Why Bosses Should Ask Employees to Do Less—Not More
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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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New York Watch Auctions Record Uptick in Sales in the Face of Market Slowdown
By LAURIE KAHLE
Mon, Jun 24, 2024 4 min

Luxury watch collectors showed ongoing strong demand for Patek Philippe, growing interest in modern watches and a preference for larger case sizes and leather straps at the June watch sales in New York, according to an analysis of the major auctions.

Independent and neo-vintage categories, meanwhile, experienced declines in total sales and average prices, said the report from  EveryWatch, a global online platform for watch information. Overall, the New York auctions achieved total sales of US$52.27 million, a 9.87% increase from the previous year, on the sale of 470 lots, reflecting a 37% increase in volume. Unsold rates ticked down a few points to 5.31%, according to the platform’s analysis.

EveryWatch gathered data from official auction results for sales held in New York from June 5 to 10 at Christie’s, Phillips, and Sotheby’s. Limited to watch sales exclusively, each auction’s data was reviewed and compiled for several categories, including total lots, sales and sold rates, highest prices achieved, performance against estimates, sales trends in case materials and sizes as well as dial colors, and more. The resulting analysis provides a detailed overview of market trends and performance.

The Charles Frodsham Pocket watch sold at Phillips for $433,400.

“We still see a strong thirst for rare, interesting, and exceptional watches, modern and vintage alike, despite a little slow down in the market overall,” says Paul Altieri, founder and CEO of the California-based pre-owned online watch dealer BobsWatches.com, in an email. “The results show that there is still a lot of money floating around out there in the economy looking for quality assets.”

Patek Philippe came out on top with more than US$17.68 million on the sale of 122 lots. It also claimed the top lot: Sylvester Stallone’s Patek Philippe GrandMaster Chime 6300G-010, still in the sealed factory packaging, which sold at Sotheby’s for US$5.4 million, much to the dismay of the brand’s president, Thierry Stern . The London-based industry news website WatchPro estimates the flip made the actor as much as US$2 million in just a few years.

At Christie’s, the top lot was a Richard Mille Limited Edition RM56-02 AO Tourbillon Sapphire
Richard Mille

“As we have seen before and again in the recent Sotheby’s sale, provenance can really drive prices higher than market value with regards to the Sylvester Stallone Panerai watches and his standard Patek Philippe Nautilus 5711/1a offered,” Altieri says.

Patek Philippe claimed half of the top 10 lots, while Rolex and Richard Mille claimed two each, and Philippe Dufour claimed the No. 3 slot with a 1999 Duality, which sold at Phillips for about US$2.1 million.

“In-line with EveryWatch’s observation of the market’s strong preference for strap watches, the top lot of our auction was a Philippe Dufour Duality,” says Paul Boutros, Phillips’ deputy chairman and head of watches, Americas, in an email. “The only known example with two dials and hand sets, and presented on a leather strap, it achieved a result of over US$2 million—well above its high estimate of US$1.6 million.”

In all, four watches surpassed the US$1 million mark, down from seven in 2023. At Christie’s, the top lot was a Richard Mille Limited Edition RM56-02 AO Tourbillon Sapphire, the most expensive watch sold at Christie’s in New York. That sale also saw a Richard Mille Limited Edition RM52-01 CA-FQ Tourbillon Skull Model go for US$1.26 million to an online buyer.

Rolex expert Altieri was surprised one of the brand’s timepieces did not crack the US$1 million threshold but notes that a rare Rolex Daytona 6239 in yellow gold with a “Paul Newman John Player Special” dial came close at US$952,500 in the Phillips sale.

The Crown did rank second in terms of brand clout, achieving sales of US$8.95 million with 110 lots. However, both Patek Philippe and Rolex experienced a sales decline by 8.55% and 2.46%, respectively. The independent brand Richard Mille, with US$6.71 million in sales, marked a 912% increase from the previous year with 15 lots, up from 5 lots in 2023.

The results underscored recent reports of prices falling on the secondary market for specific coveted models from Rolex, Patek Philippe, and Audemars Piguet. The summary points out that five top models produced high sales but with a fall in average prices.

The Rolex Daytona topped the list with 42 appearances, averaging US$132,053, a 41% average price decrease. Patek Philippe’s Nautilus, with two of the top five watches, made 26 appearances with an average price of US$111,198, a 26% average price decrease. Patek Philippe’s Perpetual Calendar followed with 23 appearances and a US$231,877 average price, signifying a fall of 43%, and Audemars Piguet’s Royal Oak had 22 appearances and an average price of US$105,673, a 10% decrease. The Rolex Day Date is the only watch in the top five that tracks an increase in average price, which at US$72,459 clocked a 92% increase over last year.

In terms of categories, modern watches (2005 and newer) led the market with US$30 million in total sales from 226 lots, representing a 53.54% increase in sales and a 3.78% increase in average sales price over 2023. Vintage watches (pre-1985) logged a modest 6.22% increase in total sales and an 89.89% increase in total lots to 169.

However, the average price was down across vintage, independent, and neo-vintage (1990-2005) watches. Independent brands saw sales fall 24.10% to US$8.47 million and average prices falling 42.17%, while neo-vintage watches experienced the largest decline in sales and lots, with total sales falling 44.7% to US$8.25 million, and average sales price falling 35.73% to US$111,000.

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