Occam’s Razor and Leadership Excellence

Straight Razor

Simplicity can drive outstanding results. Providing your organization simple guidance and a clear desired outcome enables your people to spend more time executing instead of wasting time on unnecessary activities.

Today’s post is by Gary Morton, author of Commanding Excellence (CLICK HERE to get your copy).

The principle of Occam’s Razor has influenced many of humanity’s most powerful scientific breakthroughs. “Other things being equal, simpler explanations are generally better than more complex ones” is a powerful approach to problem solving, learning, and discovery. It is also a formidable principle when applied to organizational leadership.

Extraordinary businesses have applied “the Razor” in defining an absolute clarity of purpose for the enterprise, often with a mission stated in just a few words.  Notable examples are Apple under former CEO Steve Jobs: “Insanely great products,” and GE under former CEO Jack Welch: “Number 1 or 2 in any business.” Institutions that endure similarly follow this simple principle, for instance, the US Military Academy at West Point’s creed: “Duty, Honor, Country,” or even the United States of America’s constitutional foundation: “We the People.”

Leaders in such extraordinary organizations further apply the power of “the Razor” by adopting straightforward approaches to the most critical activities. Example case studies include US ARMY Task Force 4-68 (TF 4-68) and Medical device maker Stryker both of which accomplished what experts in their fields thought impossible. TF 4-68, a 600 soldier military unit, won an unprecedented nine of nine force-on-force engagements at the US Army’s grueling National Training Center (NTC). Stryker, now a Fortune 100 business enterprise, grew earnings at a consistent pace of 20 percent or more for an unprecedented 28 consecutive years. Simple three-word goals expressed their overarching purpose, and uncomplicated operating procedures defined the methods and approaches by which they achieved it.

Absolute Clarity of Purpose

TF 4-68’s commander, Fred Dibella, set a crystal-clear goal to go 9-0 against the indomitable Opposing Forces (OPFOR) at the NTC. He then ensured that this absolute clarity of purpose pervaded every activity. The simple 3-word goal was in the backdrop of countless decisions, large and small, made every day and at all levels.

Gaining the ultra-high level of excellence in combat proficiency needed to win every battle at NTC defined what was important, what was most important, and what was unimportant. Its simplicity greatly streamlined decision processes throughout the task force. For example, while other military units spent days preparing for a division level parade, TF 4-68 only practiced once. Proficiency with close order parade drill was not going to help in the quest to go 9-0.

In similar fashion, legendary CEO John W. Brown at Stryker defined the overarching goal of the enterprise: “20 percent growth.” Over 28 years, literally millions of decisions were guided by this invisible hand that directed countless activities toward the same goal. Brown’s unequivocal clarity in defining the overriding purpose left no room for misunderstanding. Every leader, manager, and team member knew the CEO’s most important priority.

In most cases, decisions did not require higher-level endorsement; the purpose served as a guide. Clearly defining success ripped away the hubris of over-complicated declarations of priorities and allowed people to do what they did best every day. Planning for the next annual budget, for example, was a simple process: the earnings goal would be 1.2 times the current year earnings. During the post-Brown era, divisional presidents and other leaders would spend countless hours politicking for their coming year’s goal.

Applying Occam’s Razor to Supporting Procedures

Complementing the absolute clarity of purpose were simple supporting methodologies. To reinforce the 9-0 goal for TF 4-68, Colonel Dibella, devised an ingenious method that outlined how the unit would conduct combat operations. Capitalizing on concepts analogous to the straightforward “wishbone” offense in American football, he immersed the task force into developing a “playbook” that defined how we would conduct combat operations.

The “playbook” boiled down the complex task of combined arms maneuver battles into six simple plays: two for how the unit attacked, two for how it defended, and two for how it moved. As a quintessential instrument of clarity, the “playbook” provided every sub-unit leader and every soldier a general concept of the operation. It immensely simplified the process of receiving an order from higher headquarters and translating that into direction for the task force. In contrast, other units were taking six-to-twelve vital hours developing their plans for each operation at NTC. TF 4-68 had the plans complete, disseminated to sub-unit commanders, and rehearsed all within two hours. This gave the lower level leaders and soldiers the vital time they needed to prepare.

Stryker’s John Brown defined the company’s primary functions with a simple statement. “All our divisions must excel in three fundamental areas: product development, manufacturing, and sales. Our management mantra is Invent it, make it, sell it.” This unpretentious mantra—invent it, make it, sell it—was a further instrument of clarity. It did not encourage managers or leaders to follow the latest fads or develop intricate plans to outwit the competition. Instead, the emphasis was on executing the basics with excellence.

Like football’s wishbone offense, which relies on toughness, precision in execution, and unit cohesion, Stryker divisions would deliver growth by highly tuned execution in R&D, manufacturing, and sales. There was nothing fancy or ingenious about it, but when executed methodically by fanatical teams, sustainable, excellent performance was the result.

Science and Leadership

Occam’s Razor has time and again led science down the path of truth. When applied to organizational leadership, the principles underpinning its heuristic—simpler explanations are better—is incredibly powerful.

Articulating an absolute clarity of purpose for an organization strips away detractors and empowers people to march in the same direction. Supporting that clear objective with straightforward operating methodologies adds to the overall focus and catalyzes exceptional results.  A military unit and a business enterprise that determinedly followed these principles delivered collective results that appeared magical. Retired Four-Star General Doug Brown noted: “No Commander ever wins at the US Army’s National Training Center, that is, until LTC Fred Dibella took 4-68 Armor to face the OPFOR.” Learn more about how to follow these steps in the new book Commanding Excellence so your organization can accomplish the impossible as well.

Commanding Excellence

Gary Morton graduated from West Point with honors and served as a tank officer. The highlight of his service was being part of TF 4-68. At Stryker, he was Vice President and General Manager of the EMS equipment business that he co-founded. His new book is Commanding Excellence: Inspiring Purpose, Passion, and Ingenuity through Leadership That Matters (CLICK HERE to get your copy). For more information, visit

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