Ockham’s Razor: 14th century philosophy meets 20th century vernacular: KISS

razor illustration

Cut to the Chase, Keep it Simple, Cut through the Chaff, Get down to Brass Tacks – what’s your favorite phrase when you want to Get to the Heart of the Matter?

For those not familiar with Ockham’s razor – it is the philosophy of a 14th century Franciscan friar who was also a philosopher and logician. William of Ockham taught that when faced with multiple, equally viable explanations for a given situation, the simpler one should be chosen. More directly, the tenet implies that one should make no more assumptions than the minimum required for achieving a decision. William of Ockham was not the first who wrote of such a parsimonious approach, but his has found its way into the fields of modern medicine, physics, chemistry, philosophy, psychology, and even management theory. Where is the potential application in Human Resources, from operations and management perspectives? If you are a manager of people, a business owner, or an HR professional, consider how many times you are faced with assessing multiple options, competing models, varying perspectives, and even accusations of malicious behavior, in your work life. Is Ockham’s razor a viable stepping stone in assessing the relative value of one perspective or solution against another?

At first glance, we might see William of Ockham’s idea of stripping away all the fluff around arguments is a good thing. Get down to basics and, using a popular adage, “Keep it Simple, Stupid.” The simpler of two positions with the same outcome is the best. There’s one small (maybe miniscule) problem with that idea. This nominalist position appears to allow the user to assume that any factors shared by the various options do not have independent realities. That is like assuming that everyone looking at or into a given situation will interpret all factors the same and have exactly the same perceptions. Instead, we know that people see things differently based on their own experience and beliefs. The implication for HR folks – whether we are coaches, generalists, business partners, or specialist practitioners – is that whenever we investigate or explore a situation or problem, we must take into account ALL of the factors involved, including the unknown motivations of observers. Furthermore, HR practitioners must help business owners and people managers to do the same. Because of that, we cannot assume that the simplest answer or outcome is, in fact, correct.

While I have little experience in the empirical investigation methods of the physical sciences, I am somewhat more experienced with scientific methods of psychological study. However, arguably less scientific are the inquiries and investigations undertaken by HR professionals and people managers faced with a workplace dispute or accusation of inappropriate behavior. I expect that any investigator can get carried away with the removal of “unnecessary” baggage surrounding a story, whose versions vary depending on who is doing the telling. Some assumptions with which we begin an investigation can help us understand and explain the “why” along with the “what” in our inquiry. Our assumptions can begin to create structure around our investigation, if only to provide opportunities to disprove or corroborate those assumptions.

If we apply what I like to think of as the modern version of Ockham’s razor, “Keep It Simple, Stupid” (KISS), we should prefer the simpler of two conclusions that explain the facts equally well. Doesn’t this mean that we need to know all the assumptions, positions, or factors for both conclusions before we decide which one is simpler? It also follows that anyone trying to validate our “simpler” conclusion (e.g., another investigator on appeal), they would likely have to repeat the steps necessary to get to our same conclusion (or not?). Is it possible to “keep it simple, stupid” and still address the needs of everyone involved in any given inquiry? Or, will some practitioners fall victim to KISS in the face of time constraints, and miss critical factors that would have shifted the inquiry to another conclusion? In scientific method, we test the predicted outcomes, not the assumptions leading to the original theory or situation under study. In inquiries related to Human Resources, it seems more natural to study our assumptions leading to the conclusions to be sure we are fair to all parties.

While researching and writing this article, I come to my own conclusion that while Ockham’s razor may be attractive as a decision-making model, it is probably not the best choice for a guiding light to HR applications. We might, instead, look to Einstein for pithy guidance, as he wrote in his autobiographical notes, “Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not one bit simpler.” However, even that is a tad too general for me. Instead, in my research, I happily stumbled upon the development of a razor in several forms, including a line attributed to Napoleon, “never ascribe to malice that which is adequately explained by incompetence.” A more complex and earlier version of the same concept comes from Goethe in his The Sorrows of Young Werther, “. . . misunderstanding and neglect create more confusion in this world than trickery and malice.” The most recent version of this idea falls to what is identified as Hanlon’s razor or Heinlein’s razor, depending on where you look, “Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity,” though Heinlein’s version warns us not to rule out malice. Personally, when called to investigate accusations of malice, I would much rather find incompetence. How about you?

Originally published, with minor edits, by the author in 2011 – Toolbox for HR

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