Here’s a question for you: What did Albert Einstein and Leonardo da Vinci have in common? Genius, yes.
But there’s something else. Underneath all the mind-boggling intricacy and complexity of their work, both believed in the power of simplicity. According to the German-born physicist, “The principle of the universe will be beautiful and simple.” While for Da Vinci, keeping things simple was the epitome of elegance and style.
“Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication,” reads the famous quote now associated with his name. And I am inclined to agree.
It is a philosophy that I was reminded of recently when I came across Ockham’s razor — the problem-solving principle that the simplest solution is most likely the right one. Ockham was a medieval philosopher and Franciscan friar who famously wrote that “Entities should not be multiplied without necessity.”
As a deeply religious man, he used the idea to defend divine miracles, but it has found a firm place in science too, where the simpler the theory, the more testable it is. According to the principle, it is necessary to shave away unnecessary assumptions in order to arrive at the right answer — hence the “razor” connection.
As long as one can remember
For more than 800 years, humanity has preached the importance of simplicity in one form or another. Yet in today’s world, the message appears to have gotten lost. Rather than heeding the wise words of Ockham, Da Vinci and Einstein, we seem to have developed a preference for overcomplicating things in order to appear smart and sophisticated — and the practice is rife within business circles.
From the way we organise our people and processes, to the strategies we devise and the products we promote, complexity oozes from almost every crack.
Last week, I wrote about meetings (a pet peeve of mine), and I feel compelled to highlight them again. How many times have you endured a long presentation and emerged the other side asking yourself, “What just happened here?”
All too often, colleagues leave the meeting room feeling dumb and perplexed, when in fact it is the presenter who is at fault. Like a kid who forgot to do his homework, employees and business leaders alike attempt to disguise their lack of prep or understanding by losing audiences in a labyrinth of slides, bullet points and lengthy explanations.
A lot like the past
It reminds me of school; the very best teachers — the ones who were passionate about their subjects and really knew their stuff — could make the most complicated concepts sound simple, while those who had taken up teaching for the long holidays lacked the confidence and knowledge to diverge from the textbook. Instead, they would bombard students with hours of dry and convoluted theory, leaving them feeling bored at best, stupid at worst.
We complicate to compensate. The smartest companies with the smartest people can articulate their ideas in a single page — or even a single sentence. But it’s not just a question of smartness.
Simplicity is not for the lazy; people who are serious about an idea spend weeks, months and even years honing it, challenging it and — to evoke Ockham’s razor — “shaving it down”, until it’s light, agile and effortless in the eyes of the observer. If someone can present a product or idea in a single sentence, you can guarantee that underpinning every carefully chosen word are countless hours of hard work.
All too often we view simple solutions with scepticism. We mistakenly equate simplicity with a lack of effort or incompleteness, when in fact it can be the hardest and most valuable of feats to achieve.
The irony is, there’s something in human nature that craves it. Repetitive mantras win presidential races and in a world of gray, we look for answers that are in black and white.
It is in this world that artificial intelligence finds its home. Like the smartest minds, AI puts in the hard work and turns webs of complexity into digestible insights. Finally, eight centuries on from Ockham’s razor, artificial intelligence is bringing simple back.
- Tommy Weir CEO of enaible: AI-powered leadership and author of "Leadership Dubai Style". Contact him at email@example.com.