n minus one

There is a concept in business strategy known as “n-minus-one.” Simply put, the idea is you should always staff your company, office, or team with every needed resource, minus one.

For example, let’s say you run an accounting firm. You land a new contract and the analysis of the engagement calls for a team of twelve accountants and auditors. The n-minus-one concept says the team will actually be more successful if you implement a team of eleven.

It may be counter-intuitive, but I have found this to be not only true, but also applicable in situations well beyond the workplace.

Some business gurus believe the secret behind n-minus-one is how the remaining team members are required to hustle just a little more to get the job done. The resulting momentum and frantic energy will drive the eleven accountants to do the work of twelve. While hustle and momentum may have something to do with it, I believe n-minus-one works for another reason entirely… flexibility and the room to maneuver.

The work that would have been done by the missing team member gets spread across the remainder of the team, giving each something to do when their specific assignment is in a “wait state,” or for some other reason can’t be efficiently moved forward. We all have unproductive time in our routines and if there is something else to do when those times come, we will do more.

I have encountered a long list of n-minus-one situations in my life where a little flexibility and room to move has made all the difference. I will now share some of them with you.

Bouncing Bridge

After college, I lived in and around New York City for nearly a decade. When you live in, and travel around the NY metropolitan area, you regularly cross bridges and traverse tunnels. The largest and most iconic bridge in my life at that time was the George Washington Bridge that spans the Hudson River, connecting The Bronx with Fort Lee New Jersey.

Around four million cars a month cross the GWB, and such vehicular volume is bound to cause some traffic jams and delays.

I remember the very first time I found myself stuck in traffic on the George Washington Bridge. I was on the lower level, headed east into Manhattan from New Jersey. Traffic was crawling, but then it came to a complete and total stop.


The GWB looking east towards The Bronx from the Jersey side.

As I sat in the stillness contemplating my predicament I began to notice something… I was bouncing. After a moment of bewildered analysis I came to the realization that I was not bouncing, nor was my little green Saturn. No, the bridge itself was bouncing and by no small amount. I looked around to try and measure how much the bridge was bouncing and my best guess was somewhere between one and three inches.

After a few minutes, traffic started to move again and as my car began to roll I could no longer feel the bouncing. Traffic came to a stop again and it returned.

Well, it turns out the GWB bounces ALL THE TIME, and it is a damn good thing too. Despite the massive size of the bridge (604 feet tall and 4,760 feet long) it is actually a very flexible structure. If the bridge were completely rigid, the motion and shifting weight of the traffic would cause it to crack and crumble. So, the bridge was designed to hold itself and its passengers up, but in an intentionally wobbly sort of way.

Bike Chain

When I was a kid I loved to tinker with bicycles. To a little boy, bikes are perfect things to mess with because they are simple, accessible and low-risk if you screw anything up.

My first bike was a Schwinn Bantam, bright yellow with a banana seat.


Just like my bike, but red and with the wrong seat

One of the things I used to regularly do was flip the bike over and remove both wheels. The front wheel was easy, just two nuts, but the back involved both the chain and the coaster brake. Putting things back together was the same, the front was easy but the back was complicated. When you put the rear wheel back on a single speed bike, the further back you affix the wheel, the tighter the chain will be. One day I decided I wanted my chain to be super tight, with no slack at all. I figured a tighter chain would lead to a faster bike.

Ah, the simple logic of the seven-year-old mind.

I positioned myself behind the bike and placed my tools right where I would need them. I pulled the rear wheel back as hard as I could and then tightened the nuts.

The chain was perfectly tense with no slack whatsoever; success was mine! That is until I flipped the bike over and began to ride it. Three strokes into my jaunt down the driveway; the chain jumped the sprocket and fell off. I dragged the bike back into the garage and repeated what I had just done, but the result was the same.

After a brief consult with my father, I learned the slack in the chain is actually necessary. As you pedal your bike, the frame, the wheels, the chain and all the other parts of the bike flex, and if your chain has no slack, it is unable to accommodate the flex and… well, it falls off.

Quarterback Sneak

When I went to elementary school, our video games were something called Pong. The Atari 2600 didn’t come along until I was almost in middle school. We did have handheld electronic games, and one of the most popular was Mattel Electronic Football.


Electronic Football – the original

I am not a football guy, but I am a sucker for anything with blinking lights and beeping sounds, so I took to Mattel Football like a fish to water. There was a problem however with the original version of electronic football. Like in the real game, the quarterback started at the line of scrimmage, but the game wouldn’t allow you to back up before passing, and as a result, you got sacked… a lot.

When Mattel Electronic Football 2 came out, they solved the problem. Once the ball was snapped, you could back your QB up two clicks, giving him the space to make a decent pass.


QB flexibility came with Football 2

Since the goal of football is to advance the ball down the field, it seems contradictory for the quarterback to move in the opposite direction. If he gets caught back there he will have made negative progress. However, to gain the space he needs to find a receiver and execute an effective pass, this is a risk he has to take. He must step back to go forward.

Sliding Puzzle

The greatest (and possibly simplest) illustration of the n-minus-one concept is the sliding number puzzle.

We have all spent time trying to solve one of these little plastic squares of frustration. As aggravating and fun as they may are, the puzzles would be impossible to solve if not for the missing square.


The missing piece makes it all possible

The missing square gives the player the space to manipulate the other squares into the winning sequence. The void does not guarantee success, but rather provides only the possibility. If every space in the grid were filled, they would not be movable at all.

Precision and accuracy are both good things, but the ability to be flexible is often the small detail sitting between success and failure. The next time you’re having trouble getting something done and your first inclination is to tighten your grip and try harder, take a moment and see if loosening up might be a better way to go.

The southern rock band .38 Special said it best…

Just hold on loosely
But don’t let go
If you cling too tightly
You’re gonna lose control

Copyright © 2016 – Stephen S. Nazarian – All rights reserved.

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