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Corporate Strategy & The Parsimony Imperative

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By Justin Jarvinen, Head of Execution — Strategy & Innovation at Salt Flats

The right answer— more often than not — is the least complex.

Over the past handful of weeks, we’ve been deep in business design for a new client. We deconstructed their existing business and began to piece it back together in an effort to gain a deeper understanding: to get into their collective heads — and to uncover opportunities to solve problems and create value.

What emerged wasn’t unexpected or uncommon. But the web of processes, deliverables, tools, messages — many of which were reactionary decisions based on a variety of government regulations, customer feedback, employee ideas, miscalculations, and more — was insanely complex. The business, as a result, had stagnated. Employee morale was low and smaller competitors (not to mention a handful of startups) had overtaken their position in a regional market they had dominated not too long ago. The business had become too big and complex for leadership to fully control.

What is The Law of Parsimony?

The Law of Parsimony, or Occam’s Razor to many, is a problem-solving principle that the simplest solution tends to be the right one. So, when presented with multiple competing hypotheses to solve a problem, the solution with the fewest assumptions is the one you should select. Examples abound all throughout nature and in human history. Take, for example, an army trooper trapped in a corner with enemies around him. He’s not likely to be thinking about the weather conditions or developing intricate escape plans. He’s going to make the best decision because he’s looking for the clearest path to survival. As Thomas Aquinas argued in the 13th century, writing,

If a thing can be done adequately by means of one, it is superfluous to do it by means of several; for we observe that nature does not employ two instruments [if] one suffices.”
Similarly, the principle of least effort postulates that animals, humans — even the water that rushes through my backyard every time it rains — will naturally choose the path of least resistance, or effort”.

Simplicity should be embraced all throughout your business

Everything from business design to product engineering, employee benefits, website design, and marketing communications benefit from understanding and embracing simplicity. Engaging in design thinking or other means of understanding your customers and how humans make decisions will help you see the most efficient route to success. It might be a dramatic shift in mindset for many of you, but start by asking some easy questions. Here are a few:

  • What is the origin of the problem we’re trying to solve? When did we first notice it? What do you think caused it?
  • Are other parts of the business impacted by or related to this problem?
  • How does this problem impact you? Others? Have you explored other options?

Asking good questions not only leads to breakthrough thinking about your business, but also challenges decisions made and assumptions that guided the eventual outcomes.

After our team gained an understanding of the business and identified root causes of the problems we were tasked with solving, we were able to present cogent, actionable ideas and new products that have fewer moving parts and make fewer assumptions than what was there before.

Today, the company is primed for growth.

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