Matthew E. May: Second Interview, Part 2, by Bob Morris

Matthew E. May is the author of The Laws of Subtraction: 6 Simple Rules for Winning in the Age of Excess Everything, as well as three previous, award-winning books: The Elegant Solution, In Pursuit of Elegance, and The Shibumi Strategy. A popular speaker, creativity coach, and close advisor on innovation to companies such as ADP, Edmunds, Intuit, and Toyota, he is a regular contributor to the American Express OPEN Forum Idea Hub and the founder of Edit Innovation, an ideas agency based in Los Angeles. His articles have appeared in national publications such as The Rotman Magazine, Fast Company, Design Mind, MIT/Sloan Management Review, USA Today, strategy+business, and Quality Progress. He has appeared in The Wall Street Journal and on National Public Radio. A graduate of the Wharton School of Business and Johns Hopkins University, he lives in Southern California.

* * *

Morris: Now please shift your attention to The Laws of Subtraction. When and why did you decide to write it?

May: The Laws of Subtraction is the book I’ve wanted to write for some time. I have broached the subject as a subtopic to higher altitude themes in my two previous books, first with The Elegant Solution and then with In Pursuit of Elegance, in which I devoted a chapter to the laws of subtraction as an element of elegance. I wanted to produce this final treatment on the power of less for two reasons.

First, subtraction is what people want me to talk about in speeches and seminars. They ask me for “rules of thumb” to help them design and deliver more compelling experiences, for themselves, their companies, and their customers.

Second, I was influenced greatly by the work of John Maeda, whose elegant book The Laws of Simplicity I’ve admired. In many respects, The Laws of Subtraction is an acknowledgement of the impact John Maeda’s work has had on my own. Beyond that, it picks up where his book left off, delving into and unraveling his tenth law: “Simplicity is about subtracting the obvious, and adding the meaningful.”

Morris: Were there any head-snapping revelations while writing it? Please explain.

May: Yes, I gained a new level of storytelling ability by taking a workshop led by Scott McCloud, a well-known comics artist and author of several bestselling books, including Understanding Comics. I learned about the five key choices that make for clarity, whether you’re showing or telling your story: choice of moment, choice of frame, choice of image, choice of word, and choice of flow.

Morris: To what extent (if any) does the book in final form differ significantly from what you originally envisioned?

May: Well, I hadn’t intended to subtract myself from the book in the way it ended up that I did. I invited a few dozen brilliant folks, you included, to submit short anecdotes or essays on the role of subtraction in their lives and work. I thought I’d get a handful of folks to say yes, so that I could pepper my narrative with short vignettes. I had so many wonderful responses I couldn’t include them all! So I ended up with 54 essays, “Silhouettes,” as I call them, that account for about a third of the book!

And I’ll let you in on a little secret: the original intent was to publish a 12-15,000 word eBook, ala TED Books, or what Seth Godin was doing with his Domino Project. I’m obviously not a master of subtraction, because it morphed into a real book of full length.

But the Silhouettes were so compelling and meaningful that the addition was of the correct kind: value adding.

Morris: As I began to read it, here’s a passage that caught my eye: “At the heart of every difficult decision lie three tough choices: What to pursue versus what to ignore. What I leave in versus what to leave out. What to do versus what to don’t.” In your opinion, by which criteria should these “three tough choices” be evaluated?

May: I’ve learned that if you focus on the second half of each choice—what to ignore, what to leave out, what to don’t—your decision becomes easier and simpler. The key is to remove the stupid stuff: anything obviously excessive, confusing, wasteful, unnatural, hazardous, hard to use, or ugly. (Battery packaging exhibits all seven qualities in a rather inglorious way.) Better yet, refrain from adding them in the first place.

Morris: In another eyecatcher that soon follows, you point out that recent research in neuroscience can guide “new and innovative thinking on how people can produce better results by artfully and intelligently using less.” Please explain.

May: Humans are hardwired to add and accumulate, hoard and store. In our DNA from prehistoric times. This not only helps explain why the world is the way it is, mostly excessive in developed nations, but also lays out the real challenge: battling our instinct.

Neuroscientists have shown, using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) that addition and subtraction demand different brain circuitry. As a matter of fact, accident victims suffering brain injury often cannot both add and subtract following the incident, which lends credence to the idea that subtraction is “thinking different.”

By fighting our inclination to add and act, and to discipline ourselves in subtraction and restraint, we are in the land of different thinking…which as you pointed out in your Einstein quote is required to solve challenging problems.

I called on a few different neuroscience sources to bolster that point.

Morris: I share your high regard for John Maeda and his work, notably his most recent book, The Laws of Simplicity. What specifically have you found most helpful in that book?

May: I loved how short and utterly subtractive the entire book was. 100 pages, 10 laws, a few examples, and as does Don Norman (Living With Complexity), John has this Zen master way of writing. The limited information engaged my imagination.

Morris: In 1963, Peter Drucker observed, “There is surely nothing quite so useless as doing with great efficiency what should not be done at all.” Years later Michael Porter observed, “The essence of strategy is choosing what not to do.” How do you explain the fact that, more often than not, decision-makers in business continue to do with great efficiency what should not be done at all with strategies that cannot possibly achieve the given objectives?

May: Here in the West, we suffer from systems and structures that foster short term thinking. Ten-day sales reports, month-end closings, quarterly earnings report. Along with that comes the “don’t just stand there, DO something” mindset. In the East, companies are more likely to have other companies, partners and suppliers as their primary shareholders, so a longer term mentality prevails. There, it’s more acceptable to reverse the cliché to become: “Don’t just do something, stand there.”

So part of it is cultural. The other part, as I mentioned, is natural.

Morris: You identify and then discuss six “laws.” Which of them seems to be the most difficult to follow? Why?

May: Well, to follow up on the previous question, it’s probably the last law: Doing something isn’t always better than doing nothing.

It’s not a discipline we learn, it’s not a discipline that’s actively encouraged in the business environment. It’s not easy, and certainly not mainstream. We’re rewarded for achieving or doing something, we’re not often rewarded for eliminating or stopping something, unless you’re a police officer, fireman, or doctor.

And because it’s not an encouraged discipline, we don’t develop sound and reliable practices for proactively doing nothing: meditation, purposeful mind wandering, etc.

Morris: Please cite an example of each that illustrates its potential value. Law #1: “What Isn’t There Can Often Trump What Is”

May: FedEx used this law to dramatically rebrand and create one of the most indelible logos ever designed…the forward arrow that exists in the white space between the E and X.

Designers of the Toyota youth brand Scion essentially used this law in creating the fast-selling and highly profitable xB model, a small and boxy vehicle made intentionally spare by leaving out hundreds of standard features in order to appeal to the Gen Y buyers who wanted to make a personal statement by customizing their cars with trendy options. It wasn’t about the car. It was about what was left out of it.

Morris: Law #2: “The Simplest Rules Create the Most Effective Experience”

May: This law guided the redesign of London’s cultural Mecca, Exhibition Road, enjoyed by visitors to the 2012 Olympic Games. In shared space design, cars, pedestrians, and cyclists all share the road equally, with the only rule being “all due respect to the most vulnerable.” Shared space design is void of nearly all traditional traffic controls, signs and lights. Result? Twice the flow with half the accidents.

Netflix used this law to rethink their vacation policy, which couldn’t be simpler: Salaried employees can take as much time off as they’d like, whenever they want. Nobody tracks vacation days. In other words, the Netflix policy is to have no policy at all.

Morris: Law #3: “Limiting Information Engages the Imagination”

May: Each year over 125,000 people attend Comic Con, the premier event for comic book passionistas. The magic of comics, though, is not contained within the drawn panels. Rather, it is in the “gutter”—the white space between the frames—that holds the secret. There is nothing in the space between. Yet, it is here that the reader’s imagination is sparked, here that the reader creates and completes the story.

Morris: Law #4: Creativity Thrives Under Intelligent Constraints”

May: NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratories used this law in successfully launching and landing the Mars Pathfinder under daunting constraints: less than one-tenth the typical cost for a space mission, in less than half the time. The entire project from concept to touchdown was completed in 44 months, with only 300 team members, and a fixed budget of less than $200 million—less than it took to produce the 1997 Hollywood blockbuster movie Titanic.

Morris: Law #5: “Break is the Important Part of Breakthrough”

May: This law is behind what has become the de facto standard for conducting secret innovation projects, usually labeled “skunk works.” The term comes from the Lockheed Advanced Development Program, created in 1943 when the War Department gave Lockheed a secret jet fighter project. Lacking space, lead designer Kelly Johnson broke away from the main operation, taking the best design engineers and mechanics with him, and set up camp in a rented circus tent next to a foul-smelling plastics factory. Lockheed trademarked the name Skunk Works. Steve Jobs copied the strategy in launching the Apple Macintosh division.

Morris: Law #6: “Doing Something Isn’t Always Better Than Doing Nothing”

May: Boston Consulting Group (BCG) ran a multi-year experiment in which members of a dozen consulting teams were required to take “predictable time off” every week, defined as one uninterrupted evening free each week after 6 p.m.—no work contact whatsoever. Within six months, internal surveys showed that these consultants were more satisfied with their jobs and work-life balance, and more likely to stay with the firm, compared to those who weren’t part of the study. BCG has since instituted the practice firmwide.

Morris: I was among those who accepted your invitation to contribute to the book and again thank you for that. Here’s my question: What are the major benefits to the book and to its [begin italics] reader [end italics] of including the contributions from more than 50 quite different people?

Every chapter has eight or nine points of view other than my own, in only as many pages. I could cite another case study or example in that space, but it wouldn’t be nearly as effective, meaningful and thus valuable as hearing several unique, brilliant, real people tell real stories that readers can relate to.

Morris: Of all that you have learned from reading the material contributed from others, what has had the greatest impact on your own thoughts about addition as well as subtraction?

May: If I had to point to one story that struck a chord with me most, one was by John Shook, the CEO of the Lean Enterprise Institute. He tells the story of 3-day, round-the-clock, no-sleep Kaizen project when he was working in a Toyota factory. The deadline was approaching, and John’s sensei was totally dissatisfied with the team’s ideas. Finally the sensei asked, “Why do you keep trying to push for more when all you have to do is remove what’s in the way? Look at all the extra walking. Can’t you eliminate it? Look at all the lifting of that heavy inventory. Can’t you take it away? Look at all the waiting. Can’t you remove the blockages so things will flow smoothly?” Then the kicker: “You really can accomplish more for the workers by asking them to do less.” When it was all over, John asked his sensei why he didn’t tell the team that from the beginning. “I did not tell you anything,” the sensei replied. “I simply removed a blockage from your mind. And I could not remove that blockage until it was in the way.”

Morris: For those who have not as yet read The Laws of Subtraction, please explain several of the terms to which you refer. First, “the gestalt of design”

May: Good designers often apply the principles of the Gestalt theory of perception, which holds that we tend to see related parts as a unified whole, rather than a simple sum of the parts, when certain principles of perception are applied. The Gestalt principles help to describe the visual effects of designs like the FedEx logo with its hidden, negative space arrow.

Morris: Next, “a sense of place”

This is one of the goals in designing what’s called “shared space.” Shared Space is an urban design concept that rests on a simple premise: roads and streets are different beasts. A road is for automobiles only, but a street is for everyone—a street is a place of integration, not of segregation. Roads are meant to allow vehicles to bypass the congested city via high-speed routing. Streets are to be shared equally by all who travel within a city space, without giving priority or assigning right of way to any one kind of traveler.

In shared space design, motor vehicles, pedestrians, and cyclists all share the road equally, with the only rule being “all due respect to the most vulnerable.” Shared space design is void of nearly all traditional traffic controls, signs and lights. Curbs have been removed, asphalt replaced with red brick, and there are fountains and trees and café seating right where you think you should drive. It’s completely ambiguous. You have no choice but to slow down and think, but keep moving.

Result? Twice the fun and flow with half the accidents.

Morris: Then, “the unoffice”

May: If you know where to look and what to look for, you can find great examples of companies taking the “shared space” approach to engage their workforce, leaning toward flatter structures, open environments, and less rigid controls in an effort to give people space and time to work, collaborate, improve, and innovate.

Toronto’s internationally recognized Centre for Social Innovation (CSI) now uses “shared space” concepts for the community workspaces it creates. CSI defines a social innovation as an idea that works for the public good, and focuses on creating conditions and context for social innovation to emerge, using space designed with intentions similar to those of the urban design version: allow people to feel comfortable in a space, help them develop relationships with others doing the same thing, and enable mutually beneficial interactions to emerge.

Morris: And then, “audience as author”

May: I learned this from Scott McCloud. As he tells it, there’s a compelling theory in video gaming about the secret to games—that games are about the abdication of authorship. What makes it a game, whether it’s chess or Super Mario Bros. or Grand Theft Auto, is that the user feels as if they are the authors of their own experiences.

There is a school of thought in gaming, also, of this notion of story and imposing stories upon games: with the story comes the author, and if there’s a tension because the creator is trying to impose a story on the user, you begin to lose some of the character of what makes games in the first place. But when the user feels empowered to create their own experience, they don’t come away from the game talking about what someone made; they come away from that experience telling others “what I did.”

In other words, they’re the star of that story. And it is the understanding of the nature of gaming that allows the gamer to create something more pure. It’s that sense of user agency, that people create their own narratives. It’s much more natural, much more organic, much more like a game from when you were playing on the playground as a kid.

For me, this is a great insight: the art of limiting information is really about letting people write their own story, which becomes much more engaging and powerful because they’ve invested their own intelligence and imagination and emotion.

Morris: Finally, “the chains of creativity”

May: I use this in referring to the fourth law, that creativity thrives under intelligent constraints. Several years ago Yahoo! CEO Marissa Mayer revealed in an online post the philosophy of constraints that guides her work. As she put it: “Constraints shape and focus problems, and provide clear challenges to overcome as well as inspiration. Creativity loves constraints, but they must be balanced with a healthy disregard for the impossible. Disregarding the bounds of what we know or what we accept gives rise to ideas that are nonobvious, unconventional, or simply unexplored. The creativity realized in this balance between constraint and disregard for the impossible are fueled by passion and result in revolutionary change.”

That says it all.

Morris: What are the defining characteristics of a workplace culture within which the laws of subtraction also serve as both core values and core competencies?

May: The defining characteristic is looser reins.

Morris: For example?

May: Well, the trend toward flatter organizational structures is growing stronger. W. L. Gore, maker of GORE-TEX and other fluoropolymer products, is known for their team-based culture void of job titles. A visit to the website of videogame company Valve reveals a “bossless” structure. Even the giant automaker Toyota encourages new hires to “dig their own job” — meaning find a challenge or problem that fits with their skillset, and run with it.

ROWE (Results Only Work Environment) has become a popular loose reins approach, especially in companies with predominantly younger workforces, like There the policy essentially says, “we don’t care where you get your work done, all we care about is that the right work gets done.” It’s about performance, not presence.

Many companies have instituted the idea of personal innovation and “pet project” time to break up the normal thinking grooves, instituted downtime as standard operating policy, or removed confining job descriptions. Perhaps the most well known examples are the 3M “sandbox” time that Google copied, and the Netflix vacation policy, which is essentially no policy at all…take as much or as little as you want, just cover your work and let your manager know.

Some companies have gone so far as to let people set their own salaries, and moved away from complicated compensation policies. Brazil’s Semco SA is perhaps the best-known example.

Morris: In your opinion, to what extent is what you characterize as an “elegant solution” the result of subtraction or reduction? Please explain.

May: A large extent. An elegant solution is one that achieves the maximum through minimum means. The best visual metaphor I can think of is a diamond, which is converted from the simplest elements on earth to the most valuable things in the world. The raw stone is converted to a wearable jewel by subtracting material…subtraction that actually adds complexity, but complexity that provides more value because of clarity and sparkle. Some people think complexity is the enemy. It isn’t. Excess complexity, perhaps. But not complexity. Diamonds are the simplicity to die for, like Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. said: “I wouldn’t give a fig for simplicity on this side of complexity, but I’d give my life for simplicity on the other side of complexity.”

Morris: I am curious to know why, before concluding the book, you discuss the film, The Artist. Please explain.

May: Because in this age of excess everything in the movie industry…huge budgets, massive marketing, overblown special effects, 3D…comes this little dark-horse film that’s a black and white, a silent movie. And it wins the triple crown of Oscars: Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Director. It was a study in subtraction. The Artist is a brilliant and beautiful display of the laws of subtraction, and how they can help you win in the age of excess everything.

Morris: To what extent, if any, has the experience of writing this book caused you to eliminate even more from your life than you otherwise would?

May: I think it’s important to mention that subtraction isn’t always about removing something. It’s also the discipline to refrain from adding in the first place. I’m no master of either, but I find myself constantly asking two questions:

o “What would my clients love for me to eliminate or reduce or stop adding?”

o “What would those who matter most love for me to stop doing?”

Morris: Let’s say that a CEO has read and then (hopefully) re-read The Laws of Subtraction and wants to institutionalize the six “simple rules.” Where to begin?

May: Ask those two questions, plus a third: “What is it that my competition would struggle with if I were to cease?”

Morris: For more than 25 years, it has been my great pleasure as well as privilege to work closely with the owner/CEOs of hundreds of small companies, those with $20-million or less in annual sales. In your opinion, of all the material you provide in The Laws of Subtraction, which do you think will be of greatest value to leaders in small companies? Please explain.

May: Every small business I know struggles with resources. Often they’re after more, instead of viewing resource constraints as the very source of ingenuity. I think Law #4, “Creativity Thrives Under Intelligent Constraints,” is the one they need to embrace and think differently about. Are resource constraints–time, money, people–holding you back or moving you forward? There should be only one right answer.

Morris: Which question had you hoped to be asked during this interview – but weren’t – and what is your response to it?

May: Well, I hinted at it earlier. “What did you subtract in writing this book?” Answer: myself.

* * *

To read Part 1 of this interview, please click here.

Matt cordially invites you to check out the resources at these websites:

Matt’s homepage

Matt’s blog

Matt’s Amazon page

Posted in

Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.