Ockham’s Razor for Business Analysts

Sweeny Todd in a model box for a stage production. He stands by an empty barber seat singing to a razor blade he is grasping.
Sweeny Todd in a model box for a stage production. He stands by an empty barber seat singing to a razor blade he is grasping.

This is the first of my series of articles relating concepts from two of my top passions: Business and Philosophy. In this post, we’ll explore Ockham’s Razor, what it means and how a 14th century monk can help you discover efficiencies in your business’s processes. Let’s get philosophical.

Ockham is a small, historical village, “popular amongst walkers, cyclists and horse-riders”, located in the county of Surrey, in southwest England. There may be a number of razors in Ockham today, but we will speak of one historically resounding razor defined by William of Ockham (1285–1349), a medieval monk, theologist and philosopher who was influenced by ancient philosophers such as Thales of Miletus (c. 6thcentury BC). Thales’ most memorable contribution to philosophy was his search for the substance of substances, the element that constitutes every material object, an explanation of all things, a “grand unified theory” as modern scientists call such an endeavour today. Ockham (the man, not the village, hereafter) also wanted to define all things. Or at least to provide a method that allows us to define reality as objectively as possible. Much like a razor shaving a beard, Ockham wanted to tidy it up, keep it neat and smart; “it” being reality as we know it. To better understand the world surrounding us, thus, Ockham proposes the statement “plurality is not to be assumed without necessity”; i.e.: assume as few theories as possible when explaining phenomena. By extension, Ockham’s Razor also means that, in the case that two or more theories explain something equally well, go with the simplest one to understand.

Ockham’s Razor is, therefore, a common-sense approach to reality. Don’t be complicated and go with the simplest method. It is a call for minimalism to philosophers and scientists. And it is an important enough concept to be taken implicitly when reading any philosophical or scientific paper. The suggestion in this article is that Ockham’s Razor can be applied to the realm of business. It is not a new concept, just a slightly different approach and argument to why keeping things simple is better. To look into this further, let’s consider the well-established and well-known organisation X.

X was created in 1974. It had difficult beginnings but flourished in the 80s and 90s thanks to new technologies and an enormous growth in demand. It began its international ventures in 2002 and has been expanding ever since. Over the years, X has of course grown in employee headcount and its portfolio of services, diversifying across different sectors. Despite some hiccups following the 2008 financial crash, as well as some embarrassment due to high-profile employee relations cases (a victim of its own success, if you will), business is now booming again and the executive board have been convinced to allocate some budget for your business analysis skills to work with them for a couple of years. And here we have the first reason for being of the business analyst: your employer has identified that something (possibly yet unknown to them) needs improving. And it is your duty to discover what that something is and solve it. As Isaksen and Treffinger (1985) put it in their Creative Problem-Solving model, you must first take on the task of “mess-finding”. And an organisation of a certain tenure (and depending on their flexibility in regards to change) will have processes created aeons ago that need improving. Not only that, but process documentation (if there is any) will need updating to reflect how staff actually do things, if they even do them in the same way to begin with. It will therefore be your duty to identify the mess in place, pinpoint the problem(s), generate potential solutions and implement the right one in a way that proves as noncontroversial as possible. Now, empowered with Ockham’s Razor, you will look at X’s processes and identify those extra branches and twigs that need trimming, find those stages in certain processes that can simply go away and discover the tasks that are repeated for no clear reason. You will use Ockham’s methodology to simplify processes, unify them in a business case and share with your new employer the great news: by merging such and such teams and removing such and such steps, you can better monitor processes for further improvements and decrease costs by 40% within a measly three years!

Now, let me call my own bluff and say “yes, many assumptions and a lot of simplifying has been done in the above thought experiment”, including your difficult role of knowing which can of worms not to open and how to approach and communicate with your stakeholders. But let me also add that nothing above is completely out of the ordinary. The job of a business analyst, whether as a bridge with an IT department or not, is to improve an organisation’s systems and processes. And nobody approaches such a challenge with the mindset of “I will make things even more difficult for them” (unless you’re desperate enough to worsen things so only you understand them and can stick around for a bit longer — until they catch you out). What Ockham provides is a tool conceived centuries ago and still very present in our approach to business.

We can take this a step further and think of a more modern company. Let’s consider start-up Y. It is only one year old, employs its two founders and a few coders, managed to get half a million bucks in venture capital a couple of months ago, is gaining media attention and provides super speedy access via a mobile app to certain service providers around the world, so each customer can get the same local, quality service, but now through the tap of their screens. What is this if not Ockham’s Razor gone wild? We are cutting out the middle-man and simplifying processes like never before through technology. Simplifying things to the point where phones hardly have buttons anymore, headphones needn’t cables and cars will sooner or later be driverless. And the same can be said for start-up Y’s internal processes compared to X’s; because, whilst X uses old-school financial auditing services through an enormous, although very experienced company, Y processes its invoicing and taxes through an app of sorts. Ockham’s Razor in this modern context, now more comparable to a chainsaw, may also have an interesting effect on business in general, as younger generations learn to do most things through their phone in a world where B2B services are, by convention, done through more people-based processes than technological interaction. The difficulty arises, as we see in the common referral to “millennials” (who are older than you think), when those younger generations join the workforce and see a very different approach to work than what they could have imagined (“What do you mean call this number? What’s a landline? Can’t I just send a photo of the document with my phone? Ugh! *unamused emoji*”).

Ockham’s Razor is often referred to as the “Principle of Simplicity”. It is a no-nonsense approach to reality. However, it does not seek simplicity for the sake of simplicity; it goes with the most complete explanation made in the simplest way possible. It is a method; not an end-goal. And it is a method which modern-day practitioners use daily without even knowing its origins in the mind of the 14thcentury monk, William of Ockham.

This post was originally published on the Philosophy for Business blog

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