Innovation Sighting: Buttons That Lie and the Subtraction Technique

by Drew Boyd

Innovation Sighting: Buttons That Lie and the Subtraction TechniqueThink about how often you push buttons during the normal course of a day, at home, in our car, and elsewhere – elevators, crosswalks, and so on.

Did you ever stop to wonder how many of those buttons you push don’t actually work? It’s called a placebo button – it seems to have functionality, but actually has no effect when pressed.

It’s a perfect example of the Subtraction Technique, one of five in the innovation method, Systematic Inventive Thinking (SIT). Subtraction works by removing an element of the system that seemed essentially to identity some new value or benefit.

So what’s the benefit of a button that doesn’t work? Psychologists say that it gives people the illusion of control, defined as the tendency for people to overestimate their ability to control events; for example, it occurs when someone feels a sense of control over outcomes that they demonstrably do not influence. We push a button, something happens, so we think, post hoc, that we caused it. Many people argue that we actually benefit from the illusion that we are in control of something – even when, from the observer’s point of view, we’re not.

The beauty of the Subtraction Technique is that you can also replace the missing element with something from the Closed World, an invisible boundary around the problem. As reported by BBC, here are some interesting examples of Subtraction with Replacement:

“The truth is that technology has long been deceiving us. Sometimes this is ethically questionable, but in other cases the user benefits from a sense of control and reassurance that the system is working as it should. Computer scientist Eytan Adar at the University of Michigan has described a series of fascinating “benevolent deceptions” in a paper co-written with two Microsoft researchers. Take the 1960s 1ESS telephone system for instance. After dialling, a caller’s connection would sometimes fail to go through properly. Instead of a dead tone or error noise, the system would instead simply route the call to a completely different person. “The caller, thinking that she had simply misdialled, would hang up and try again: disruption decreased and the illusion of an infallible phone system preserved,” notes the paper.”

To get the most out of the Subtraction Technique, you follow five steps:

1. List the product’s or service’s internal components.

2. Select an essential component and imagine removing it. There are two ways: a. Full Subtraction. The entire component is removed. b. Partial Subtraction. Take one of the features or functions of the component away or diminish it in some way.

3. Visualize the resulting concept (no matter how strange it seems).

4. What are the potential benefits, markets, and values? Who would want this new product or service, and why would they find it valuable? If you are trying to solve a specific problem, how can it help address that particular challenge? After you’ve considered the concept “as is” (without that essential component), try replacing the function with something from the Closed World (but not with the original component). You can replace the component with either an internal or external component. What are the potential benefits, markets, and values of the revised concept?

5. If you decide that this new product or service is valuable, then ask: Is it feasible? Can you actually create these new products? Perform these new services? Why or why not? Is there any way to refine or adapt the idea to make it more viable?

Learn how all five techniques can help you innovate – on demand.

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Drew Boyd is co-author of “Inside the Box: A Proven System of Creativity for Breakthrough Results.” Follow him at insidetheboxinnovation.com and at @DrewBoyd/drewboyd

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