William of Occam—so named because he was born in the Surrey, England, village of Ockham—became a most influential philosopher at Oxford University during the 14th century.
Occam avoided fuzzy generalities in favor of simplicity. Using what came to be known as “Occam’s Razor,” he cut through the mumbo-jumbo of religious arguments with the edge of reason. Occam’s basic idea was to reject the heavy verbiage and obfuscation that was trapping thinkers and discouraging free thought.
Today, we tend to think of Occam’s principle as meaning that the simplest explanation is usually the right one. Modern expressions of his thought include KISS (Keep it simple, stupid) and, in some medical schools, “When you hear hoofbeats, think horses, not zebras.” (A “zebra” is medical slang for an obscure and unlikely diagnosis from ordinary symptoms.)
Simplicity works in many settings. Example: Military plans and orders have to be as simple and clear as possible. To keep things simple, the U.S. Marine Corps teaches this:
- Situation: Where we are, where the enemy is.
- Mission: What our objective is.
- Execution: How we are going to maneuver.
- Administration: How we will resupply beans, Band-Aids and bullets.
- Command and Control: What signals will be used.
—Adapted from Corporate Combat, William E. Peacock, Facts on File Publications.