How to use what is not there to improve what is there

Photo by Dano

Yesterday I was reading an intriguing Chnagethis manifesto by Matthew E. May called: Creative Elegance – The Power of Incomplete Ideas. May argues the there is a great power in leaving things out. A concept he calls “the missing piece”:

What isn’t there can often trump what is.

May gives examples from art, TV, film and business to demonstrate that sometimes, creativity can be achieved not by creating something new, but by deliberately taking something out or leaving missing pieces. And these inspiring examples got me thinking of other examples where this idea could be used.

Example one – the missing piece in the feedback process

When I teach and evaluate feedback skills I always emphasize to people the importance of asking and listening first and only then deciding on a course of action. I am constantly surprised to see smart people go into a conversation without first understanding the other side’s problem – is it lack of knowledge? is it misunderstanding ?or is a shortage of ability? Until you understand what the problem is you cannot really contribute anything to the other person. I just realized that what I am talking about is how the missing piece changes the conversation. How without this information, the conversation is a totally different one.

Next time I am going to give this class I am planning to use the example from the manifesto (which I am not going to ruin for you) to show how powerful the missing piece is and what happens the minute we discover it.

Example two – the unnoticed employees

Similarly, I remember when I was a course commander in the Israeli Air force I was leading a course which was comprised of participants who lacked motivation and had a lot of discipline problems. Usually, we spent a lot of time dealing with and giving attention to the people who were undisciplined.

Until one day we noticed something. When we do that, the phenomenon spreads across the course participants. By ignoring the “regular” soldiers, those who did not give us any problems and focusing on the trouble makers, we were not only unable to take care of troublemakers, we created more troublemakers. We were pushing those who did not act up to act up, as they, like any normal human being, wanted the attention and recognition for a job well done.

I think this relates easily to the workplace. How is your time divided? How much time you spend with you under-performing employees compared to others? How many times to you recognize, award or give feedback to the employees that are not overachievers or underachievers, but are simply doing their job. If, as Woody Allen says: “80 percent of success is just showing up“, don’t we need to make sure we do not ignore those people who are doing everything that is expected of them?

Example three – lack of friction

Lastly, it made me think of a post by Bob Sutton that I read a while back and left a lasting impression on me. The post was called on noticing what you don’t notice, and this is what he wrote:

It is one of those phrases that applies to all sorts of things, great customer experiences where good things happen and your feel no friction, organizational practices that are seamless and painless, and even government services that seem designed to reduce the burden on you.

Sometimes, Sutton claims, the really great services, are the ones that are transparent, that we don’t notice they are there. Or in other words: the missing pieces.

So, how can you use the idea of the missing piece to improve your business, teamwork or personal life?


3 Responses to “How to use what is not there to improve what is there”

  1. Derek Irvine Globoforce Says:

    Great post, Elad. As you say, by primarily paying attention to the poor performers, you are rewarding poor effort. What a terrible message to send!

    As I elaborate more in this post (, part of the solution, obviously, is to intentionally spend time with top performers and recognize them for their continuing solid performance. But also don’t forget about your middle tier of employees – those that churn out the work every day, but perhaps do not stand out of the crowd. They also deserve recognition for their contributions. Without them and their contributions, the star performers likely wouldn’t be stars.

  2. sherfelad Says:

    As usual, you comments are right on the spot.
    I think our posts both talk about the same thing. It is just one of those conventional wisdoms that manager hold and a have a hard time letting go off. We are so used to seeing almost every system in life around us recognize and pay attention to the under performers (in the wider sense on the concept – the guy who cuts in line, the one who shouts or the one who is the best in politics) that we think this is the way things should be…
    It is time to change that.

  3. Shorts: Chip and Dan Heath on what is working « The Comparative Advantage Says:

    […] is another example of how important it is to notice what is not there. The problems jump out on us and demands our attention. However, dealing with the less obvious […]

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