What can a medieval English friar teach businesses about decision-making and problem-solving? Perhaps quite a bit.
William of Occam was an English Franciscan friar and philosopher who lived from 1287 to 1347. Perhaps his most famous contribution to philosophy (and a variety of other fields, such as mathematics, biology, religion, and others) is what has become known as Occam’s razor.
The principal is usually stated as: “Entities should not be multiplied without necessity.” Put another way: “The simplest solution is most likely the right one.” The idea is that as more inputs, assumptions, or dependencies are added to an analysis or the solution to a problem, the more complex it becomes.
All else being equal, the simpler solution should be favored, as it is less complex. Less complexity typically translates into less effort and less opportunity for error. Let’s consider two key applications of Occam’s razor: process improvement and problem-solving.
Occam’s razor has become a key element of many lean process improvement efforts. As a process is dissected and reviewed, each step is analyzed.
If each step is not the simplest means of achieving the desired outcome, it is replaced with a simpler solution. When each step of the process is made more efficient, the process as a whole becomes more efficient.
Problem-solving is a key aspect of any business, and Occam’s razor is a useful tool in evaluating competing solutions. The principal states that all else being equal, the simpler solution is most likely the best.
For example, when trying to determine the origin of mysterious crop circles, two competing conclusions might be:
- Aliens visited our planet and created the crop circles; or
- Human, Earth-dwelling pranksters created the crop circles.
The first conclusion requires significant assumptions: Intelligent life-forms exist beyond our planet; they are sufficiently technologically advanced to visit our planet; and they have chosen this as their first form of contact, creating designs in this farmer’s corn field. The second conclusion is, of course, far simpler.
But Simple May Not Always Be Best
It’s important to note that while the simplest solution is likely the right one, that doesn’t mean it’s always the right one. Sometimes, problems really do require complex solutions. Occam’s razor might help point to a likely solution, but that solution should still be verified through additional testing and analysis when possible.
William of Occam lived roughly 700 years ago, but his most well-known philosophical principal still holds tremendous value today.