Diana Kwon recently wrote a Scientific American article titled, "Our Brain Typically Overlooks This Brilliant Problem-Solving Strategy." She opens with an anecdote about how kids learn to ride a bicycle today versus in the past. When I was a kid, my father installed training wheels on my bike, as many other parents did. Today, more and more parents are opting to purchase balance bikes for their children. These two-wheel bicycles have no pedals. Kids learn balance and coordination on these bikes. Many say that these bikes are much more effective than training wheels. Kwon asks the question, "Given the benefits of balance bikes, why did it take so long for them to replace training wheels?"
To answer that question, Kwon describes a fascinating new research study published in Nature by Gabrielle Adams, Benjamin Converse, Andrew Hales and Leidy Klotz. The article is titled, "People systematically overlook subtractive changes." The authors found that people tend to focus on adding components and features when trying to improve a product or service, rather than considering how they migth subtract features and attributes. This bias toward addition appeared quite strong in their research.
For me, this interesting research has implications beyond product design. It explains a great deal about the strategic mistakes that firms often make. In strategy, we often talk about the power of choosing what not to do. Great firms make tradeoffs, rather than trying to be all things to all people. Choosing what not to do means subtracting features. Southwest took away assigned seats and first class cabins. Ikea took away furniture assembly and delivery. Trader Joe's took away branded products, extensive product selection, self-checkout, and loyalty cards. Edward Jones took away investment opportunities in penny stocks, options, and commodities. Stihl took away distribution through big box retailers. Why do firms struggle to make tradeoffs. We have often said it's because managers become enamored with growing the top line, and they want every customer they can get... rather than thinking carefully about how to create a distinctive, difficult-to-imitate position in the market, tailored to a particular customer segment. Now this research explains that there may be a persistent bias against subtraction inherent in the way that we think about improving existing products and services. That may be getting in the way of making good strategic tradeoffs.