Negative Space — How to think critically in an uncertain world.

September 15, 2022
5 min read
Photo by Matt Seymour on Unsplash
“Assess your lacks, to see what use they may be put to.”
— Margo Jefferson

“I need to sit at the strategy table.”

That was Em, then an SVP at one of the biggest companies in the world. Em went on to be the company’s Chief Marketing Officer, then its Chief Operating Officer. She now sits on and chairs multiple boards.

That line has always stuck with me.

The first part. “I need to sit...” is mindful. To be self-aware is a true leadership trait. Leaders know what their strengths are and actively work on their gaps. Very few are open about it. 

The second part, “...at the strategy table,”  pops up over and over again.

Either, “how do I get more strategic?” or, “so and so isn’t strategic enough.” 

I was asked the strategy question at an interview (a long time ago). “Are you more strategic, or are you better at executing?” My answer at the time:


Now, I have a better answer. Not the whole strategy thing—that’s a book, but the shorter conundrum: how do you build your strategic muscle? 

The answer lies in three stories.

Where do we put the armor on our bombers?

Abraham Wald was a Jewish mathematician who escaped Nazi persecution. During the second world war, he worked at a hush-hush American think tank, the Statistical Research Group.

The Allies had a problem. 

A massive daytime bombing campaign; a necessary part of the war effort that was chewing up the lives of young American bomber crews.

“Where do we put the armor on our bombers?” is a tricky question. 

Adding armor would mean higher crew survival rates. But more armor means heavier bombers, sacrificing speed, ordnance, and fuel load. 

The problem could not be solved with more: it needed ‘just enough’ armor.

The military gave Wald access to recently returned planes—covered in flak and cannon-fire holes—to solve the problem. They also came with what they thought was the answer: to put the armor where the holes, and the crew, were. They wanted Wald to work out the details. He did.

Wald told them to put the armor where there were no holes—the engines.

What Wald worked out in armoring the engines was to increase the survivability of the aircraft—they could get home—and therefore increase the chances for the crew.

He broke through a flaw we all have in our thinking. 

Survival bias is a logical error where we ignore or discount failures. We see success—in this case, planes that survived—and base our thinking on that. 

Wald’s insight connects to another.

Humans tend to add, not subtract.

This story involves Legos, not B-17s.

Leidy Klotz is a father. He is also an engineer, neuroscientist,  and author of Subtract: The Untapped Science of Less. One day, playing Lego with his son Ezra, he spotted the “subtraction” phenomenon. 

Leidy and Ezra were building a bridge. 

Leidy had built one tower and Ezra the other. Adding the span between the two towers, they found a problem. Leidy’s tower was taller than Ezra’s. The Lego bridge would wobble. Leidy reached for more Lego blocks to fix it. But before Leidy could add more blocks to one tower, Ezra subtracted blocks from the other.

Leidy, he suspected, did what people usually do. Ezra did not.

When faced with a problem, most people add. Leidy did. It’s our natural instinct. One is good, so two must be better. This is creeping complexity. You see it everywhere. One razor-blade, Two, Three. Now four. That same creeping complexity is the enemy of product managers, Ux designers, and customer experiences everywhere.

Klotz uncovered an “addition bias.”

Addition is easier for the brain. Subtracting is hard. Another cognitive bias.

This is why, as Mark Twain infamously (did not) state, he needed more time to write a shorter letter.

Addition bias is why the tax code gets bigger; to-do lists get longer; why you have more KPIs than you need; and why you can never prune a priority list. 

We’re also terrible at predicting the future.

Which is good if you run the lottery.

Our inability to look at current events and extrapolate them to a future state is why the world missed a pandemic, we still don’t have flying cars, and inventions like Google Glass and the Segway were a bust.

But we still try. Metaverse anyone?

Jeff Bezos gets asked, a lot, “what's going to change in the next ten years?”

His reply:

“That is a very interesting question; it's a very common one. 

I almost never get the question: 'What's not going to change in the next ten years?' 

And I submit to you that that second question is actually the more important of the two—because you can build a business strategy around the things that are stable in time.”

Bezos’s is a strategic answer. It’s about placing bets and reducing risk.

Think in negative space.

This is something humans are not good at. To zag instead of zig. 

When our minds leap, we miss the details in negative space. To look, as Wald did, at what is not there. To subtract, as Leidy’s son did, instead of add. To think, as Bezos did, about what will not change. 

This is more strategic.

Practice thinking in negative space.

Instead of asking the question, “what should I do?” Ask yourself, “what should I not do?” Next time you panic about “what you have to get done,” celebrate “what you have done.”

Remember Wald and the bombers. Instead of looking for “what’s there?” think about “what’s not there.” More often than not, the answer lies not in “what you know” but in “what you don’t know.”

Leidy discovered that we have an urge to add. Instead of “what features do we add” to our product, or service, or offering, we might ask, “what can we take away?”

Take a page out of Bezos’s book. Instead of thinking about “what has changed,” think about “what hasn’t changed.” Instead of thinking about “what differentiates our product?” Think about “what is easily replicable/ replaceable about our product.” Instead of asking, “what will the future look like?” Ask yourself, “what will not change in the future?”

That’s how you sit at the strategy table.

Gavin McMahon is a founder and Chief Content Officer for fassforward consulting group. He leads Learning Design and Product development across fassforward’s range of services. This crosses diverse topics, including Leadership, Culture, Decision-making, Information design, Storytelling, and Customer Experience. He is also a contributor to Forbes Business Council.

Eugene Yoon is a graphic designer and illustrator at fassforward. She is a crafter of Visual Logic. Eugene is multifaceted and works on various types of projects, including but not limited to product design, UX and web design, data visualization, print design, advertising, and presentation design.

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