Who Was Occam? And Why Did He Need a Razor?

Linda Henman

Who Was Occam? And Why Did He Need a Razor?
In April, as decreed by the Church of England, we commemorate the life of William of Ockham, an English Franciscan friar and scholastic philosopher who has influenced modern organizational theory—but not enough. Peter Drucker’s medieval counterpart offered the observation that “entities must not be multiplied beyond necessity,” although these exact words never actually appear in his writing. Unlike Drucker’s best advice, however, modern organizational practioners have quickly forgotten or disregarded the sage counsel of the wise brother.
Brother Occam did not actually invent the Occam’s Razor—the shaving away of all that is unnecessary—but we base the concept on his teachings. This principle suggests parsimony, economy, and succinctness in problem-solving. It states that the fewest assumptions should be selected—the fewer the better—even though more complicated conclusions might also prove correct.
Known as the “Unconquerable Teacher,” the unorthodox Occam did not receive universal endorsement, even during his own time. His work, the subject of controversy, caused him to appear before the Papal Court of Avignon in 1324 for charges of heresy. Occam had suggested, "For nothing ought to be posited without a reason given, unless it is self-evident (literally, known through itself) or known by experience or proved by the authority of Sacred Scripture.”
 That’s what got him into trouble. He expanded his ideas to include religion, which incorporated a perceived attack on the power base of the era. Even in Medieval times, people understood how to let the politics of an organization interfere with advanced thinking.
Today Occam’s ideas face mockery every day in most organizations. We have let ourselves become mired in irrelevant but often interesting details because we fear that keeping things simple makes us unsophisticated and uninteresting—which might lead to our being unemployed.
Although I’ve seen this wrong-minded thinking in operations and other functions, more often I find it in human resources. Recently an HR VP told me we’d have to postpone some of my leadership development work for four months because she had to develop a performance review process first. (Anyone in HR ought to be able to do that in four hours, but that would require frequent and prolonged breaks to fill the entire four hours).
For each accepted explanation of a phenomenon, an infinite number of possible and more complex alternatives exist. But these alternatives cost more in time and resources. The HR department that spends four months devising a review process can’t spend time on critical issues like recruiting and hiring top talent.
Long before anyone had coined the expression “Thought Leader,” Occam distinguished himself as one. He pointed out that “Only faith gives us access to theological truths. The ways of God are not open to reason,” but then devised a framework for helping us reason better on all things not involving theological truths.
Some philosopher noted, "It is vain to do with more what can be done with fewer."  Vain perhaps. Bad business—definitely.