Occam’s Razor

Occam's RazorWell it has been some time and quite honestly I dismissed a number of drafts. Hence I’m happy to have something that I think is worthwhile talking about.

On the weekend I was reading about the definition of Paradigm. I found the following example intriguing. Look at the image below. What do you see?


Hold that thought. A paradigm is a (common) thought pattern describing a piece of reality. For example, the concept of time as being linear is only challenged by science fiction authors and Einstein’s relativity theory. For most mortals it remains reality. A paradigm can also apply to smaller items like a phone. 40 odd years ago James T. Kirk’s communicator was way beyond reality. These days smart phones are even more clever than that and the idea of a hand held wireless communicator to talk to someone in space is pretty normal.

Now what did you see in the image earlier? The letter “E” would be the most common answer as it fits with patterns we (or most of us) are used to. 10 blue dots is an other likely answer and less common a white metal plate with holes lying on a blue background.

Our experiences, knowledge and believe system make some interpretation more likely for us than other options.

Occam’s Razor now swivels this around. When presented with a problem we have some trusted methods to work on the challenge. Our experience and knowledge will pretty quickly limit the vast array of problem solving methodologies to the ones we believe fit here and we are comfortable with. Occam’s Razor goes a step further and suggest the simplest solution is the most likely one.

Let’s look at this process.

Fit for Purpose

This graphic makes it clear that a good problem solver must have a great understanding of the tools out there, great experience and knowledge about the topic in question. History shows us that great problem solvers have expertise in a very narrow field unless or where transformative or global aspects involved. In those cases the red and purple areas largely overlap making the green dot a very possible solution.

Occam’s razor will fail us completely when there is a largely unknown problem at hand. Purple and red spaces will drift apart as our assumptions are incorrect. Many crime and mystery novels make use of that. The likely solution is taken from the wrong selection and hence doesn’t fit.

The way out is actually straight forward. It begins with our mindset. Our mind set is a set of assumptions, methods, or notations that is so established that it creates a powerful belief of a status quo. It leads to systematic bias (for fun research the question “Was Columbus a good man?”).

  • Step 1: check and verify your assumptions. What do you know about the problem? Write it down.
  • Step 2: check and verify the question. What is the objective or outcome? Write it down.
  • Step 3: check and verify the boundaries. What is “in” and what is “out”. If you end up with a “grey” area verify against step 1 and 2.
  • Step 4: check and verify the possible methodologies. What would work and what would not. Write it down and your reasoning why.

Any of the steps could mean stepping out of your comfort zone, review the topic, consult a subject matter expert, push the boundaries, learn about new methodologies. Very likely you would do this anyway mostly in your mind or a scrap of paper. Even with problems you are very familiar with. If it becomes a habit for the unfamilar problems then you can say “it was a good guess”. If you just guess, it is merely a stab in the dark.

It reminds me of “Success is 5% inspiration and 95% perspiration.”.

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