subtractive systems change

More Impact By Doing Less With Subtractive Change

A reputable non-profit with a seasoned executive realizes that it’s current anti-poverty efforts aren’t achieving their intended results. The organization’s board and leadership are convened to troubleshoot the issue. What should be done to improve outcomes?

A new, grant-funded youth program is proposed. Additional legislation is considered to target state spending toward best practices. New questions are drafted to be asked during participant intake.

subtractive systems change
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These steps may or may not work. But notice that each of these actions adds something new to the nonprofit’s work.

Everyone thinks you have to take additional action to make change, but what if the most effective way of solving problems is defined by what you don’t do? 

In this short post, I show how the subtractive systems change is backed up by scientific research, ancient wisdom, and modern business strategies. And, I reveal insight from my online course about:

  • 3 things NOT to do, and
  • 3 ways to encourage subtractive systems change.

The default path to improvement

In a 2021 research report published in Nature, investigators showed across eight experiments how most people faced with a problem default to considering additive changes as opposed to subtractive ones. The researchers found that over 90% of proposed organizational changes were additive in one experiment.

subtractive systems change
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In another experiment, participants were given a simple task of altering a pattern on a grid to make it symmetrical in the fewest steps possible. Even though the task could be completed in four steps through subtractive change, most participants chose additive changes with three times as many steps. Not surprisingly, additive changes were found to be even more likely when people were multitasking. 

subtractive systems change
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The researchers posited that there is nothing inherently wrong with additive change, but that people often miss superior actions – more impact with less work – that are subtractive.

Ancient wisdom of interdicts

Apophatic theology is the ancient religious tradition that approaches the Divine through the negative. Instead of defining God, it defines what God is not. Instead of prescribing what to do, it prescribes what not to do. Think of the ten commandments which are not about how to live a good life – something undefinable – but about prohibiting the bad. Or consider the Hippocratic oath: First, do no harm.

subtractive systems change
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In recent times, this via negativa strategy has been popularized by Nicholas Nassim Taleb in his books, most notably in Antifragile: Things That Gain From Disorder (it’s #25 the 35 Greatest Systems Thinking Books of All Time). As Taleb writes,

“In practice it is the negative that’s used by the pros, those selected by evolution: chess grandmasters usually win by not losing; people become rich by not going bust (particularly when others do); religions are mostly about interdicts; the learning of life is about what to avoid. You reduce most of your personal risks of accident thanks to a small number of measures.”

Modern business success by not making mistakes

But it’s not just ancient wisdom that is guided by the subtractive. Most people look at highly successful people and wonder, what can I do to be like them? However, perhaps instead we should be studying what they haven’t done.

As Steve Jobs said,

“Innovation is saying ‘no’ to 1,000 things. You have to pick carefully.”

Perhaps even more important than saying “no” is avoiding mistakes. As Warren Buffet has said, 

“Rule No. 1: Never lose money.

Rule No. 2: Never forget rule No.1.”

Buffet’s longtime business partner Charlie Munger explained it a bit more colorfully:

“It is remarkable how much long-term advantage people like us have gotten by trying to be consistently not stupid, instead of trying to be very intelligent.”

In addition to possibly achieving more by doing less, subtractive change reduces the risk of mistakes.

Additive systems change

Before we explore subtractive systems change, it’s important to note that most efforts of addressing social problems are characterized by adding something new. 

subtractive systems change
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Types of additive systems change

Generally, these additive changes can be organized into four categories.

  1. Time: Establishing new boards, steering committees and workgroups all require time. From group creation to logistics, an enormous amount of time goes into meetings.
  2. Money: Doing more by seeking more money (philanthropic or legislative), or doing more with less money.
  3. Rules: Adding rules and regulations is often the cheapest route to making changes. But many one-time, seemingly small additions result in institutional red tape and regulations that create a lasting burden.
  4. Coordinators: The accumulation of additive changes #1-3 often results in a new role: the central coordinator. Coordinators are often responsible for managing the first three types of additive changes.

These additive changes are made in light of potential benefits. For example, new meetings create value through collaboration. But they also preclude working on other activities that could create more value.

More money increases capacity. But it can also result in a whole range of new activities that can’t be sustained over the long-term. 

New rules can cheaply change the behavior of an entire organization. But they also remove flexibility to respond to changing conditions.

Czars can worry about the problem every day so the rest of us don’t have to. But coordinators are fallible because they can’t possibly know as much as everyone else together.

More complexity means more unintended consequences

The net result of more parts, relationships and rules is increasing the complexity of the system. That means less obvious and perhaps counterintuitive feedback loops between cause and effect. When that’s the case, the chance of making a mistake increases. 

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Subtractive systems change

Let’s go back to the nonprofit’s additive solutions and consider subtractive alternatives.

  • A new youth program may divert time and energy from more valuable existing services. A subtractive alternative could instead cut a program in order to redouble efforts on programs achieving the best outcomes.
  • More regulations could reduce the nonprofit’s flexibility to respond to changing conditions.  A subtractive alternative could remove existing legislation that reduces flexibility in how nonprofits spend public investments. 
  • New intake questions could increase intake time and unintentionally disincentivize enrollment. A subtractive alternative could remove some intake questions to free up staff time, speed up enrollment, and enroll more people.

Neither additive or subtractive changes are inherently bad. However, by defaulting to additive changes, people miss opportunities to get the same results, often with less effort, with subtractive changes.

Three things to NOT do

Subtractive change can be applied in nonprofits, government and philanthropy. It can also guide small reform efforts and large systems change initiatives.

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For guidance about what not to do in the social sector, let’s look to three insights from applied complexity theory. In Complexity and the Art of Public Policy by David Colander and Roland Kupers (#9 in the 35 Greatest Systems Thinking Books of All Time), the authors provide guidance about how to deal with complex systems that are difficult to understand. 

#1. Don’t assume

The first step is to admit our humility. As they put it in a reference to the economy that can be applied broadly to any complex system:

“We don’t understand the complex evolving economy, and probably never can understand it fully. Complex systems are not amenable to control, and we should give up the ambition to control the economic system.”

By admitting that we can’t fully understand the complex web of system interactions, we need to adopt strategies for dealing with incomplete knowledge.

As they point out, many of the mistakes people make in complex systems are based on assumptions of linear change. In other words, people assume simple lines of cause and effect when in fact things are much more complex.

The solution is simply to assume less. Don’t assume linear change.

#2. Don’t make more rules

In another observation, Colander and Kupers write:

“There is no general complexity policy; complexity policy is contextual, and consists of a set of tools, not a set of rules, that helps the policy maker come to reasonable conclusions.”

In other words, rules for acting are not very helpful because every situation is unique and requires a response tailored for the problem at hand.

In complex and changing conditions we need more flexibility, not less. To that end, rather than prescribing regulations for future behavior, one can focus on making sure actors have a range of systems thinking tools at the ready. (See my list of 75 systems thinking tools.)

#3. Don’t prescribe “how”

Instead of coming up with how a problem should be solved and implementing it top-down, as many systems change initiatives do, complexity policy thinks about structuring an ecosystem that fosters bottom-up solutions. In terms of public policy within government, Colander and Kupers call this approach an “ecostructure”.

Ecostructures have formalized goals and clear incentives, but no prescribed way of how goals should be achieved. Rather, they focus on allowing solutions to emerge by empowering actors within a system to make their own decisions. They promote a kind of evolutionary decision-making. Like a market that doesn’t have a central coordinator but nonetheless allows prices and quantities of goods to emerge, ecostructures create the environment for solutions to emerge.

For nonprofits and philanthropy, the ecostructure idea can be tapped by setting clear goals and creating incentives for programs, managers or participants to reach those goals. By not specifying how goals are reached, nonprofits and foundations can reward results and foster creative solutions. This may mean a case manager is free to develop their own methods of working with clients. Or it could mean letting clients or participants reach program goals by unorthodox methods.

How do I encourage subtractive systems change?

The authors of the Nature study provide three recommendations to stop defaulting to additive change. Below I apply these to systems change initiatives.

#1. Always weigh subtraction

Since most people default to additive changes, provide regular reminders that subtractive change is an option. For example, for every additive policy change one could try to consider rermoving a policy. 

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#2. Make subtraction a policy

Subractive change can encourage institutions to conduct a regular “spring cleaning” of rules and policies. Alternatively, systems change initiatives can design new polices with expiration dates so that they are not permanent.

#3. Highlight the benefits of subtraction

Tangible acknowledgements of what wasn’t done, or about the benefits of removing a policy should be promoted. By keeping subtraction and its potential benefits top of mind, subtractive thinking can become more of an organizational habit.

More impact with less work and fewer errors

By considering a subtractive systems change strategy, you have the potential to make more impact with less work and fewer mistakes. And at the same time, your work could increase the freedom of individuals to act in their own best interests. The net result is opening the door to creative bottom-up solutions that can’t even be imagined.

If you want to learn more about how to do subtractive change, check out my online course all about solving complex social problems.