I learned the power of simplifying assumptions early in my career. As an engineering student, my professors filled boards with Greek letters and symbols, exponents and integrals, constants and variables. Then, in the last 10 minutes of class, we worked a real problem together. The first step of solving the real problem was always to apply simplifying assumptions to the theoretical equation. Things like material composition, physical location, and scale let us whittle that complex equation down to a more manageable size. Essentially, they allowed us to build real things based on universal theories. Because we understood the theory behind it, we could quickly identify the right simplifying assumptions for each new practical application. An hour in understanding, 10 minutes in application.
Barriers to using simplifying assumptions at work
We find comfort in complexity. At work, we are judged by the outcome of our decisions. Having more detail–more data, white papers, models, consultant opinions–minimizes the risk of being blamed for a bad outcome. During a job search, details make it easier to convince your prospective employer that you have created positive outcomes and are capable of generating more in the future. The unintended consequence is that we tend to spend 10 minutes understanding the problem and an hour trying to solve it.
We focus on irrelevant differences. Each new project brings new challenges that closely resemble ones we’ve seen before. Having experienced similar situations is invaluable, so long as they are used to identify patterns to streamline the path to the new answer–not as a source of answers to be reapplied. Identifying patterns means acknowledging that some differences in the new situation are relevant–and some are not. You can then disregard the irrelevant differences as you create a new solution based on lessons learned from previous experiences.
Why it matters
Simplifying assumptions let you react to the uniqueness of each situation in real time. Use them during the discovery phase of your project to shorten and prioritize your list of questions to be answered. In the execution phase, they can help to shorten and prioritize your list of possible implementation approaches. Simplifying assumptions are better than “search and reapply” because they don’t assume that any two situations are the same. They capture the essence of patterns that emerge from cumulative experience.
In a corporate environment that relies on complexity as a rationale for everything from project failures to career stagnation, simplifying assumptions can be the key to freeing up your knowledge workers to think. And more time for thinking means more positive outcomes and less time required for justification of negative ones.
Do you think about how you might simplify your view of the problem? How might that change the way you solve problems at work?