Wednesday, 20 June 2012

Occam's Razor

Occam's Razor is a philosophy first developed in the middle ages, and was used to discern between differing hypotheses for a phenomenon. The logic stated that when assessing different reasons for why things happen, the explanation that has the fewest assumptions is the one to select as being correct.

It is this simplistic logic that locked us into superstitious and backward thinking for many centuries, as the explanation to our problems with the fewest assumptions was "The Devil did it". Imagine the suffering this blinkered thinking caused!

It is very easy to fall into a trap of blindly using occam's razor when establishing the cause of system problems and any strategies for remediation. There are often too many business and cultural assumptions that can really affect our ability to conduct truly logical analyses. When working through problems with colleagues, you might see these assumptions/beliefs arise:
  • Human error is unavoidable.
  • Certain departments and individuals will not see your point of view.
  • Technical systems cannot be changed.
  • Migrating legacy data to new systems will solve the legacy data problems.
  • The costs outweigh the benefits.
  • There is no-one who can fix the problem. 
To truly examine a problem correctly, the many facets of the problem must be identified (who, how, what, where, when etc), and each hypothesis must be scored against these facets. The most probable hypothesis must explain each facet of the the problem, and must also explain why the inverse does not happen. Once this is done, you can then apply occam's razor about your assumptions - as long as you are truly aware of the assumptions you are working with.

Occam's razor is certainly an interesting way of examining hypotheses, but must be done as a subset of a much more rigorous, systematic methodology. As long as we can be honest about our assumptions, and with a bit of structured thinking, this ancient medieval philosophy can still have it's place in modern business.

No comments:

Post a Comment