Why You Should Discard Before You Make Things Better | by Milan Kendall Shah | Jul, 2022

A piece of advice for strategic thinking

In a recent tour of SpaceX, Elon Musk commented “possibly the most common error of a smart engineer is to optimise a thing that should not exist.” Musk’s off-the-cuff remark captures a widespread human tendency: when solving a challenge, our first step is usually to improve what already exists, rather than to question what could be discarded.

This behaviour is surprisingly common in research. A body of work published last year by social psychologist Gabrielle Adams found that when an incoming university president solicited ideas for improvements, only 11% of suggestions involved getting rid of something. Similarly, when asked to improve a travel itinerary, only 28% of participants did so by eliminating destinations.

But why do we approach challenges in this way? And where has the alternative strategy of discarding helped spark innovation?

We prefer to retain and optimise due to complexity bias; our natural preference for complicated explanations and solutions over simple ones. Labelling something as complex gives us a licence to skip getting to the bottom of how it truly works. We also think that complex things are more effective and advanced. In this line of thinking, discarding is intimidating because it requires us to truly understand a problem, and simultaneously makes the thing we’re dealing with worse.

It’s also human nature to become emotionally invested in the things we create. To discard something is to lose it; to undermine our efforts. This is observed acutely in creative professions, where people feel they are imprinting themselves onto their work. Renowned author Stephen King encouraged against being sentimental, with a call to “kill your darlings, kill your darlings, even when it breaks your egocentric little scribbler’s heart, kill your darlings.”

While these two explanations are hardwired into us, our environment also plays an important role. Musk argues that we prefer to optimise because we believe the logical foundations we’re building on are irrefutable. He blames the education system for this, arguing that we have been trained to answer a question given to us by a teacher, and never to say ‘your question is dumb.’ He describes this pattern — accepting implicit assumptions and building on top of them — as ‘convergent logic’.

So, how do we move away from optimisation and start thinking about what we can discard?

First principles thinking holds key lessons for problem-solving in this way. It involves boiling things down to their most fundamental components to identify the parts that aren’t necessary. The subsequent reasoning up from this foundation helps create new rules and systems that allow you to see fresh solutions to existing problems. This thinking can be applied extremely broadly; physical parts in the context of a product, touchpoints in the context of an experience, processes in the context of running a business, and ideas in the context of creativity.

For example, Jeff Bezos has applied first principles thinking to build Amazon around fundamental customer needs. At an Amazon Web Services conference in 2012, he commented that “in our retail business, we know that customers want low prices, and I know that’s going to be true 10 years from now. They want fast delivery; they want vast selection.” This focus provided the foundations on which Bezos has increased Amazon’s revenue by a factor of ten over the past decade.

First principles thinking, and seeking to discard parts that aren’t necessary, has led to transformative change across industries.

In automotive, traditional gasoline-powered vehicles are typically made up of around 30,000 components; complex machines riddled with part failures and high-cost repairs. The trend towards electrification has provided the opportunity to rethink the car from the bottom up — with the help of new technology. Today, EVs require about half as many components as traditional vehicles, with the entire drivetrain of an electric car involving fewer than 20 moving parts. Fewer parts means fewer breakdowns, fewer repairs and a lower cost for drivers in the long run.

In retail, it’s essential for consumers to view products and choose which we’d like to buy. But it’s less clear that we need to queue up, load items onto the till, scan them and pay. Amazon’s grocery business — Amazon Fresh — now offers a ‘just walk out’ experience in over 40 stores across the UK and US. The stores work by using the same types of technologies found in self-driving cars; detecting when products are taken or returned to the shelves, keeping track of them in your virtual cart and charging your Amazon account when you leave the store.

When Tiny Speck realised their computer game, Glitch, wasn’t a success, they were faced with a dilemma. Rather than trying to make the game better, they discovered that the interactive chat functionality was the only feature liked by users. With this insight, the company focused exclusively on building a specialised collaboration tool. This was ultimately brought to market as Slack — the indispensable business app which today has more than 10 million daily users.

It might seem counterintuitive to consider what we can discard before we work to make things better. After all, we’re anchored to retain the status quo. But as captured by management guru Peter F Drucker, “the first step in strategic thinking, planning and developing a vision for the future must start with getting rid of yesterday.” This paves the way to radically different, rather than iterative solutions — whether you’re building products, shaping experiences, running a company or simply in the business of generating fresh ideas.

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