Occam’s Razor – Keeping it handy

William of Ockham, from stained glass window a...“The VCR is not turning on!” says my wife over the phone. We often have short phone calls along these lines. At other times it’s the laser printer or the washing machine not working or turning on. My first question usually is “Honey, is it plugged in the wall?” followed by “Is the switch on the wall socket turned on?” Sometimes we find that the kids have used the electrical socket for something else and just unplugged our device. At other times they left the outlet turned off or forgotten to turn the UPS back on, after switching it off when it last squealed.

While I’m sure your spouse (or room mate or sibling) and you never have such conversations, we certainly have to thank William of Occam (also Ockham) who lived eight hundred years ago. His eponymous maxim (aka Occam’s razor) states “in explaining a thing no more assumptions should be made than are necessary.”

In other words the simplest explanation for any observed phenomenon is likely the right one. This is the reason when we show up with chest pains, they check for heartburn or gas first rather than rush you into surgery. As entrepreneurs, managers and leaders, we are often faced with issues that seem to baffle us.

  • Why can’t I seem to hire anyone?
  • Why didn’t that VC call us back – the meeting went so well, we thought?
  • Why is the customer not prepared to commit?
  • Why is the network slow?
  • Why does our product crash often?

For most of theses instances, Occam’s razor is worth keeping in mind. Before you explore more complex reasons, look for the simplest ones first and those are the most likely ones.

Of course it’s worth keeping Einstein’s caveat in mind

Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler.”

If you’ve come this far, you might as well read what physicists have to say about Occam’s razor here.

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