A coaching tool from the 13th century

ockham society coaching tool from the 13th century

“All things being equal, the simplest solution tends to be the best one”

I’ve been coaching for many years and am often asked to share tools I use as a coach to support clients cut to the chase and so gain clarity and focus.

One of my favourite coaching tools dates back to the 13th century yet feels incredibly applicable to the world we live in today.

Ockham’s Razor

Following the lead of Matt Haig in yesterday’s post: “Simplicity is harder work than complexity“, let me reduce the tool to:

“All things being equal, the simplest solution tends to be the best one”

The tool in question is called “Occam’s Razor“, after William of Ockham, a 13th-century philosopher. Again, keeping it simple, feel free to follow the last two links to learn more in-depth, but my distillation of the principle is all you need to consider the use of Occam’s Razor as a tool for coaching.

Now, to understand how Occam’s Razor can be applied when coaching, let us consider Heuristics for a moment (and again I shall be brief).


Whilst the word dates back to ancient greek, here I refer to the work of Daniel Kahnemann and Amos Tversky in the early 1970s. Again simplifying:

Heuristics = Mental Shortcuts

Mental shortcuts for decision making are extremely valuable. If you had to analyse absolutely every variable before every decision, decision-making would be slow and drain one’s energy.

It is important to note, though, that the work of Tversky and Kahnemann focussed upon our cognitive (conscious and unconscious biases). In short, we not only make mental shortcuts, but we also make these based on judgments, and those judgments are based on our biases.

So, Occam’s razor is itself a heuristic, a judgment based shortcut, based on the shortcut that the simplest answer is normally the best one.

So, how does a coach use Occam’s Razor?

Coaching and Occam’s Razor

If a Heuristic is a mental shortcut, I ask you to consider that coaching is about both thinking and feeling, about rationality and energy, so consider Occam’s Razor both a mental and energetic shortcut.

In Coaching, our role begins with listening to a client give a detailed (often very detailed!) download about themselves, their business, their story, or whatever they wish you to consider with and for them. Coaches listen deeply and for both what is being said and what sits behind it, both in the words and the energy being shared by the client.

In newer coaches, particularly those who previously came from an “expert” role, the tendency is to fully listen, but only until they have formed an opinion, at which point they love to point out that thought to the client. Stephen Covey calls that “listening with the intent to reply”, (and yes, this was me years ago!).

The idea of focussing upon Occam’s razor, then, is to listen for the simplest answer. However, as Matt Haig said, “simplicity is harder than complexity”. By a coach listening, then listening some more (which can take real patience when the answer may quickly seem “obvious”), what can emerge is the simplest answer.

That “simplest answer” that emerges is then what is “driving” the client, whether that be at a “thinking” or “feeling level” (as a note, one of my most-read posts is: “Cogito Ergo Sum, or Sentio Ergo Sum?“).

In the work of Tversky and Kahnemann, a heuristic is a shortcut based on our biases.

In coaching, then, a coach must be truly aware of their own biases, then find a way to remove the “listening with the intent to reply” internal bias so that they can be listening for the biases of the client, of what is driving the client.

Where, in coaching, one can sit in that neutral space and simply listen… and listen for simplicity, then it is quite astonishing how quickly one can cut through to what the client really needs to be fully aware of and then bring focus to.

As William of Ockham said nearly 700 years ago (and I paraphrase again):

“All things being equal, the simplest solution tends to be the best one”

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Also published on Medium.

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