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Why Bosses Should Ask Employees to Do Less—Not More

Too many leaders think the key to success is to pile on staff, technology, meetings, training, rules and more. The opposite is true.

By ROBERT I. SUTTON
Thu, Sep 29, 2022 8:36amGrey Clock 7 min

“More businesses die from indigestion than starvation.”

That’s what Hewlett-Packard co-founder David Packard warned in 1995 about the danger of company leaders who add too much to their workplaces and subtract too little.

His words ring even more true now than they did 27 years ago, with too many leaders programmed and rewarded for more, more, more. It isn’t that addition is inherently bad. But when leaders are undisciplined about piling on staff, gizmos, software, meetings, rules, training and management fads, organisations become too complicated, their people get overwhelmed and exhausted, and their resources are spread so thin that all their work suffers.

For so many companies, the opposite—less, less, less—is the key to success. Subtraction clears our minds and gives us time to focus on what really counts. It sets the stage for creative work, giving us the space to fail, fret, discuss, argue about and experiment with seemingly crazy ideas—the ideas that can transform a company, and make employees happier and more productive.

None of this should be a mystery to companies. They simply need to measure the time and resources wasted on needless complexity. In 2015, Deloitte, a large professional-services firm, tallied the number of hours the firm was spending on performance management, including completing forms, holding meetings and creating ratings. The organisation found that the process consumed close to two million hours each year—time that the firm’s leaders thought may be better spent talking to people about performance and careers, and shifting from a focus on the past to a focus on the future.

Countless academic articles and case studies document how such addition sickness undermines performance, innovation and well-being. The University of Virginia’s Gabrielle Adams and her colleagues performed 20 studies and found that addition is the default mode of problem solving. When a university president asked students, faculty and staff for suggestions about improving the place, only 11% entailed subtraction—the rest were additions. People were more likely to add when planning trips, editing text, modifying vegetable soup recipes and fixing a Lego model (even though the best solution was subtracting Lego bricks). As Leidy Klotz, Dr. Adams’s collaborator and author of the book “Subtract,” puts it, we are wired to use addition as a substitute for thinking.

Companies compound this problem by rewarding employees who add too much. Managers who lord over big teams and build bloated bureaucracies get fancy titles and fat salaries, even when their underlings propagate red tape that frustrates colleagues and customers.

My Stanford colleague Huggy Rao and I devoted the past seven years to what we call “The Friction Project”—an effort to examine how organisations can make the right things easier to do and the wrong things harder. Here are five of our favourite methods that we think companies could use to subtract rather than add.

Internal speed bumps

Perhaps the most straightforward thing a leader can do is impose constraints that make excessive addition impossible or difficult. At the same time, they can create some kind of rule that requires or presses employees to consider subtraction.

Call it a “simple subtraction rule.”

Dr. Adams and her team found that when people were given an opportunity to stumble upon subtractive solutions, or were reminded to consider subtraction, they were less prone to default to addition.

Consider the rule that Laszlo Bock says he implemented when he headed people operations at Google from 2006 to 2016. The company, he says, had a tradition of conducting seemingly endless rounds of interviews with job candidates before deciding to offer them jobs (or not).

To deal with this, Mr. Bock says, he came up with a simple rule: If more than four interviews were to be conducted with a candidate, a request for an exception had to be approved by him. Most Google employees were hesitant to ask a senior vice president for an exception, so the gauntlet disappeared for most job candidates. Says Mr. Bock: “It was one of my first lessons in the power of hierarchy to actually do some good.”

Here’s another simple subtraction rule for bosses: If your organisation has more than four core values, trim the list—and use words and phrases that elicit images to describe each value. If you run a nonprofit, for example, avoid hollow language such as “excellence in fundraising.” Instead, describe donors who feel their gifts are “among the best decisions they have ever made.”

A shortlist of vivid values—compelling portraits of an ideal future—triggers a shared sense of purpose among employees, which sparks effort and coordination. That’s the lesson from a study of 151 hospitals led by Andrew Carton, an associate professor of management at the University of Pennsylvania. When hospitals had four or fewer values and used words and phrases that elicit such images, patients treated for heart attacks were less likely to be readmitted within 30 days. Dr. Carton’s team found similar results in an experiment with 62 virtual teams that designed new toys. When members believed they worked for a company with a shortlist of vivid and focused values, their teams designed toys that children were more enthusiastic about playing with.

The subtraction game

I have played this game with more than 100 groups, ranging from five-person teams to audiences of 500 people. I’ve done it at in-person, virtual and hybrid gatherings. The game, which takes about 30 minutes, starts with solo brainstorming. People are asked to list, “What was once useful in your organisation, but is now in the way? What adds needless frustration?” Next, people form duos or groups, share their subtraction targets with each other, generating more targets, and then pick a favourite target or two. Finally, each group shares their targets with everyone at the gathering.

Does this game always result in real-life cuts? No: Some people talk about subtraction, but it never goes anywhere. But I’m often surprised by the depth and speed of the cuts that result from this game.

Last year, as I ran the game online with 25 managers at a software company, a vice president was so moved by his team’s targets that, on the spot, he disbanded a pet project that five team members identified as unsalvageable and a waste of time and money. Another time, the CEO of an insurance company stood up in the middle of the game and told his top 80 underlings that, in a week, he wanted an email from each with two subtraction targets. Within a month, he wanted proof the changes were implemented—and offered each a $5,000 bonus for doing so. Those managers made changes including ending poorly performing product lines, terminating contracts with unreliable vendors, replacing a long quarterly memo with a short checklist, and trimming a list of sales metrics to focus on the most critical.

Meetings audits

Research by Babson College’s Rob Cross shows that the time employees devote to collaborative work—including meetings—ballooned by more than 50% over the past two decades, and that collaborative overload is damaging to people and organisations. The pandemic made it worse. A Harvard Business School team that tracked 3.1 million employees found they attended 13% more meetings after the pandemic hit.

Some organisations fight back.

Earlier this year, I worked with the Work Innovation Lab—a think tank that is part of Asana, a software and work-management platform for teams—to launch a monthly “Meeting Doomsday” program with a small group of employees. According to Rebecca Hinds, who runs the Work Innovation Lab, the first stage was a meeting audit, where employees identified recurring meetings that lacked value. In the second stage, she says, employees removed all standing meetings with less than five people from their calendars for 48 hours. Then, she says, employees added back the meetings they felt were valuable. Ms. Hinds says that participants saved an average of 11 hours a month, which equates to about 17 workdays a year.

The effort also prompted people at Asana to shorten meetings they couldn’t eliminate. “Some 30-minute meetings converted to 15-minute meetings, some 60-minute meetings changed to 45 minutes, and people often used the newfound time to create breaks between meetings,” Ms. Hinds says.

Top-down purges

A purge happens when a powerful leader or team rapidly removes big parts of an organisation. In 1998, at an Apple developers’ conference, Steve Jobs described a famous purge he led when he returned to Apple in 1997. Mr. Jobs said he spent his first weeks back at Apple investigating its vast, unprofitable and bewildering product lineup. He discovered that few insiders (let alone customers) understood the differences between Macintosh computers such as the Performa 4400, 5400 and 6500. Other products were losing money too, including the hand-held Newton and Pippin gaming system.

Mr. Jobs spoke about how he eliminated every existing product within 10 months. By mid-1998, the lineup consisted of just four new Macintoshes: a business desktop and laptop, and a consumer desktop and laptop.

I don’t recommend constant use of purges. The fear and uncertainty will stifle innovation and drive people to quit. But a purge can be the best—or only—option when a company is in deep trouble, time pressure is severe and people cling to bad old ways. Leaders who exercise “command and control” are bad-mouthed by many management gurus. But as Mr. Jobs showed, sometimes that’s just what a broken organisation needs.

Making it a movement

In some ways, the most challenging—but most enduring—way to make subtraction part of the culture is to create a multi-pronged top-down and bottom-up movement that energises many people in an organisation.

A good example is the “scaling simplification” movement at pharmaceutical giant AstraZeneca that is documented in a Stanford case study. The movement was led by Pushkala Subramanian, who created the company’s Center for Simplification Excellence in 2015. The centre launched the “million hour challenge” to give back 30 minutes a week to each of AstraZeneca’s 60,000 employees—to free up time for clinical trials and serving patients.

Ms. Subramanian’s team implemented companywide changes, such as making it harder for employees to “reply all” to more than 25 email recipients.

But the team believed that a purely top-down approach would backfire in this decentralised company. So the movement’s success hinged on local changes. They encouraged all employees to identify what frustrated them and their customers, and provided websites, workshops and coaches to help employees make repairs. Hundreds of changes followed. The Mexico IT team cut paperwork in half, saving 690 hours a year. Meeting-free days were introduced in Taiwan and Thailand. Each employee in Japan simplified one thing, saving a total of 50,000 hours a year. On May 17, 2017, AstraZeneca held World Simplification Day to celebrate saving two million hours and to spread timesaving practices throughout the company.

When Huggy Rao and I began our friction project, I believed that nearly everything in organisational life ought to be as simple, quick and easy as possible. I was wrong. I now believe that the benefit of subtraction is that it allows us to focus on what should be hard, inefficient and frustrating.

The idea is that by eliminating things that are unnecessarily burdensome, such as filling out expense reports, meetings that are too long, and all that other stuff that saps too much time and emotional energy, it leaves more time and will to do things that are time-consuming and frustrating—the stuff that innovation emerges from.

None of this is easy, in large part because leaders are inclined to think that more has to mean better. But ultimately, the old saying is true: Less really is more. So let’s start subtracting.

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Sales of the cosmetic product are a bright spot in an otherwise bleak discretionary-goods environment

By JINJOO LEE
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Masks off, lipstick index on.

In a gloomy economy, consumers might cut back on other discretionary purchases but will keep shelling out for small luxuries such as lipstick—or so goes the theory. “When lipstick sales go up, people don’t want to buy dresses,” Leonard Lauder, then-chairman of Estée Lauder who is widely credited for coming up with the so-called “lipstick index,” told The Wall Street Journal in 2001.

L’Oréal Chief Executive Nicolas Hieronimus called this out during the company’s earnings call in October, noting that a luxury lipstick or mascara is only €30, making it an “affordable treat.” Sales at L’Oréal rose 9.1% in the third quarter compared with a year earlier despite slower sales in China due to Covid-related lockdowns. Coty, maker of CoverGirl makeup, said organic sales grew 9% over the same period.

Beauty sales have also been a rare bright spot for retailers: Target said beauty category sales grew roughly 15% in its quarter ended Oct. 29 compared with a year earlier, with Ulta Beauty shops in Target tripling their total sales volume over that period.

While Macy’s namesake stores saw comparable-store sales decline last quarter, its beauty-focused Bluemercury chain saw same-store sales grow 14% last quarter compared with a year earlier. Kohl’s locations with Sephora are outperforming the rest of the department-store chain.

Of the 14 discretionary categories that market research firm NPD Group tracks, prestige beauty—products you might find at a department store or a Sephora—is the only category that is seeing unit sales growth year to date. And lipstick, which suffered during the masked-up pandemic, is making up for lost time.

Lipstick sales have grown 37% through October this year compared with a year earlier, according to Larissa Jensen, beauty industry analyst at NPD Group. That is an acceleration from the 31% growth seen during the same period last year. Lip product is the only major category within prestige beauty where sales are actually up compared with pre-pandemic levels, according to Ms. Jensen.

Cosmetic companies have also called out strong sales in fragrances, calling it the “fragrance index.” Demand has been so robust that there is an industrywide fragrance component shortage, Coty said in a press release announcing third-quarter earnings earlier this month. CEO Sue Nabi said during the call that Coty hasn’t seen any kind of trade-down or slowdown, also noting that consumers are shifting away from gifting perfume to buying it for themselves.

“A big piece of it is just a shift in what wellness means to consumers,” NPD Group’s Ms. Jensen said. “Beauty is one of the few industries that are positioned to meet [consumers’] emotional need. It makes them feel good.”

While the lipstick effect could be observed in the recession in the early 2000s, that wasn’t the case during the 2007-09 recession, during which lipstick sales declined alongside other discretionary purchases. Part of this might have had to do with category-specific dynamics.

There was a lot of newness in the cosmetic industry in 2001, including lip gloss, a relatively nascent category back then. That tailwind simply wasn’t there starting in 2008, though nail polish turned out to be consumers’ small indulgence of choice in that period. This time around, consumers may be eager to show off a part of their face that was hidden behind a mask for so long during the pandemic.

In an otherwise bleak environment for companies selling discretionary goods, those in the business of selling cosmetics look well poised to come out of the holiday season looking freshened up.

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