Updated: Aug 12, 2021
To create effective strategies, you need perspective. But reductionism limits your perspective and therefore inhibits the creation of effective strategy.
Reductionism: The practice of analyzing and describing a complex phenomenon in terms of phenomena that are held to represent a simpler or more fundamental level, especially when this is said to provide a sufficient explanation.
This article provides a detailed explanation of reductionism, as well as some context around the use of reductionism in psychology. It is worth the extra reading to fully understand the theory. Our focus though, is why and how leaders must avoid reductionist thinking in business.
Go back to the definition of reductionism. Hone in on the word “Sufficient” in the final sentence. You may recall the difference between necessary and sufficient conditions from math or logic classes. If not, Khan Academy provides a great overview on their site.
With a sufficient condition, you get AN answer. You might get THE answer, but it isn't certain. Stopping at the first sufficient answer might cause you to miss out on other key variables that provide a more detailed and accurate explanation, while also eliminating red herrings and other irrelevant variables.
Past posts have discussed our cognitive biases and how our brains use heuristics to avoid working through complexity. Our brains are lazy unless we consciously, intentionally put them to work. Our brains enjoy autopilot.
And that is the core problem with reductionism. It summons our cognitive biases and heuristics which prevent full evaluation, analysis, and learning.
Your business is part of a complex ecosystem made up of you and your team, your supply chain, your physical and digital locations, your customers, your competitors, and more. Decisions in a complex, uncertain environment like business require thinking beyond reductionism.
The Troubles with Reductionism
1. Problems are rarely as simple as reductionism would lead you to believe. As we discussed, reductionism is based on oversimplification and invites the decision maker to stop at the discovery of a sufficient condition or explanation.
2. Reductionism limits your perspective on an issue. Oversimplifying and then abandoning your analysis prematurely means that you could be missing other key, meaningful variables and details.
3. Because reductionist thinking limits your perspective on an issue, it also limits your options and lowers your chance of success by extension. If your actions are based on a strategy that fails to identify and address the root cause of an issue, the issue is not going anywhere.
When we’re unable to remove obstacles, or problems continue to resurface, that means we need to bring a different type of thinking and analysis to the issue. As Albert Einstein said, “We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.”
Leadership is about allocating resources based on a specific action plan, designed to solve a particular problem or deliver a particular result. You cannot do this well by using reductionism because it naturally limits your perspective and therefore it also limits your ability to maximize the impact of your resources.
Enhancing Your Perspective
In business (frankly, in life) we would like to operate with as much information and detail as possible. And we’d like that information to be easily understood, and actionable. Sadly, this is not always the case.
So, what can you do to not only avoid reductionist traps, but actually improve your decision-making?
1. Create new frameworks and systems for addressing complex issues and problems, and for creating strategies to address them. Your business is, after all, a complex machine. Treat it as such.
2. Build a strong team of trusted advisors with expertise across a range of issues applicable to your business. Leverage their expertise to bring more robust analysis to problems and potential solutions.
3. Working with a coach or mentor is a powerful backstop to prevent reductionist thinking seeping into your team or organization. Mentors use direct or anecdotal experience as a guide, while coaches are "thinking partners" who will help you create perspective and understanding around an issue, which leads to more options and courses of action.
With a better framework, a trusted team of advisors, and a coach or mentor, you'll have the tools you need to avoid the pitfalls of reductionism, to improve decisions and outcomes, and to reach your goals faster.
About the Author:
Matt Beckmann is the Founder & Managing Director of Ascent Consultants. In addition to experience as a former Chief of Staff to the Missouri Auditor and as a Corporate Vice President and General Counsel, he has advanced training and certifications in law, business, coaching, athletics, and other disciplines. His blog content, inspired by his deep passion for unlocking his reader's best potential, consistently equips business owners and individuals with the knowledge and resources to overcome obstacles that may be hindering growth.
Ascent Consultants provides business and project management consulting services, and executive and leadership development coaching. By converting client growth goals into an actionable "game plan," we lead companies and individuals to extraordinary outcomes.