KISS - Keep It Simple, Stupid!

KISS is an old and familiar acronym that was once quite popular. It lost some of its attractiveness when “political correctness” started to constrain our word choices – when implying that our colleagues were “stupid” began to be frowned upon. Respect for each other has become a “core value” in nearly every organization and suggesting that one’s colleagues and/or employees (individually or collectively) are stupid is not respectful.

KISS - Keep It Simple, Stupid!

Or for the more politically correct among us: Keep It Sweet and Simple

 

© Frank J Navran

 

KISS is an old and familiar acronym that was once quite popular. It lost some of its attractiveness when “political correctness” started to constrain our word choices – when implying that our colleagues were “stupid” began to be frowned upon. Respect for each other has become a “core value” in nearly every organization and suggesting that one’s colleagues and/or employees (individually or collectively) are stupid is not respectful.

Keeping anything simple these days may not be as easy as it sounds, but is it increasingly critical as the world of work continues to become exponentially more complex that we find and treasure some of the basics – the simple truths that can continue to guide us even in complex times and circumstances. KISS remains one of those concepts.

We need to recognize that we all make decisions and that while some of those decisions are relatively trivial, others are extraordinarily significant in terms of our personal success, the impact we have on others and the tangible and intangible costs associated with both problems and solutions we apply. The key to our success may hinge on our ability to balance the significance and complexity of the issue and the simplicity and predictability of the internal thought processes we apply, that enable us to work through those complexities to identify the core issues and address them with pragmatic and predictable solutions.

Typically that means we have to reduce the overall problem to “simple” components and address those components with “simple” solutions. By deconstructing the problem into its component parts we can “keep it simple.” We are taking a large issue and dealing with it in “bite-sized” pieces.

It may sound counterintuitive, but complex problems demand simple processes. It is those processes that allow us to “deconstruct the problems so that we can find solution components that address each and every one. The total “set” of solutions is what is needed to address that complexity. After all, once deconstructed, we discover that even the most complex problem is really a collection of components, most of which lend themselves to simple, straightforward resolution. The alternative, trying to tackle the total set of nested problems, is the equivalent of trying to digest a seven-course meal in one swallow.

The Challenge

One of the more interesting intellectual challenges we all face is finding ways to assimilate increasingly complex concepts and processes while operating in an increasingly complex context (e.g., today’s world of work) and then simplifying those concepts and processes so that they can inform our everyday decisions and actions. Those in leadership positions are even more challenged because they also have to teach these approaches to those they lead as well as use them themselves.

Consider the following example. It illustrates how a complex, albeit thorough, approach to a common business task – decision making – started as a “dense” diagrammatic flowchart and evolved into a simple four-letter acronym: an eminently more useful tool for the decision-maker and those interested in teaching/guiding others in the decision-making process. And, as “the proof of the pudding is in the eating” we will also look to see if there is evidence to support the proposition that this process works as advertised. 

It started with a need. How might one teach newly appointed supervisors a “common” process for rational decision making and reasoning in a workplace setting? Typically, these new supervisors were either newly hired university graduates with little or no corporate experience or newly promoted “non-management” employees who had considerable work history but typically had little or no formal training/education regarding this very narrow aspect work – the skills and knowledge to be successful in the execution of their supervisory/leadership responsibilities.

Since the particular workshops was attended by representatives of both populations (newly promoted and newly hired) the language used in the presentation had to suit both audience, irrespective of the level of formal education, yet be sophisticated enough to facilitate effective decision-making in the workplace. The content of the presentation had to be easy to teach, easy to learn, easy to apply and most importantly, it had to work even in the toughest situations.

As a training manager, with responsibilities for both course design and trainer training, I was tasked to create such a model. My first effort produced an “elegant” solution - one I still embrace. Unfortunately, it was totally impractical as a teaching tool. It was extremely useful as a “think piece”. It put all the pieces in play. All that was left was to simplify the process without losing the essential power of the original model. (Appendix One)

What resulted was a very teachable model. It has been is use for more than twenty years, is widely published and has been adopted by any number of organizations. Its origin was in a project for the Oregon Department of Transportation (ODOT) that began in the early 1990’s and was driven by a very real dilemma. ODOT was an agency of some 4,800 employees. Some of their older employees came to ODOT with very little formal education. They had been school-age children during WWII but had stayed on the farms, working, while Dad went off to war. Some were barely literate, able to write little more than their names and unable to read almost anything but road signs, which had been designed with unique shapes for each “message” for just this reason. The challenge was to how to teach a common decision making process to a population that ranged in educational experience from a few years of elementary school to PhDs. My earlier decision model would not be helpful to a significant subset of the ODOT employee population because it presumed a level of education that did not apply. What was needed was a model that was more accessible, yet still had the same effectiveness/value to those using it.

Let me start with an observation. Education is not synonymous with intelligence! A man with less than five years of formal education, who was exceedingly intelligent, raised me. I also suspect that many of you share my experience of knowing people who hold various advanced degrees but have neither the sense to come in out of the rain nor the intelligence to effectively function in any arena other than whatever specialty they pursued in school.

The model I first developed was sophisticated and presumed an unreasonable level of familiarity with organizational theory. It was an academic exercise that was helpful in my efforts to crystalize my own thinking on the subject. As a teaching tool, it was totally useless. It contained nine steps and four sub steps. In flowchart form it required 39 boxes. It was not exactly user-friendly. Neither was it a wasted effort. I still find it a valuable tool when teaching advanced reasoning and logic. But it was not a suitable tool for ODOT.

I fared better with my second try. I came up with a six-step model and the formerly complex sub steps could be captured in a four-letter acronym that preserved the essence of the earlier model. And to make matters better, the four letter acronym formed a mnemonic that was easy to remember, PLUS.

The ODOT experience is significant because one of the more interesting intellectual challenges leaders face is finding ways to assimilate increasingly complex concepts and processes while operating in an increasingly complex context (today’s world of work) and then simplifying those concepts and processes so that they can inform our everyday decisions and actions.

Those of us in leadership positions are further challenged because we also have to teach these approaches to those we lead as well as use them ourselves. How we want “our people” to approach decision-making is a significant issue that we cannot leave to chance. Decision Making (DM) is a process we must teach to those we lead. We cannot assume that everyone within our span of control uses an appropriate DM process unless we have made a deliberate effort to ensure that such is the case.

The goal is to find a DM process that is simple enough for everyone within our span of control to easily grasp and predictable enough to consistently yield optimal outcomes. Absent both simplicity and consistency it will not be used.

PLUS

PLUS is the acronym I created to address the ethical considerations, with what I call “ethics filters”, a set of supplemental questions that we can use in decision making. PLUS serves as a reminder to consider what I have come to characterize as the “ethical” aspects of particular steps in the decision making process. Expanded, the acronym looks like this.

The six steps of the decision process itself are:

  1. Define the problem
  2. Identify potential solutions
  3. Evaluate the identified alternatives
  4. Select the optimal solution
  5. Implement the alternative you selected
  6. Evaluate the outcomes

 

Unfortunately, while this model addressed the complexity issue it was missing a key element. There is nothing in this model that directs the decision-maker to address the “ethics” component of the issue at hand, or to anticipate the ethical consequences of the alternative solutions under consideration to address that concern. Using PLUS, I adapted the model as shown below, and that addressed the noted shortcomings.

  1. Define the problem (PLUS)
  2. Identify potential solutions
  3. Evaluate the identified alternatives (PLUS)
  4. Select the optimal solution
  5. Implement the alternative you selected
  6. Evaluate the outcomes (PLUS)

PLUS applies to steps 1, 3, and 6.

Step 2 is a creative exercise and one’s creativity should not be inhibited by evaluation of each potential alternative as it is identified.

Step 5 is an action step – it is what one does after the decision is made.

Step 6. Implicit in the process, if the evaluation reveals that a given outcome is less than ideal or has created any new and/or unanticipated problems, then one should repeat the process, with the inadequacies of the earlier outcome defining the “new” problem.

While the process feels totally intuitive to me, each step deserves a bit of explanation.

Step 1 – Define the Problem (PLUS)

How we define the problem at hand is critical. Since we only attempt to solve the problem we have identified it is critical that we get this step right. The trouble for many is that we confuse symptom with problems. Symptoms are a signpost. They tell us that a problem exists. Eliminate the problem and typically the symptoms go away. However, if all we do is eliminate symptoms we have not really solved anything. Even worse, we may have created the “appearance” of having solved the problem, because we no longer see the symptoms, and that can be disastrous.

Once we have defined the actual problem, including an understanding of its underlying causes and preconditions, we can start to consider what if anything we want/need to do to address what we have defined as problematic.

From an ethics perspective, if we fail to identify whatever ethical aspects there might be in the situation at hand, we again risk falling short. Overlook the ethical aspects of the problem and we leave it to chance as to whether or not those aspects are addressed in our solution. Making the ethical aspects explicit is key.

Since this is THE critical step (we only attempt to solve the problem we have identified) it is crucial that we get this step right.

Step 2 – Identify Alternatives

It is rare to find a non-technical work-related “problem” for which there is only one correct solution. Technical problems often have only one correct solution but the rest, the interpersonal, service and quality issues we face are subject to having a myriad of “correct” solutions each with different levels of cost, efficiency, and effectiveness. This is even more complicated when we get into interpersonal problems – those problems between us and others as opposed to problems we may have with processes or things.

To find the best available solution often demands that we be creative. Creativity is not a “universal” trait. Some of us are very creative and some of us less so. But, we all have the ability to be somewhat creative and there are tools we can us to optimize our creativity when making decisions. Our research suggests that most decision makers, when reaching this step of the decision process, consider at two or three possible solutions to the problem at hand. The more creative among us typically consider five or more alternatives to those same problems. The secret to generating a longer list of possibilities from which to select the best solution is as simples as asking ourselves, “what else?” when considering possible solutions.

Creative people ask “what else” over and over again, until there are no more solutions that come to mind. Surprisingly, this step typically takes mere seconds. It is a mental exercise and the brain is remarkably quick to generate a variety of alternatives when it is accustomed to being asked. Premature evaluation is the bane of creativity thinking.

Step 3 – Evaluate the Alternatives (PLUS)

It is only after we have generated an ample list of possibilities that we should begin to evaluate them. This is a step we are all relatively familiar with and reasonably skilled at performing. We look at costs and benefits, time demands and resource constraints. The key, again, is not that we need to do anything new when evaluating our options. Rather, the key is to resist the temptation to evaluate any options until the creative process described above has had a chance to expand our range of opportunities.

Another consideration when evaluating options is to find a balance between our inherent idealism and pragmatism. We want the best possible solution and we are bound by reality. There are time and resource constraints in almost every situation. We rarely have the luxury of picking the “ideal” solution. Perfect is impossible. At best, we can find the “optimal” solution – the one that gives us the best outcome given the constraints we face. In colloquial terms, we are looking for “the most bang for the buck”. That typically means we must make some trade-offs. The compromise solution may take longer, but cost less, or be faster but not address every aspect of the situation at hand or may be something that our staff can do reasonably well versus going “outside” to hire a specialist who may be able to do it “expertly”.

 

Step 4 – Make the Decision

 

This is an “internal” step. It is the act of making a choice between available options. Many decision models consider this the end of the process. I suggest that making a decision is a necessary but insufficient response to the situation at hand.

Step 5 – Implement the Decision

Nothing happens until somebody does something

[2] A take off on Henry Ford’s observation: “Nothing happens until someone sells something.”