at the altar of . And, with good reason.

Simplicity sells. It sticks. Simplicity made hits of the Nest thermostat, Fitbit, and TiVo. Simple brought Apple back from the dead. It's why we have Netflix. The Fisher Space Pen and the Swiss Army Knife are some of our most enduring products. All marvels of simplicity.

Yet while many mechanical marvels of simplicity remain true to their original form, many electronic ones don't.

Travel back in time to use an early microwave and you'll likely see a box with three buttons (High, Medium, Low) and a timer. Today, one of LG's current models boasts 33 buttons. Do you press Auto Defrost or Express Defrost? And what does Less/More do? None of these make your popcorn or pizza cook faster, or taste better. And it's not easy to use. Why do products almost always become more complex as they evolve?

“Simplicity is about subtraction,” says Mike Monteiro, author of Design Is a Job. “We live in a culture of consumption, where quality is associated with more. Designers and manufacturers tend to believe that to succeed you must provide more”.

Consider Apple. Simplicity saved the company. Starting with the iMac, it rolled out a series of stunningly simple hits: OS X, iTunes, the iPod, iPhone, and iPad. Google was also built on simplicity. Google won dominance with its sparse and very simple search page. Simplicity made Google a verb.

Executives, managers, and project teams alike struggle with keeping things simple. That's because they can't subtract. I read a recent Wall Street Journal report that workers now spend over two full days a week either in meetings or on emails. That's incredibly ineffective and hardly the way to innovate or drive change.

To innovate or change, your calendar needs white space. Lots of it. Ideas rarely happen in meetings. They usually occur when you're daydreaming, showering, walking, taking a dump, or when you're bored and not doing anything. So, why don't we have more white space in our calendars? Easy – we can't seem to subtract those meetings.

The same chronic issue happens with meeting sizes. Most of the time there's too many people, who could have been more easily informed or communicated with via email. Again, most people can't subtract participants from the sessions.

It's a similar phenomenon in product and process design. Virtually everyone wants to add when you really should be looking to subtract. Is it any wonder that most business processes and their corresponding solutions are too complex?

Simplicity is quite easy to say, but very hard to achieve. It requires paring things away when market forces want you to add. It means removing layers rather than adding them.

It's achieved by subtraction.

Which is, in fact, the hardest math of all.

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