Rid your team of 'addition sickness' once and for all

Rid your team of ‘addition sickness’ once and for all

By Meg Sullivan

March 14, 2024
Boost efficiency, morale and profits by nixing these 'GROSS' habits

Have you ever endured a bureaucratic process so snarled and slow-moving you wanted to toss your laptop out a 10-story window? You’re not alone. When I saw the title of a recent article in the Harvard Business Review called “Rid Your Organization of Obstacles that Infuriate Everyone: How every company can fight the ‘addition sickness’ that complicates work,” I thought it was written just for me. You see, I am a linear thinker who likes to get things done briskly, usually with as few meetings as possible.

The authors, Robert I. Sutton and Hayagreeva Rao, both professors at Stanford University, have spent the last eight years studying how the best leaders remove organizational obstacles that hinder productivity, creativity and growth. Their findings and recommendations can help any organization reduce costs, increase efficiency and boost morale.

Where does our “addition sickness” come from?

In their new book, “The Friction Project: How Smart Leaders Make the Right Things Easier and the Wrong Things Harder” and their podcast “The Friction Project,” Sutton and Rao identify a number of elements that contribute to this constant source of workplace frustration.

One of the most prevalent is “addition sickness.” This phenomenon stems from a human tendency to solve a problem by adding, rather than subtracting, something.

For example: If a project misses its deadline, the “obvious” solution might be to add more check-ins next time. Perhaps the project needs an additional, higher-level manager to attend meetings to ensure the project stays on track.

But what if there were too many cooks in the kitchen to start with? Rarely do people receive kudos for taking things away or saying they are not going to do something any more (save for Ron Livingston’s “Office Space” hero Peter Gibbons).

Addition sickness is a deeply ingrained human trait

Whether it’s instinct or loss aversion – we hate losing more than we like winning – people almost can’t help it. Researchers found across eight different experiments that people consistently overlooked the chance to eliminate something in favor of adding something else, even when it would be better to take something away.[1]

The side effects of living amid “addition sickness” are all too familiar:

  • Inefficiency
  • Organizational bloat
  • Frustration
  • Declining morale
  • Extra costs

These side effects can weigh heavily on your business’s ability to grow.

The GROSS antidote: Get Rid Of Stupid Stuff 

Sutton and Rao suggest the first thing you do is conduct a “Good Riddance Review.” Get your team together and identify what you can eliminate. Call it a Get Rid of Stupid Stuff, or GROSS, meeting — but prepare yourself. It’s likely going to take time and a lot of practice.

At a recent Imprint offsite, we held our own GROSS meeting. The team generated thirteen different ideas for things to eliminate. Yay, us! But upon examination it turned out that five were client issues we couldn’t control, one was a question to the group, and three were actually additions to what we are already doing. Only four of the 13 ideas were truly viable items we could consider subtracting. Still, we’ve started with those four and we’re keeping at it.

Why less truly is more

After holding a GROSS meeting of your own, try implementing one or more “Subtraction Tools” to combat the addition sickness in your shop. (Yes, the irony of that sentence is not lost on me.) The best of these tools not only eliminate added burdens in your organization, they also make it harder to add new impediments in the first place. Some of them can be very simple process changes:

  • Change default meeting times from 30 minutes to 15 minutes. That can save a lot of time right off the bat.
  • For meetings of 30 minutes or longer, check-in at the halfway point with all attendees. By that point, anyone who finds the discussion unhelpful or irrelevant to their current work can leave.
  • Shorten emails by 50%. Make the emails you send less wordy – save your and your recipients’ time. Everyone wins.

There are many more subtraction tools; the right combination for your business will be up to you.

Simplify. Simplify. Simplify.

Combatting addition sickness isn’t about getting out of work. It’s about ruthlessly safeguarding your and your team’s time and resources so your business thrives. Next time you want to add something new ask yourself instead, “What organizational annoyance can I eliminate?” Probably no one will notice or reward you for it, but you’ll know what you did.

1 Gabrielle S. Adams, Benjamin A. Converse, Andrew H. Hales & Leidy E. Klotz. “People systemically overlook subtractive changes.” Nature volume 592, pages 258–261 (2021).

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