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Business Leaders Often Overlook This Brilliant Problem-Solving Strategy When Making Career Decisions


Calling all business leaders, managers and problem solvers. There’s new information about how companies can improve their decision-making from top to bottom. And it’s possible you have overlooked this brilliant problem-solving strategy right before your eyes, like someone looking for their glasses, and they’re on the nose the whole time.

The Overlooked Business Solution

A new study discovered that when we’re faced with a problem, we tend to seek solutions by adding new elements, and we overlook subtracting existing aspects—even when removing certain features would be the more beneficial approach. Suppose you want to improve your remote work area. According to this research, it’s likely that you would add, instead of subtract, certain items from your desk. You might bring in a fish bowl or plant to enjoy aspects of nature. But what about that pile of papers that have been stacked up for months? And why didn’t you consider removing the clutter on your desk to give yourself elbow room to breathe?

Scientists at the University of Virginia conducted eight experiments in which participants could choose an additive or a subtractive strategy. In all the tasks, the vast majority of study participants chose an augment versus a removal strategy to solve the problems presented to them. They were less likely to identify effective subtractive changes when given a task that did not suggest they consider eliminating features. The same “addition bias” occurred when participants had an opportunity to recognize the shortcomings of that strategy as well as when they had to multitask other tasks at once. According to the researchers, their findings suggest that subtractive strategies require more effort to come up with than additive strategies, which explained why participants took a less effortful approach to problem solving.

Implications For Workplace Leaders

These findings have implications for how leaders make workplace decisions. The mind seems to bring forth additive strategies quicker and easier; therefore, we’re less likely to consider a removal strategy, according to Benjamin Converse, a co-author of the study, “Subtractive solutions are not necessarily harder to consider, but they take more effort to find.” These results suggest that, when confronted with career issues or workplace problems, leaders might have a tendency to take the quicker, easier path. But with a little more effort to incorporate the subtractive strategy, companies can benefit by asking what can be eliminated to make improvements instead of adding more steps or features that could complicate the the organizational process. Suppose your team brainstorms ideas for improvement of a workplace problem. Starting with eliminating existing regulations, structures or practices, instead of adding to them, could be the better, more efficient strategy.

Suppose your manager brainstorms solutions to communication problems. The likelihood is that she or he would start with implementing a new system instead of scrutinizing what potential obstacles could be removed to improve team interactions. This tendency for workplace leaders to default to the path of addition instead of subtraction eliminates a vast array of potential creative solutions to workplace problems.

The additive/subtractive decision-making strategy is also at play when companies search for a new manager. Instead of adding personnel by hiring from outside, it might be more prudent to move a qualified employee from within into the position. Research shows that employees with internally promoted managers are less likely to feel envious of their co-workers or report high levels of stress, and they boast higher overall morale. Plus, they insist internal hires are already aware of policies and procedures, need less ramp up time and increase employee loyalty. In contrast, adding outside hires raises concerns that they might present a poor culture fit, create animosity among employees wanting to apply for the role themselves, require lengthy training or exemplify poor leadership.

The researchers of these experiments conclude that, the “addition biases” they discovered could actually create more problems that subtraction options might eliminate: “Defaulting to searches for additive changes may be one reason that people struggle to mitigate overburdened schedules, institutional red tape and damaging effects on the planet.” The awareness of how problem-solving strategies are made in a company can increase the propensity for businesses to reverse the common trend of opting for complexity instead of simplification. Considering subtractive options has the potential to improve morale and productivity, simplify issues and increase the company’s bottom line.



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