The Philosophy of Subtraction: How a distributed team delivered on an ambitious goal

In late April, my partner Mohit called for an emergency meeting of the ACT volunteers to discuss how we as a group, which originally came together in April 2020, could get back in action against COVID-19 as India faced its deadliest wave yet. The numbers were rising fast and we needed to act with equal speed. After taking stock of the situation, as a group we decided to solve the oxygen shortage problem the country was starting to face.

Just over 20% of the Earth’s atmosphere is made up of oxygen and yet when we are hit by this microbe, our body loses its ability to effectively use atmospheric oxygen for respiration and becomes dependent on >93% pure oxygen to be delivered from oxygen concentrators or Pressure Swing Absorption (PSA) plants in hospitals. Oxygen, a gas that is formed as a waste product in the process of photosynthesis in plants, became the most valuable medicine to save patients infected with COVID. 

By late April, hospitals in Delhi/NCR started reporting that they were running out of oxygen and put out appeals for help. We decided to swing into action by sourcing both Oxygen Concentrators (OCs), which would provide immediate relief, and in parallel started a workstream to install 50 PSA plants, which would help create critical medium to long-term infrastructure at hospitals for them to become self-sufficient. I volunteered in late April to run the PSA workstream for ACT and pulled together a small team that would help figure out a way to install 50 plants by June end. This later ballooned to a larger goal of installing 100 plants in about 100 days! Other colleagues in the ACT team also sourced and deployed 40,000 OCs in addition to working on important initiatives like vaccination and homecare.

And at the time of this writing (~92 days from a cold start), we had delivered 95 plants at hospital sites across 20+ states and installed more than 75 plants. This is no mean feat and the credit goes to a group of volunteers who came together to punch above their weights. What is interesting is that this was a group of volunteers who hardly knew each other, never met even once in person, had no technical knowledge of PSA plants and no handbook on how to get the job done – and yet worked beautifully together to deliver on a massive goal.

In trying to define what philosophy we were bound by, the “Philosophy of Subtraction” – espoused by the Ethereum foundation (further reading here) comes to mind. What does a team working on PSA plants have to do with Ethereum and blockchain? Technically, nothing; but from a philosophical point of view, everything, as we quickly realized!

The Ethereum foundation states that “Ethereum must remain a bazaar, and never become a cathedral. To succeed long term, Ethereum needs a vibrant decentralized ecosystem with many independent organizations that provide funding, coordination, and leadership”. The philosophy further says “distribute opportunities, be happy when others succeed and matter less”.

We decided to operate as a bazaar (or a platform) where “like-minded” people could come together, work with each other and create impact. This is the core to how we work at ACT – every volunteer is a co-founder of change. For the PSA workstream, we leveraged the power of the volunteer community – which consisted of individuals as well as corporates and startups that cared for the cause, not-for-profits who had on ground ability to do some diligence, and project management and motivated government officials from the state and central government who would push hard to get things done. But the key to this is to first have a team that believes in the collective purpose – in this case of doing something positive in a tough situation vs sitting and watching or worse complaining about the failure of the system.

“It was clear that reaching the goal was more important than having the credit.”

Here are some ways we operated:
  1. Open architecture: It was clear that reaching the goal was more important than having the credit. We encouraged people to join us in making the mission a reality and our volunteer group had grown dramatically. The room we provided for people to work freely allowed others to join us without feeling like they worked for us.
  2. Solutioning bias, done collectively: When we were hit with roadblocks we leveraged the volunteer community to find solutions – solutions may exist across different teams and different vendors, and we used the collective problem solving capacity vs. trying to solve problems ourselves.
  3. Operated with trust: We allowed people to find their solutions, we trusted them to do the right thing and didn’t vilify mistakes – we knew they meant well and we were doing things the first time and can make mistakes.
  4. Allowed natural leaders to emerge: As a team we allowed the ones with initiative to take up more and drive sub workstreams. This allowed the volunteer groups to self-organize into demand teams (sourcing hospitals with need), supply teams (sourcing plants), and installation teams, and for naturally motivated leaders to emerge.
  5. Celebrated wins even if it wasn’t ours: We were saving lives and that was the goal, it didn’t matter if we did it ourselves or by supporting others to achieve the same goal. We celebrated every plant that either we installed or others with the same goal did.
  6. Knocked on doors: We believed in serendipity and kept knocking on doors and pulling in whatever resources were made available. We got lucky breaks in terms of raw materials, plant suppliers and entrepreneurial implementation partners. This wouldn’t have happened had we not reached out widely (through LinkedIn and Twitter) and knocked many doors.

I will remain grateful for the opportunity to have been a steward for this amazing group of people who worked tirelessly over the last three months to get us to our goal. I hope my learnings from this and the philosophy of Subtraction makes a difference to how you think about designing your organization for success! So, now you know why I haven’t been able to ship this newsletter before and the three-month hiatus couldn’t have been put to better use. It’s good to be back and I hope you and your families are keeping safe.

“We were saving lives and that was the goal, it didn’t matter if we did it ourselves or by supporting others to achieve the same goal.”

Recommended Reads

Here are three articles I read over the last few weeks that I found super impactful.

Staying on the Top of Everest is Harder than Getting There, a recent blog by the Marcellus team is a great read and one that I share widely with my founders. It covers how hard it is for public companies to stay in the index – on an average 50% of the companies in the index today won’t be there in under a decade. It goes on to talk about Jim Collins’ ‘Five Stage of Decline’ framework to identify how great companies slide – something that we should all understand to prevent our own decline as companies.

Why does it take humans so long to mature compared to other animals? Look to your neurons!, a research article published by Vanderbilt University on their research into the human brain that has resulted in some interesting findings. The article argues that the number of neurons in the cerebral cortex is key to longevity in humans and explains why this is the case. The article is a reminder for us to keep our minds healthy beyond just pumping that iron!

Why one side of your nose always feels congested , is an interesting article that answered one of the issues I thought I uniquely had which turned out to be normal for all. The human nose has something called a nasal cycle – alternating partial congestion and decongestion of the nasal cavities in humans and other animals. It seems this design is our wondrous body’s way of giving one side of our nose a break while also improving our ability to smell better. A recommended read if you are as curious about your nose as I am!

If you have time for a longer read, here are three books I’d like to recommend.

Algorithms to Live By: The Computer Science of Human Decisions, by Brian Christian and Tom Griffiths

I am fascinated by logic and as a computer science graduate, I find it compelling that someone decided to take the algorithms designed by humans to make machines efficient to apply them back to human decision making! This is a good read/listen and there are some nice practical applications of these algorithms in our everyday lives from finding parking in malls or hiring your next secretary!

Hold On to Your Kids: Why Parents Need to Matter More Than Peers, by Dr. Gordon Neufeld and Dr. Garbor Mate

Came across this recommendation in a podcast and decided to listen to this audiobook. This book is relevant for parents with kids who are 10 years or older. While the author makes a compelling case to why parents should matter more and how they shouldn’t lose their children to their peers, there is less science and more opinion in this book. That said as a parent I still agree that the job to shape our children is not to be left to their peers!

Why We Get Sick: The Hidden Epidemic at the Root of Most Chronic Disease-and How to Fight It, by Benjamin Bikman

This is an eye-opening read on a subject I got interested in after I decided to become a ‘cyborg’ with Ultrahuman (thanks to its founder, Mohit!). The book argues that the root cause of several chronic diseases is insulin resistance and describes how eating the right type of macro nutrients is essential to managing blood glucose and hence insulin in the body. You will probably never look at food the same way again!

Do write in at if any of my interests intersect with yours! Click here to read more articles on Sequoia’s blog. I’m also on LinkedIn and Twitter.