Occam's Razor And The Leadership Talk

The author advocates that you use a concept developed more than 700 years ago by to boost the effectiveness of your leadership.

By Brent Filson - 2006

A Medieval English philosopher and excommunicated Franciscan friar can help you markedly with your leadership today.

William of Ockham (1295-1349) is credited with the concept of Occam's razor, a heuristic that is used in many disciplines but somewhat neglected in leadership.

Ockham wrote, "Pluralitas non est ponenda sine neccesitate" or "plurality should not be posited without necessity." In other words, one should always choose the simplest explanation of a phenomenon, the one that requires the fewest assumptions. He used the razor to criticize the convoluted elaborations of the scholastic philosophy of his time, criticism which led to his excommunication.

Today, Occam's razor is applied in science, helping winnow out the more promising theories from masses of available ones; in biology in evolutionary hypothesizing and Systems constructs; in medical diagnostics, identifying the fewest possible causes that will account for all the symptoms; in manufacturing, making products using the fewest parts and least amount of energy; in engineering, getting maximum output from minimum input. And in many other fields.

But Occam's razor has not been used extensively in leadership; and when used, it has been applied mainly as a problem solving tool rather than a tool to help promote the people's motivation.

Clearly, problem solving is part of a leader's portfolio. But if your leadership job description is simply to solve problems, you might as well call yourself a manager or a technician. As a leader, you need to be more than a problem solver. You need to motivate people to take action to achieve extraordinary results.

Motivation is the operative word. Leadership devoid of motivational strategies and tactics is leadership that is running around in the dark.

Let's apply Occam's razor to motivation in leadership. Most leaders fail to motivate people because they misunderstand the concept of motivation. To understand what motivation is, you first must understand what motivation ISN"T. Motivation isn't what you do to the people you lead. It's what the people do to themselves. You can't motivate anybody to do anything. As a leader, you set up an environment in which the people make the choice to be motivated. You communicate, they motivate.

Occam's razor, then, is a tool to help the people make that free choice. The tool is effective because it slices through clutter that multiplies the opportunities for error.

Today, many kinds of clutter prevent the people you lead from making choices you want. There's the clutter of the Leader's Fallacy, the mistaken idea that just because you are a leader speaking that the people will automatically want to hear from you and agree with you. There's the clutter of your misunderstanding their needs. There's the clutter of your focusing on your needs and the organization's needs at the exclusion of a focus on their needs. There's the clutter of confusing what is changing for you and the organization with what is changing for them. There's the clutter of misreading or ignoring their major problem; the clutter of not understanding what gets them angry; the clutter of being oblivious to what they're truly aspiring to.

To wield Occam's razor against clutter, let's understand how the razor interplays with three key factors of motivation: logic, emotion, and time.

Since Aristotle, it's been well known that the choice people make to be motivated is predicated on both the rational and the emotional. The word motivation comes from the Latin root meaning "to move." When you want to move people to take action, you engage their emotions. Yet before they can become involved emotionally, your communication must make sense to them. This is an important psychological point. Before the people make an emotional commitment to act, they usually undertake – however briefly, however adequately or inadequately – an assessment of the logical necessity of what they are being asked to accomplish.

To understand this, try this mind-experiment. Picture a crying policeman, hair disheveled, weeping into his hands. We don't know what to feel about that policeman until we can logically connect who he is and why he is crying with what we are. He might be a crazed, mad dog killer who has been shooting at people and is weeping because he's run out of bullets. On the other hand, he may have been trying all night to talk someone from jumping off a bridge; the person has jumped to his death, and the policeman is weeping over the tragedy. Your logical assessment of the policeman either as a crazed killer or a compassionate Samaritan lays the groundwork for your emotional reaction to him.

That's where Occam's razor comes in. To communicate so the people choose to be motivated means "plurality should not be posited without necessity." Your introducing extraneous factors into their assessment process may frustrate their making that assessment in your favor.

Furthermore, simplicity promotes motivation because of an extraordinary feature of the human heart: its capacity to be profoundly changed in an instant. Experiences that take place in the blink of an eye can propel individuals to radically alter their behavior and even the course of their lives. Once you understood precisely why the policeman was crying, you could immediately form a judgement about him; and brought to bear on that instantaneous judgment is a wealth of values, experiences, viewpoints, and suppositions that you had learned throughout your life.

This simple experiment is borne out by many studies in neuroscience, especially findings detailing the brain structure called the amygdala and its electrochemical interactions with the brain's reasoning regions. In fact, the "blink of an eye" has been precisely measured decades ago by pioneering neuroscientist, Dr. Manfred Clynes. In his groundbreaking findings, Clynes discovered that two-tenths of a second is the shortest time in which humans can consciously respond to stimuli. "All consciousness depends on time," he said. That fraction of a second is the unit of awareness of the mind. I submit that is the time it takes for somebody to make the choice to be motivated.

History is replete with instances of people's lives being changed in an instant of understanding. Just one example out of countless: In 1835, when Wendell Phillips saw William Lloyd Garrison dragged with a rope down a Boston Street by a pro-slavery mob, Phillips became so outraged that he joined the abolitionist movement and became one of its most effective activists. I'm sure you can look back in history and also back on your life and come up with examples in which a moment's realization prompted a change in thinking and behavior.

Since it is in the realm of heartfelt words and actions that great leadership results accrue and since your understanding and use of the heart's miraculous capacity to be instantly transformed can boost your leadership, the razor can be one of your most important assets. It'll help you cut away the sapwood of extraneous thoughts, speech and actions to reach the heartwood of the true motivational impulse in the people you lead.

However, be careful that you don't cut into or cut away that heartwood. Apply the razor adroitly by taking Einstein's advice about using it in physics. He said, "Theories should be as simple as possible but no simpler."

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2006© The Filson Leadership Group, Inc. All rights reserved.

The author of 23 books, Brent Filson's recent books are, THE LEADERSHIP TALK: THE GREATEST LEADERSHIP TOOL and 101 WAYS TO GIVE GREAT LEADERSHIP TALKS. He is founder and president of The Filson Leadership Group, Inc. – Celebrating 25 years of helping leaders of top companies worldwide achieve outstanding results every day. Sign up for his free leadership e-zine and get his FREE report "7 Steps To Leadership Mastery"