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Occam's Razor And Leadership

PERMISSION TO REPUBLISH: This article may be republished in newsletters and on web sites provided attribution is provided to the author, and it appears with the included copyright, resource box and live web site link. Email notice of intent to publish is appreciated but not required: mail to: brent@actionleadership.com Word count: 1185 Occam's Razor And The Leadership Talk by Brent Filson 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.


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