Up to 70% of successful innovations can be explained by a mere five fundamental underlying patterns.

Scientific research has led to identifying these five patterns and the development of an ideation method called Systematic Inventive Thinking, or SIT. The method has proven to be very valuable to companies around the world and many new products, services and business models have been generated by its users.

In this series of articles we will explain each of the five patterns illustrated with many examples and we will discuss the underlying principles of the method. Applied systematically, the approach will help you generate creative ideas for innovation on-demand.

When thinking about innovation, people generally like to add functionality to a device or complement a business model with extra services. Even though this approach had led to great new products and services, it typically generates only incremental benefits that come at substantial costs. One of the five dominant patterns in innovation is about doing the exact opposite. We call this pattern Subtraction.

The Subtraction technique is all about removing components from a product, a service or a business model. By eliminating something from the existing product configuration, we are creating a new product that could generate value. So we take away a component of the product, but not just any component. Not just a little screw of a machine or a single TV channel in a cable service. No, we remove something essential, something that we have always considered fundamental.

Think about a kitchen stove for a moment. What would be the most essential component of this product? The gas burners, right? Now let’s boldly remove those. That’s what we do when we apply the Subtraction technique.

When we use any of the five SIT-patterns, we always start by creating a list of the essential components of the product. Then we select a component and mentally remove it from the product. What we get is a virtual product, in our case a “gas burner-less kitchen stove”. The next step is to consider the potential benefits that this virtual product could have for our customers, for a specific market segment or in a certain geography. What problems could it potentially solve? If we do find benefits, it means that our virtual product has potential value and we can take it a step further. If we do not find any benefits, we simply move on, select another component to eliminate and so on.

We already talked about the tendency of people to add functions to a product, but people also have the tendency to immediately replace something that they have just eliminated. In our example, people will immediately try to replace the gas burners in the kitchen stove with something else. They will bring in new technology, other types of heating, to make the product ‘whole’ again.

This approach can generate great innovations, as we will see below, but we first need to explore the pure situation and assess if we can create value by just removing the component without replacing it. We follow the Path of Most Resistance.


Let’s take a look at some products in which the Subtraction pattern can be recognized. What is the most essential function of a mobile phone? The voice calling functionality, right? Apple created the iPod Touch by removing exactly this component from the iPhone. The iPod Touch has opened up new market segments for Apple and created a lot of value for them.


Many of our debit and credit cards are now made ‘contactless’. If we hold the card in close vicinity of a payment terminal, the transaction will take place without us having to punch in a PIN or security code for verification. The process-step of having to type in the secret key has been eliminated. The next step in mobile payments might be that the card itself will be eliminated. If all necessary data can be moved to our smart phones, why do we still need the physical card at all?


Here’s another example of a great product that can be explained by Subtraction. If you compare this Dyson Cool fan to traditional fans, you will see that it has no rotor blades and no protective grid. As rotor blades have been replaced with another technology, the protective grid could be removed entirely and didn’t require replacement.

Examples of the Subtraction pattern in products are all around us. Next time when you are waiting in an airport lounge, when you find yourself stuck in a traffic jam or when you are just sitting at home, see if you can recognize this pattern in any of the products around you.

Subtraction is the first and perhaps easiest SIT technique. Our next articles will cover the Task Unification, Attribute Dependency, Multiplication and Division patterns. Stay tuned!

FlyWheel Business is expert on Systematic Inventive Thinking (SIT). Interested to learn more? Ask us your question or contact us for SIT workshops near you.


© Ernst-Jan van Batenburg, FlyWheel Business

Please check out www.flywheelbusiness.com for more information on our innovation & consulting services. Get in touch or follow us…

Email info@flywheelbusiness.comTwitter @FWB_InnovationFacebook flywheelbusinessLinkedIn ernstjanvanbatenburg

FlyWheel Business, Accelerating Innovation.