Byron's Babbles

Subtracting Shows Competence

Last year I read the great book Subtract: The Untapped Science Of Less by Leidy Klotz and described the book as changing my life. Learning from the book also ends up in many of my blog posts, like Don’t Always Saticfice. Last evening I had the honor of facilitating a discussion between Leidy Klotz and National Teacher Ambassadors of the National FFA Organization. As part of their training, the teacher ambassadors received a copy of the book and Leidy was gracious enough to spend time with the group. Leidy spent some time discussing what led to the research and ultimately the book, which was fascinating, and then had a very open discussion with our teachers.

One of the points Leidy made last night, that I have heard him make before is that, “Subtracting shows competence.” We all need to reflect on this. Whether as a school principal, we show competence to remove the things teachers have to do that don’t really have anything to do with student learning, or myself as a policymaker continuing to advocate for reducing the number of standards having to be taught/tested. Or, just the competence it takes to reduce that email from four paragraphs, which by the way no one reads, to a couple of sentences. I’m sure you can think of thousands of other examples.

Leidy taught us not to focus on what we can’t get done and want/need to subtract, but focus on what we will be able to do better because of eliminating those mundane tasks that create marginal value at best. Those of us in education can really relate to this. It’s not easy. As Leidy pointed out, adding more is highly visible and easy to promote and subtracting either goes unnoticed or becomes controversial. I loved this advice from Leidy: “Give yourself a definition for what you are setting out to accomplish. This will help narrow down the necessary from the unnecessary.” Dr. Klotz’s job is to create and share knowledge and he did a great job of schooling us on subtracting.


Don’t Always Saticfice

Posted in Educational Leadership, Global Leadership, Leadership, Leadership Development, Subtraction by Dr. Byron L. Ernest on November 23, 2021

Nobel Prize winning economist Herbert Simon coined a term that for me is somewhat paradoxical. The term is “saticficing.” He described it as a blend of satisfying and sufficient.He used the word to describe our tendency to leave things at “good enough.” Now, on first blush this can be a good thing – and is. For example those tasks on your to do list this morning that if you spend the time to go beyond “good enough” there will be no value added. Or, another example would be to drive around looking for the best brand of gas for my car. At some point I need to settle on “good enough,” otherwise I am wasting time.

Our brains actually do this optimizing for us so we don’t overload. This is because we have cognitive limits. In our earlier example of tackling our to do list this morning, I like putting a majority of our energy toward a project believed to be more important or needing the making good better.

Saticficing might keep us from wasting time, but let’s also not forget that not taking a little extra time might keep us from considering “subtraction.” In his great book Subtract: The Untapped Science Of Less, Leidy Klotz taught us that sometimes we need to resist the tendency to satisfice and do more by subtracting. This book is a must read, by the way. An example he gave would include the Strider bike invented by Ryan McFarland, which goes beyond good enough. This is an awesome example of taking the extra effort to subtract. While pedals and training wheels work well for kids, it seems that subtracting the pedals and training wheels works even better for kids to balance. Who’d a thought it?

The other example Klotz gave in the book was Edward Tufte. He works in information design and coined the term “chartjunk.” I so love people who invent words! Kind of like me inventing the word “Leadery” that is in my company name, Leadery Global. Anyway, chartjunk is all that extra crap that ends up on graphics representing data. This really resonated with me because I have worked with the people who will use every software option available when doing a graphic or spreadsheet. Really, all we need is the data, not a show that you know how to use all that crap. Sorry, touchy issue with me. But, I love Tufte because he shows us how removing chartjunk (or what I call crap) can add clarity.

So, the moral of this post is that sometimes saticficing keeps us efficient, but other times we need to take the extra time/effort to edit and subtract. Think about that the next time you’re ready to hit send on the world’s longest email or busiest graphic in history.