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Lessen, subtract, take away, stop doing

“Perfection is achieved, not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.” – Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

Costco, a well-regarded American retailer believes in the “intelligent loss of sales”. They have a deliberately limited product range. That means Costco can focus its buying power more effectively, forecast demand more accurately and use its employees’ time more productively.


This leaves Costco store managers with time to walk the floor asking area managers open-ended questions such as:

“Why do we have five pallets of blankets here?”

“Why is this item not selling well?”


The questions help improve the store’s performance and help new managers develop.


Overburdened workloads and unrealistic time schedules lead to what we call among friends “lousy jobs”. And that’s a bummer for companies when “good jobs” (jobs that uphold dignity, meaning and pay) make sense for competitiveness and performance. From day-to-day operations to customer satisfaction and profits.

Subtracting is counterintuitive.

Companies are used to celebrating addition.

Profits, customers and share prices should go up rather than fall.

Innovation is the adding of new products.

Larger numbers are a measure of career success: managers climb the corporate ladder by taking on more projects and running bigger budgets.

As such, in our society, the value of doing less is underestimated.



Doing and offering less goes against the way humans are wired.

A study in which people were asked to think of ways to improve something (like the design of a miniature-golf hole) or solve a problem (such as making the pattern on a grid symmetrical) found that, without an explicit prompt to think about subtraction, participants systematically defaulted to adding features rather than taking them away.

 The “sunk-cost fallacy” means that managers find it hard to abandon projects that have already soaked up money.

Firms are often scared to give up optionality out of fear of missing out (aka FOMO): what if this new venture turns into the next big thing?

Sending emails and filling the calendar with meetings is a way to feel busy even if not much of value is getting done.

Subtracting from work is counterintuitive but essential.

Time and energy is finite.

Thus, to add value you need to do less of things that do not add high value.

If you go by the Pareto principle, you will find that about 20% of what you do leads to 80% of the results.


In practical terms, in business, you can start from these:


  • Clearing time for employees to get work done and to concentrate. A core aspect of that is having fewer unproductive meetings or, conversely, making meetings matter.

  • Communicating when necessary, not every time a bright idea pops into their head.

  • Making it clear if something is urgent or not. A recent study found that receivers of an email routinely overestimate how quickly its sender expects a reply.

  • Taking decisions to kill off projects and products that are going nowhere, and to focus efforts on the most important bits of the business. Peter Drucker called it “planned abandonment” where executively routinely ask: “If we did not do this already, would we go into it now knowing what we now know?”. We also come across it as setting tripwires in advance for when to kill a project.




The best bosses are those who take things away as well as add them on.

Question for you


What is one thing you can stop doing today?

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