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How to Deal with a Donkey in a Boardroom and other philosophical paradoxes

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Why it is so hard for some managers to make decisions? How come a Management Board with highly educated and vastly experienced people can get distracted in lengthy discussions of trivial issues? Why lots of personal corporate feuds are not always a result of malice?

Those questions might have surprisingly simple answers. A few philosophical paradoxes that have been around for centuries, can easily explain many common office situations. And help us take a relevant course of action.

The consequence of not making a decision or the terrible fate of Buridan’s ass

The Buridan’s ass paradox goes back to 14th century. It is found in the works of the philosopher Jean Buridan. An ass (the animal!) is faced with the following choice: being equality hungry and thirsty, it is put midway between the hay and the water. As the poor thing cannot make up its mind whether to eat or drink first, it does not do anything. And so it dies. In corporate slang the cause of Buridan’s ass’s death is called indecisiveness. If you are scared, do not go into the woods. This is one of the favourite management advice of a highly successful CEO. Certain jobs, like the CEO, come with good benefits, but also with the requirement to bear the responsibility for making timely, and sometimes hard, decisions. With great power comes great responsibility has echoed through the years from Voltaire to Churchill, Roosevelt and Spider-man.

Wrong focus and Parkinson’s Law of triviality

When it comes to efficient time management, the British naval historian Cyril Parkinson has become a management guru with the insight that “work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion" (Parkinson, C., The Economist, 1955). He has mainly addressed this to the public administration area, but same observation is also valid in many contemporary organisations – both public and private. An extension of this is the Parkinson's law of triviality. According to Wikipedia it refers to the fact that “members of an organisation give disproportionate weight to trivial issues.” In his example a fictional committee has the job to approve the plans for a nuclear power plant. Instead of working on the main and rather complex task – the design of the plant – the committee spends the majority of its time discussing relatively minor but easy-to-grasp issues, such as what materials to use for the staff bike shed. Without proper leadership, many boardrooms are doomed to fall into heavy discussions on trivial topics, avoiding to address the more complex, but strategic decisions.

The simpler is more probable, a.k.a. Occam’s Razor

Other things being equal, simpler explanations are generally better and more probable than more complex ones. That is one of the popular interpretations of the 13th century philosophical construct known as Occam’s razor. In a corporate environment it is easy to get lost in translation, in interpretation, in small caps, all caps and so on. One of the most dreaded questions at school, back and now, is: “What did the author want to say?”. When the teacher asked this questions, students were supposed to analyse the text of a poem, a story or a novel. In our minds we always knew the right answer: “What the author wanted to say, she had already said it in the verses she wrote. What more is there to analyse?”. Unfortunately in real life this is what we often end up doing – overthinking and analysing, while a phone call or a brief one-to-one meeting, can resolve an issue. And there comes Occam’s Razor: the simplest explanation is usually the right one.

Stupidity is more common that malice

Finally, a logical follow up from the last paradox is the Hanlon's razor. Many people are inclined to look for signs on malicious intent when analysing a seemingly harmful for them behaviour or action of colleagues or competitors. But according to that super simple aphorism, we should "never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity."

References: for more information visit the Wikipedia articles on Occam's razor, Hanlon's razor, Buridan's ass, Parkinson's law.

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