Friday, August 9, 2013

The principle of Simplicity - or "Occams Razor" and metaphysical technology

Warning: again a slightly philosophical blog post!

“Entia non sunt multiplicanda praeter necessitatem” is a latin quote referring to a principle called “Occam’s Razor”. It’s English translation sounds: “Entities should not be multiplied unnecessarily” or in even simpler words: “keep it simple”.

William of Occam was a 14th century logician and Franciscan friar who developed this fundamental principle of simplicity and used it, among many things, to justify that “God’s existence cannot be deduced by reason alone” – not a very popular saying with the Church at the time!

The principle has since the 14th century proven its strength in many contexts by eliminating metaphysical concepts that cannot be either mathematically proven or empirically observed. The reason for bringing this up is that I believe PM's has an obligation to always try to cut away “metaphysical technology”. Which is technology that is not really needed to solve the basic challenge. You can use this “principle of simplicity” to choose between alternatives that reaches the same objective and select the one with the least amount of "metaphysical technology".

However, this means that a fundamental understanding of the challenge is needed before you can develop the correct – i.e. the simplest – solution to the challenge. This often means that "the principle of simplicity" is not the easiest path to a solution. You will in many cases experience that making things fundamentally simple requires a lot of upfront analysis and understanding of the real underlying problem. But I think most of us can agree that is never a bad thing.

Finally a word of caution: you cannot regard the “principle of simplicity” as a natural law. The principle is only to be used as a guiding light. There was another wise man (H.L.Mencken) who once said something like: “For every complex problem, there is an answer that is clear, simple – and wrong” … so be careful to use the “principle of simplicity” with caution. Again this means make sure you have understood the challenge your trying to address - for instance by always analyzing product decisions from the customer experience perspective ... but then you'll have to read the rest of my blog :-)

Here is a very interesting but somewhat philosophical explanation of Occam’s Razor – that inspired me to this blog post.

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