The Occam’s Razors*

Posted by jlubans on May 25, 2015

No, not the name of a punk metal group. Rather, the nom de guerre for an organization’s ad hoc group to scrutinize a proposed decision for some major turn in the organization’s life.
As readers of my blog know, I’ve been re-thinking some of the ways to beat bias and to inhibit the all too prevalent groupthink when making decisions.
In my explorations I came across “red team”, a term borrowed from the military. I asked someone who worked in Special Forces for clarification: “The classic examples of red team missions were the penetration / security assessment of sensitive (defensive) sites. Going against secure locations that are staffed by truly unwitting armed guard forces is dangerous, especially since 2001.”
You can well imagine this type of mission was far more perilous than what goes on in corporate conference rooms even when a corporate red team is charged to be “brutally honest, relentlessly detail-oriented”, and to stubbornly refuse to accept anything but a crystal clear explanation. Obviously, there is a high risk that by doing your job on a red team, you could make career-long enemies. My source confirms: “There is always a danger of inciting more territoriality when red teaming if you use only members of one unit / organization. Both sides are given a mission and both want to win, i.e.- platoon against platoon within the same company. If both forces come from within the same organization it creates competition, which can be good or bad. Good in that it creates a result that is used as a metric to gauge the best course of action and stimulates thought/action or bad in that it pits subordinates against each (other) which results in a divide within the group after completion of the exercise.”
Now that is a lengthy quote for this blog, but it is far superior to biz school discussions about why red teams may not be all that popular in the work world. For a red team to be effective, it is quintessential that there be strong leadership and corresponding corporate values to permit red team thinking. Without that leadership and values, a red teamer could be hung out to dry. I ran into opposition and resentment by merely asking questions that made some of my colleagues squirm; just think what I would have come up against if I exhibited a red teamer’s brutal honesty, relentless attention to detail and a stubborn refusal to accept vague answers!
OK. So, when - if ever - to use the concept in the workplace? Based on my long and winding career, I can see how organizations in which I worked could have benefited from using an independent group to review complex decisions. The charge to the group – the Occam’s Razors - would be to frame “a problem from the perspective of an adversary or skeptic, to find gaps in plans, and to avoid blunders.” Here are a few real world episodes:
* When confronted with a choice of accepting or rejecting an inadequate budget for renovating a building. An underfunded renovation - you are convinced - will be inferior to what is needed by you and your customers.
* When pressured for seemingly illogical reasons to change from one system of warehousing to another. Doing so will require relabeling millions of pieces at a cost of millions of dollars, along with a huge inconvenience cost.
* When deciding whether to continue with a cooperative development of an online system or to abandon it for a readily available commercial product. The cooperative developer team is three years late and over budget. Your quitting may jeopardize other successful cooperative efforts.

Of these examples, all but one resulted in a poor and costly decision.
I do think our decision-making would have been greatly facilitated by independent and skeptical scrutiny by a group like my mythical Occam’s Razors. Of course, the group’s doing a good job would require an effective organizational leadership. And, as my Special Forces correspondent concludes: "At the end of the day two things matter - thick skin and candor."

*”Occam’s Razor” is a way of thinking that “the simplest answer is often correct.” Or, “When you hear hoof beats, think horses not zebras!”

© John Lubans 2015
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