Field Guide to a Product Mind: Hanlon’s Razor

Jonathan Savage

Jonathan Savage

A puzzle of the side profile of a person, and a hand holding a piece of the puzzle.

Scenario 1: John couldn’t find his favourite pen at his desk and was convinced that his coworker, Sally, had stolen it out of spite. He spent weeks passive-aggressively avoiding her and plotting his revenge. Little did John know, his pen had simply rolled under his keyboard.

Scenario 2: Siobhan overheard her coworkers talking about an upcoming last-minute all-hands and realized the organizer didn’t invite her. She grew increasingly frustrated that she would be excluded from an invite that the rest of her team is attending. Then she remembered that the organizer is on vacation, and that their back-up likely forgot to include her since she is the only person on the team she hans’t had a chance to meet yet.

Scenario 3: June was certain that her colleague, Tom, was deliberately stealing her lunch from the office refrigerator. She began leaving passive-aggressive notes and even resorted to bringing unappetizing meals to deter the thief. After weeks of frustration, June discovered that the office cleaning staff had been discarding her lunch, mistaking it for old food due to her use of a reused container and the same lunch every day.

What do these three scenarios have in common? Each person in them would have been better served if they applied Hanlon’s Razor.

What is Hanlon’s Razor?

Hanlon’s razor is a principle or rule of thumb that suggests that when something goes wrong or someone does something that appears foolish or hurtful, it is more likely that it happened due to a mistake or incompetence rather than a deliberate intention to cause harm. The principle is often invoked as a way to encourage people to avoid jumping to conclusions or making assumptions without sufficient evidence.

What causes it

Unlike other entries of the guide, Hanlon’s Razor is not a psychological or physiological phenomenon that a specific factor can directly cause. Instead, it is a principle or rule of thumb that has emerged over time from observations and experiences of people in various situations.

Robert J. Hanlon, a research scientist and engineer, is the namesake of Hanlon’s Razor. Writer Robert A. Heinlein, however, originally formulated the principle in a slightly different form. Only later, it gained popularity and was named after Hanlon in the 1980s. 

The principle echoes a similar quote attributed to Napoleon Bonaparte: “Never ascribe to malice that which is adequately explained by incompetence.” Today, professionals from diverse fields such as science, software development, and product management have adopted Hanlon’s Razor as a guiding principle to avoid jumping to conclusions that impute ill intentions to others. Instead, the principle reminds us to consider other plausible explanations, such as ignorance, incompetence or miscommunication, before attributing malicious motives to others.

Hanlan’s Razor and characteristics of high functioning product teams

Cross-functional collaboration

Cross-functional collaboration is critical to project success and overall work satisfaction. It determines the efficiency and effectiveness of work processes. A culture that embraces Hanlon’s Razor fosters trust, enhances productivity, and drives meaningful improvements in product development.

By assuming positive intent in team interactions, product teams can address performance management challenges, align communication efforts, and navigate project constraints more effectively. This mindset empowers teams to tackle issues such as missed deadlines, technical difficulties, and differences in opinions constructively and collaboratively.

Continuous improvement

Continuous improvement is a key element in product team success. Hanlon’s Razor encourages teams to view challenges as opportunities for learning and growth. By assuming that team members are eager to improve, transparent about what they do and don’t know,  and receptive to feedback, product teams can cultivate a culture of high engagement and collaboration.

This approach promotes a shared learning experience, allowing practitioners to emerge from each project with a broader skill set and the confidence to adapt to new ways of working. A team that embraces continuous improvement will be better equipped to tackle complex problems and achieve its goals.

Combinatorial creativity

Combinatorial creativity, the ability to combine ideas from diverse perspectives and disciplines, is a vital skill for product teams. Hanlon’s Razor enables teams to foster an inclusive environment where diverse backgrounds, experiences, and interests are valued and respected.

By assuming positive intent and embracing a diverse range of viewpoints, product teams can drive a richer understanding of the problem space and discover new and innovative ways to approach their work. Combinatorial creativity enables teams to develop unique solutions, adapt to changing market dynamics, and maintain a competitive edge in their industry.

Hanlon’s Razor IRL

In the following section, I will explore various scenarios within Performance Management, Communication and Alignment, and Project Constraints and Influences, where applying Hanlon’s Razor can prove to be invaluable. By examining real-life situations, my aim is to illustrate how assuming positive intent and avoiding the attribution of malice can lead to more constructive and collaborative problem-solving. This approach not only strengthens team dynamics but also enhances the overall success of projects and the satisfaction of team members. As we delve into these scenarios, you will gain a better understanding of the practical implications of Hanlon’s Razor and how to apply it effectively in your own product teams.

Performance management

  • Poor performance: If a team member is not performing as well as expected, assume that they may need more training or support. By assuming that they are not incapable of doing the job, you can work with them to develop their skills and improve their performance.
  • Difficult feedback: When receiving difficult feedback, assume that it is intended to help you improve. By assuming that the feedback is not meant to be hurtful, you can take the necessary steps to address the issues raised and become a better professional.
  • Missed deadlines: If a team member misses a deadline, assume that they may have been overwhelmed with work. By assuming that they are not being lazy or unreliable, you can work with them to create a plan that ensures the project is completed on time.
  • Incomplete requirements: When requirements are incomplete, it can be tempting to assume that someone is being negligent or careless. However, it’s important to consider that there may be gaps or missing information that need to be addressed. By assuming that there may be gaps or missing information, you can work to fill in those gaps and ensure that everyone has a clear understanding of the project requirements.

Communication and alignment

  • Disagreements over priorities: If there is a disagreement over priorities, assume that there may be different perspectives and priorities at play. By assuming that someone is not being unreasonable or selfish, you can work with them to find a solution that meets everyone’s needs.
  • Lack of communication: If a team member is not responding to messages, assume that they may not have received them. By assuming that they are not intentionally avoiding communication, you can follow up with them and ensure that everyone is on the same page.
  • Changes in direction: If there are changes in direction, assume that there may be new information or insights that have led to the change. By assuming that someone is not being indecisive or inconsistent, you can adapt to the new direction and ensure that the project remains on track.
  • Differences in opinion: If there are differences in opinion, assume that there may be valid reasons for different viewpoints. By assuming that someone is not being irrational or illogical, you can work with them to find a solution that takes everyone’s perspectives into account.

Project constraints and influences

  • Limited resources: Limited resources can be a major constraint in any project. Rather than assuming that someone is not trying hard enough, it’s important to recognize that there may be limitations that are beyond their control. By assuming that there may be constraints or limitations, you can work to find creative solutions that can help you work within those limitations.
  • Stakeholder conflicts: When you encounter stakeholder conflicts, it’s important to approach the situation with an open mind. Rather than assuming that someone is being malicious or manipulative, it’s possible that there may be competing interests or priorities. By assuming that there may be competing interests or priorities, you can work to find common ground and collaborate in a way that benefits all stakeholders.
  • Delays in delivery: If there are delays in delivery, assume that there may be unforeseen circumstances that are causing the delay. By assuming that someone is not being negligent or irresponsible, you can work with them to develop a plan that ensures the project is completed on time.
  • Scope changes: When the project scope changes, assume that new information or insights have led to the shift in direction. Don’t attribute the change to indecisiveness or inconsistency. Adapt to the new direction and work together to ensure that the project remains on track.

Final thoughts

“Never attribute to malice that which can be adequately explained by incompetence,” is a powerful principle that can help product teams navigate the complexities of modern work environments. By embracing Hanlon’s Razor, teams can foster a culture of empathy, collaboration and growth, ultimately leading to better products and happier customers.

As product teams inevitably face setbacks and misunderstandings, Hanlon’s Razor encourages them to consider alternative explanations and focus on problem-solving rather than finger-pointing. This approach not only reduces friction within the team but also promotes a growth mindset, as members are encouraged to learn from mistakes and continually improve.

Moreover, applying Hanlon’s Razor can help teams maintain a healthy balance between trust and vigilance when working with external partners. By attributing issues to inexperience or miscommunication rather than malicious intent, teams can cultivate positive relationships that foster collaboration and lead to successful outcomes.

In an increasingly interconnected and fast-paced world, product teams must be agile, adaptive, and resilient. Hanlon’s Razor, when applied judiciously, can serve as a guiding light, steering teams away from toxic negativity and towards a culture of understanding, growth, and success. By keeping this principle in mind, product teams can unlock their full potential and truly thrive in today’s competitive landscape.

If you enjoyed learning some of the product predicaments to practice Hanlon’s Razor, check out our free download of our Hanlon’s Razor resource for product practitioners here.

Jonathan Savage

Jonathan Savage

Jonathan is a digital leader with 20+ years of experience leading product, engineering and design teams while combining product development and business strategy to deliver extraordinary business impact.

Jonathan joins Thoughtworks via the acquisition of Connected, where he was the EVP for Product Development and Practice. His current role at Thoughtworks is Head of Product and Design and Service Line Integration for Canada. Prior to that, he was at theScore, a global sports app with over 9 million users, where he led the product, engineering, and design teams for over 10 years as their EVP of product. Jonathan’s mission at Thoughtworks is to work collaboratively with clients in order to deliver true product impact and foster a shared understanding of how to build better.

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