Subtraction Technique Deja Vu

After skimming my newsfeeds earlier this week, my mind kept returning to the deja-vu-like sense of familiarity I experienced while reading Drew Boyd’s September 8 post on the Innovation Excellence blog. Boyd described a conceptual aircraft design by Technicon France as an example of Subtraction Thinking, one of five creative thinking patterns/templates associated with Systematic Inventive Thinking, or the SIT method of innovation, which is described more fully in Inside The Box: A Proven System of Creativity for Breakthrough Results, the 2013 book Boyd co-authored with SIT theorist Jacob Goldenberg. The Technicon design team eliminated the passenger cabin windows and replaced the limited portal view they afforded with a 360-degree wrap-around display of the outside environment, captured in real-time from externally mounted cameras. Imagine yourself inside Wonder Woman’s transparent/invisible plane looking out or take a peek at Technicon’s concept video.

I realized later why this content had such a familiar “feel” to it. The steps associated with the Subtraction Technique mirrored the underlying pattern driving much of our innovation work here at UMUC during the late 1990s.  The Subtraction Technique, summarized here from Boyd’s blog post and book (2013), involves removing or diminishing an existing product or service component, replacing it with something else that exists either within or adjacent to the existing product or service system, and then assessing the feasibility and value of the new product or service. Function follows form in this reverse design process. In Technicron’s concept design, the designers removed the aircraft windows and replaced them with currently available technologies and those on the near-term horizon to create a new concept for business travel. At UMUC, we removed the walls of the traditional classroom and replaced them with an effective and engaging virtual learning environment delivered to students worldwide via the Internet.   More importantly, we learned how to do this at scale. Our pioneering efforts and those that followed have significantly enhanced the availability of affordable, open access, quality higher education opportunities to working adults and others previously under-served by the existing higher education delivery system.

According to Boyd and Goldenberg (2013), templates are generalized solution patterns and approaches that guide our thinking and behavior, often on a subconscious level.   By raising our conscious awareness of these patterns and applying them in novel ways, combining available and near-term horizon technologies, we expand our capacity to innovate on demand. While SIT is one helpful framework, UMUC’s Center for Innovation in Learning and Student Success (CILSS) engages in multiple techniques with our colleagues here at UMUC to identify and test the most promising ideas for improving student persistence and success. In my next post, I will describe some of our recent innovation efforts and the innovation thinking behind them. In the meantime, can you identify examples of Subtraction Thinking in your work or projects to you have been exposed? Let us know by posting in the comments below.

*Boyd, D., & Goldenberg, J. (2013). Inside the box: A proven system of creativity for breakthrough results. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster

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