Leadership Effectiveness: Keep It Really Simple

Leadership Effectiveness: Keep It Really Simple“Keep it simple stupid” (KISS) was apparently coined by the brilliant engineer Kelly Johnson of the famous Lockheed Skunk Works. Johnson knew there was a profound relationship between “needless complexity” and cost, schedule, and technical risk. His objective was to get the job done and he knew all too well that complexity often got in the way. He went on to acclaim as one of the greatest aviation designers in history.

Johnson may be the person credited with the quote; however, the concept pre-dates the 1950-60s when he would have said it. For example: “Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication,” (Leonardo da Vinci). “Our life is frittered away by detail. Simplify. Simplify.” (Henry David Thoreau).

More recently, many top executives have quoted the concept: Warren Buffet, Jack Welch, Tom Peters, and many others. Larry Bossidy and Ram Charan said in Execution: The Art of Getting Things Done, “If you can’t describe your strategy in twenty minutes, simply and in plain language, you haven’t got a plan. ‘But,’ many people say, ‘I’ve got a complex strategy, it cannot be reduced to a page.’ That’s nonsense. That is not a complex strategy. That is complex thought about the strategy.”

Chances are, you have seen over-complication in the organizations you know. Committees. Meetings. An overabundance of “priorities.” A convoluted project plan. If a strategy or task is overcomplicated, people do not want to do it, even if they can figure it out.

Coca-Cola got complicated and tried “New Coke.” RBS got so complicated the new chairman says that their customers are having a hard time trying to do business with them. McDonald’s CEO blames their stagnancy on an overcomplicated menu. As Citigroup, AIG, and General Motors got more and more complex and strayed from their knitting, these formerly successful behemoths came to resemble beached whales, gasping for breath.

Here are some words to the wise from some of our wisest business leaders:

“Almost all quality improvement comes via simplification of design, manufacturing… layout, processes, and procedures.” (TOM PETERS)

“If you have more than three priorities, you don’t have any.” (JIM COLLINS).

Here are our words of wisdom:

  1. When in doubt, review your values. Is the strategy you are contemplating in accordance with them?
  2. Think about your vision. Will the strategy you are working on take you closer to achieving that vision?
  3. Review your mission. Is the strategy you are contemplating in alignment with it?
  4. Stick to your knitting, that is, your core competencies. At least do not stray too far.
  5. Communicate, collaborate, and coordinate (Ron Ashkenas, The Three Cs of Simplicity, HBR, 2009).

Does the junior member of the team understand your new strategy? Can everyone in your organization articulate the priorities? Do you need more than 20 minutes to describe your strategy to the Executive Team?

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