Paul Witkay in Smart Business: “Downtime Can Be the Path to Tremendous Creativity”

June 01, 2015

I doubt I’m the only one who misses the old days when smartphones were only a dream and life was simpler.

We can now access nearly all of the information known to mankind on a 24/7 basis and can communicate with virtually anyone anywhere on the planet at any time. Although I can still relax and read a book while flying, I miss the time when that was the only thing I could do on a long flight.

That’s why it was such a pleasure to meet Matt May, an adviser to leading companies on innovation and the best-selling author of The Elegant Solution, In Pursuit of Elegance and The Shibumi Strategy.

May recently spoke with members of the Alliance of Chief Executives about his latest book, The Laws of Subtraction, which outlines six simple rules for dealing with this age of excess. It also offers a radically powerful idea: “When you remove just the right things in just the right way, something very good happens.”

Here are May’s six laws of subtraction:

What isn’t there can trump what is
Zen teaches that emptiness is a symbol of inexhaustible spirit. Silence in music and film, pauses in theatre and dance, and blank spaces in paintings provide the very essence of creative energy.

The simplest rules create the most effective experience
The universe is governed by simple rules. Exploiting these natural rules instead of imposing our own top-down policies can be incredibly powerful. May uses the example of “shared space” traffic design in Europe to show how removing controls, such as lines and stoplights, makes people think — and lowers accident rates.

Limiting information engages the imagination
When users feel empowered to create their own experiences, they invest their own intelligence and imagination and, as a result, are much more engaged.

Creativity thrives under intelligent constraints
The ability to properly frame an issue or problem sparks far more creativity than a blank page. When constraints are properly crafted with a disregard for the impossible, we force ourselves to go deeper and explore unconventional or non-obvious solutions.

‘Break’ is the important part of breakthrough
Creative breakthroughs require us to make a conscious break from existing routines and patterns. Strategy guru and author Michael Porter said: “The essence of strategy is choosing what not to do.”

Doing something isn’t always better than doing nothing
We all love to give advice and solve problems as quickly as possible. We need to slow down and be as curious as possible to find genuinely fresh insights. It’s hard to slow down and think deeply, but it’s often the only way to find fresh new approaches to our most difficult challenges.

May offers us a different way to create and lead successful organizations, and his timing could not be better. In an age of smartphones and hyperconnectivity, we need to step back every now and then, take a breath and determine what we can eliminate so that the lives of our customers and employees are improved — and hopefully our own, as well.