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Inside the Box: The Subtraction Technique -- When Less Becomes More

Oct. 15, 2013
The second in a series on innovation, this post explores one of the keys to Systematic Inventive Thinking.

Innovation calls for adding features to products. After all, more is better, right?

Not always.

One of the five techniques used in an innovation method called Systematic Inventive Thinking (SIT) is Subtraction. It works by removing features or components in order to create something new.

A team at Royal Philips Electronics used the SIT Method to design a radically new DVD player in the late 1990s. Conventional wisdom called for a player resembling the VCR units already in use. Following that wisdom would yield a DVD player with the same components: numerous buttons, a bulky body and a large LCD screen for keeping track of the player’s function.

Instead, the Philips engineers zeroed in on the “essential” components to see new possibilities. Were buttons on the player needed when the remote control had the same buttons? Why have an LCD screen on the unit when a much better screen—the television itself—was so close by? Could size be reduced as chunky VHS tapes gave way to thin DVDs?

The Subtraction Technique led Phillips to the Slimline DVD player that won awards, captured consumers’ attention, and set a new standard for design.

In our book "Inside the Box: A Proven System of Creativity for Breakthrough Results," Jacob Goldenberg and I show that looking at innovation through a subtraction lens can do more than create breakthrough products. It can save lives.

In August 2010, 33 Chilean miners were trapped 2,300 feet underground at the bottom of a collapsed mineshaft. To save them, rescuers looked to a subtraction-inspired solution first used in a German mine disaster in 1955.

In that situation, rescuers were intent on opening a mineshaft to free the trapped miners. Eberhard Au, an engineer working on the site, simply subtracted the mineshafts from the equation and took inventory of all remaining components on the scene. The narrow bore-hole being used to send food and water to the trapped miners caught his attention. He fashioned sheet metal into a small cigar-shaped capsule. Only 15.2 inches wide, the capsule was small enough to fit into the bore hole, but just large enough for a single miner to squeeze into. Rescuers successfully retrieved the miners. The same solution (although with a slightly wider capsule) was used in Chile, bringing all 33 miners up to safety, ending with cheers heard around the world.

So avoid “feature creep” by just adding whistles and bells. Remember: less is more. While you may not be faced with life-threatening situations as you innovate, you can use the Subtraction Technique to efficiently produce new innovations by reframing problems.  

Drew Boyd is executive director of the Master of Science in Marketing Program and assistant professor of Marketing and Innovation at the University of Cincinnati.  A 30-year industry veteran, he trains, consults and speaks widely in the fields of innovation, persuasion and social media. Contact him at: [email protected].

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