Occam’s Paradox

Remember Occam’s Razor? It’s the principle (that you probably learned in high school physics) that states that the simplest solution to a given problem is probably the best.  I’ve been thinking recently about complexity in business and in life and think there’s a corollary to Occam’sRazor that perhaps should be called Occam’s Paradox – the propensity of humans to make things more complicated than they need to be.  I don’t pretend to know why this is, but I notice it all the time (both in my own life and with other people).  I guess it’s just easy to start down the road of dependency mapping (i.e., making everything you do a part of a larger matrix that has many interdependencies).    I watch this tendency in the companies I work with as well. Lots of dependency mapping; lots of “if’s”, “but’s” and “its not that simple”.  Now – I get that life and business are complicated.  But I’m talking about how we react to that complexity.  We have the choice to either drown in complexity or to cut through it, because although the challenges we face in life and business are clearly complex – the solution to those challenges generally are not (generally the difference is in recognizing what you control and what you don’t control and not wasting a whole lot of time on the latter – perhaps a subject for a future post).

Keep that in mind the next time you are sitting around the board table or at a management meeting (or at dinner with your family) and see if you relate to it (let me know).

  • Nice analysis, Seth. I’ve definitely noticed and participated in creating the Increasing Complexity Paradox. I suspect that some of the self-generated stuff is that if the problem is difficult, you feel more important/powerful/smart/good when you solve it. Lots of problems aren’t that difficult, they just need to be solved and move along; but that doesn’t really feed the ego. I notice this on a mundane level when I’m packing for a trip. Brad can pack in about 17 minutes flat. My packing expands to fill whatever time I allocate to it – call it the Ideal Gas Law of Packing. I run around at the last minute in a sweaty lather, throwing in things “just in case” or “what if” I happen to be introduced to the Queen of England?!?!? Then when I’m done I feel all successful. I think the issues facing entreprenuerial companies are different than this, but only in degree and not in kind.

  • Dave Jilk

    First, Occam’s Razor is a principle, not a principal.
    Second, perhaps you should call this “Levine’s Corollary,” along the lines of the Murphy’s Law and Peter Principle series, to wit: “People will make things just as complicated as necessary for them to fail.”
    Third, of course the trick is that the simplest approach is to not do anything. My life would be a lot simpler if I didn’t try to start companies, manage people, sell stuff, come up with new ideas. The trick is to find the balance between picking goals that are not extraordinarily messy, and achieving those goals in relatively straightforward ways.
    And, I’ll add that the CEO’s job in a startup is to simplify matters in both directions — when explaining operational matters to the board, and when explaining strategic matters to the staff. “Focusing on essentials” is what I’d call it. This doesn’t make either operations or strategy less complicated — but it does allow people to focus on the aspects that they can do something about.

  • Randhir’s principle: Complexity is good for the economy.
    Complexity creates value. If you can create the illusion of complexity, you can sell solutions to this complexity. For example, one of the reasons its difficult to fill up a tax form is because its intentionally strutured that way. This keeps the people who designed that tax form employed, or employable because theres an industry which is built around it.
    Businesses thrive on this principle. Thats why its always great to be in a business that no one else understands. Like semiconductors, for example. You can then control the variables that form the complexity of your business to a point where it can be predicted. Case in point : Moores law.
    So complexity is essentially a by-product of capitalism.

  • Occam’s Paradox

    humans crave simplicity but thrive on complexity, it’s in our nature to be so. Link: Occam’s Paradox. Remember Occam’s Razor? It’s the principal (that you probably learned in high school physics) that states that the simplest solution to a given

  • Pete Dignan

    Seth – I hear you! I’m on the board of a non-profit and we have our annual offsite planning meeting tomorrow. The organization is trying to do far too many things, none particularly well, and it seems like we lose sight of our purpose, lost in the complexity. I practically want to scream “you’re making this WAY too complicated!” Maybe I’ll just ask if they are familiar with Occam’s Paradox. 🙂

  • Occam’s Paradox

    Seth Levine, who hosts the blog VC Adventure, seemingly coined a new term to describe the complexity of everyday business and personal life; VC Adventure: Occam’s Paradox.
    I was immediately drawn to the idea. I often try to use occam’s r…

  • Thats what I thought. But I guess no thought is original.