Occam’s Razor or Beware of the System Complicators

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I bought a disassembled propane grill one time.  There were at least a thousand parts (well, maybe not that many) and the directions were about 20 pages long.  I began a long, tedious process of following each step and carefully assembling every subcomponent.

About an hour into the assembly, the idea slowly dawned on me that something was missing: simplicity and common sense.

The factory technical writers might have thought they were helping the consumer build the grill, but they had focused so much on the minutiae of the assembly process that no one told me that there were only perhaps five or six basic steps.  What I call a “Systems Complicator” had somehow infiltrated the factory and had written the instructions. They had focused on so many details and the “micro,” of the assembly that they never told me the “macro,” or what we all call the big picture.

They forgot good old Occam.

Occam was a 14th-century Franciscan friar who posited that “More things should not be used than are necessary.” The corollaries for this abound, including the idea that the simplest explanation is the most likely one when encountering a problem or dilemma.

I’ve often expressed this philosophy in business and in life.  Occam is too often overlooked (as are Ptolemy and other philosophers who first presented the idea).  While some people’s brains seem to key on details, it invariably helps any project or challenge to first define the goal or objective and some of the key steps that need to be taken to get there.  Without that framework, we all can get so focused on the minutiae that we forget the goal.

By complicating things with detail, we lose clarity, focus, and simplicity.  We can needlessly overload ourselves and in the process even forget why we all got together.

Each of us takes turns being systems complicators.  It can often stem from our particular focus that day or even our basic approach to life.  Sometimes it can emerge from resistances that we feel about moving into the unknown area we call change.  By spending time with endless details in the meeting, we can effectively buy time for ourselves by continually presenting enough small challenges that we stop the idea dead in its tracks.  We can complicate the simplicity and clarity of the idea to such an extent that we lose the momentum and the big-picture view of the challenge. We system complicate it.

A key step in identifying ourselves as system complicators is to work on our own awareness of how we are really feeling about the idea.  Ask some basic questions about change next time you hear an idea:

  1. Do I understand the concept?
  2. Do I like it?
  3. Do I want to do it?
  4. Am I able to do it?

If we can honestly answer these threshold questions about our own possible resistances, we can then focus on the merits of the idea and to allow ourselves to see the overall concept rather than the details.

A fellow senior vice president at a former company once listened to an endless conversation in a senior meeting one day.  A major initiative had been proposed, with initial thoughts about goals, objectives, and frameworks. The conversation abounded about “what ifs” and “what about this?” and “we can do it this way,” for hours.  By the end of the meeting, we were all exhausted and barely remembered why we had come to the meeting.

My friend looked around the room, surveying the wreckage of an idea that had been killed by System Complicators, ruefully smiled and said, “Well I guess that’s enough reminiscing about the future.”

Occam would have understood.

Dave Bushy of Boston Executive Coaches is a former senior airline executive who works with leaders throughout American industry.  Dave is also a Senior Associate with Gotham Culture.

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Source: This post was originally published at Gotham Culture on .