Occam’s Duck

To listen is an effort, and just to hear is no merit. A duck hears also.
Igor Stravinsky

I suspect that William of Ockham would have been quite at home in conversation with those who concern themselves with the future world of work and workplaces. A thought leader, centuries before anyone thought to define such a role (a dubious distinction which fell to Joel Kurtzman, erstwhile editor-in-chief of Strategy & Business magazine, in 1994), he was a central figure in fourteenth century controversy and intellectual pursuit. His thinking was sufficiently forthright to gain the unwanted attentions of the Papal Court at Avignon where he was charged with heresy. At this time he was apparently known as Doctor Invincibilis, which has the air of a discarded Marvel Comics superhero name. However, he was all too aware of his vulnerability and, along with other threatened Franciscans, he fled Avignon for the welcoming embrace of the Holy Roman Emperor Louis IV of Bavaria. Posterity treated him more kindly and he was officially rehabilitated by Innocent VI in 1359.

What is familiar in reading about intelligent discourse in the Middle Ages is how polarising it was. Commentary on the way we work now and how we might work in the future looks increasingly like a race to the extremes with patronage alive and well in the form of corporate sponsorship of our modern day workplace apostles. A more nuanced debate is more desirable, one that recognises that where and how we work simply will not conform to one-size-fits-all solutions. For every seemingly enlightened, democratic, inclusive, diverse and, dare I say, fun tech startup there’s a monolithic, hierarchical, anachronistic, corporate behemoth with a CSR brochure an inch thick and an off-shored manufacturing plant with working practices fit for Frederick Taylor’s wildest fantasies. It’s an inconvenient truth for those who deal in generalisations that, to plagiarise and paraphrase Euan Semple all at once, organisations don’t screw up, people do. Businesses ping-pong from one fad to the next, fiddling on bandwagons while Rome burns. But somewhere, with a Nespresso machine close to hand, that fiddling is the sound of people making choices.

As with all human endeavour, the world of work would so often seem to defy Solomonoff’s theory of universal inductive inference. That is, that an environment follows some unknown but computable probability distribution. To the unknowing outside observer there’s probably an assumption that some logic holds sway. Solomnoff’s theory is a mathematical formalization of Occam’s razor which states that among competing hypotheses, the hypothesis with the fewest assumptions should be selected. If it looks like a duck, swims like a duck, and quacks like a duck, then it probably is a duck is a humorous example of this inductive reasoning. People in organisations have a tendency to look at a duck and by some leap of deductive reasoning decide that if they dress like the duck, act like the duck and speak like the duck then they’ll magically become a duck. A logically valid but unsound argument when you’re not coupling it with original thought. You’re merely rehashing someone else’s thinking parrot fashion and not a very lively looking parrot at that. In fact, you look a little unwell. Stunned, even. Nailed to the perch of organisational paralysis. You’re a Norwegian Blue. Beautiful plumage but dead in the water. Drowned. Trying to imitate a duck.


One comment

  1. […] Francis Bacon’s Novum Organum. Bacon was a proponent of inductive reasoning (covered, in part in my previous post) in discovering the essence of a thing. However, what was considered most revolutionary in […]

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