We have become quite dependent on the wealth of new smart technologies that sit behind artificial intelligence-connected virtual assistants like Amazon’s Alexa. They answer our questions and determine how to take appropriate action on our behalf. Yet, there is something far more fundamental we all should be using ... Occam’s Razor.
Developed by philosopher William of Ockham, a Franciscan friar and logician in the 14th century, Occam’s Razor remains one of the most vital and useful business tenets we have today.
Simple is better. I believe this is true for many reasons, but I KNOW this is true because of Occam’s Razor.
Occam's Razor is “the problem-solving principle that, when presented with competing hypothetical answers to a problem, one should select the one that makes the fewest assumptions.” That is, the simplest path to a solution is usually the best.
The Big Bang Theory, my source for all things scientific, provides a humorous yet perfectly logical illustration of Occam’s Razor in this quick video from the "The Cooper-Hofstadter Polarization" episode. Asked why a particular letter is in the trash, the brilliant theoretical physicist Dr. Sheldon Cooper responds that while it could be that the can formed spontaneously around the letter, the most likely explanation is that someone threw the letter away.
Related Article: Why Designing Simple Solutions Is So Complicated
Occam’s Razor teaches us an important lesson about explanations.
Whether exploring metaphysical cognitive models, or a problem in nature, or even a letter in the trash can… “of the many competing explanations for a particular phenomenon, the simplest one is likely to be the correct one.”
Though championed by Ockham, the Razor principle goes back at least as far as Aristotle, who wrote "Nature operates in the shortest way possible." This original expression and the subsequent Occam’s Razor have been assimilated into our culture.
For example, consider the age-old question of whether the enormous ancient geoglyphs that cover parts of the Nazca Plain in South America were created by the Nazca people or extraterrestrials. Archaeologists conclude that the symbols relate to agricultural fertility and water, so important to farmers living in a desert environment. And, recent university classes have been able to recreate the symbols through natural means that would have been available to the ancients. Thus, Occam's Razor — and real-world evidence — would rule out the extraterrestrial explanation.
The Value of Focus
Just imagine what might be possible then if we focus on simplifying, not just in our problem solving, but in how we attack our work. In that regard, Occam’s Razor might be said to have a corollary in Pareto’s principle.
Known as the 80/20 rule, Pareto tells us that the majority of outcomes are driven by a small number of things that we do. Thus paring down to that simple small number of things could potentially produce great value.
Warren Buffett apparently agrees. The Personal Growth article, '5/25 Rule Will Help You Focus On The Things That Matter,' recounts a conversation between Buffet and his pilot Mike Flint. As the story goes, Buffett asks Flint to list his top 25 goals in life ... and then circle the five most important. He then asks Flint not what he will do about the first five goals, but rather the remaining ones. Flint replies he will work on them intermittently as he focuses on the top five. Frowning, Buffett responds:
“No. You’ve got it wrong. Everything you didn’t circle just became your Avoid-At-All-Cost list. No matter what, these things get no attention from you until you’ve succeeded with your top five.”
The lesson? As with Occam’s Razor, the 5/25 rule teaches that simple is better, and a focus on simplicity will correctly produce the greatest value.
Related Article: CIOs Must Become Design Thinkers
Elegant User Experience
Ironically, keeping a simple focus can take more effort than not, and at times can be a struggle. Nowhere is this more evident than in the process of designing powerful and elegant user experiences.
In 'Designing with Occam’s Razor,' we are admonished to focus on the minimum amount of UI that will allow the content to be found and effectively communicated to the user. Of the techniques to reduce design complexity, the best approach is to start with the simplest solution and only introduce complexity if needed. Then review your design to edit away anything superfluous.
“Perfection is achieved not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.” — Antoine de Saint-Exupéry
It’s easy to fall into the trap of “enhancing” the user experience by “sprinkling in delightful animations or hiding away navigation in an offscreen menu.” In reality, this introduces unnecessary complexity that impacts clarity and utility.
With Occam’s Razor inspiring our designs, we can achieve views that are elegant in their simplicity and are all about user speed and efficiency. Something Alexa and her virtual assistance sisters can well appreciate and strive to deliver.
The Main Thing
We humans understand the world by building a “model” of it in our minds. As 'Thinking in Levels' explains, when we are trying to decide how to act we can simulate a situation by running it through the model. And, Level 3 thinkers have the capacity to transfer knowledge — to apply a concept learned in one context to different contexts — as we are told Steve Jobs did when he transferred learnings from a calligraphy class into the design of the first Mac.
Occam’s Razor is indeed such a mental model — widely applicable in theology, scientific theory, medicine, forensics, design and more — and most powerful when we call on it to hold us to the simple path.
Or as probable Ockham acolyte Stephen Covey tells us: “The main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing.”