The KISS Principle: From Innovation to Communication

Written by Dora Cheatham, Program Manager, Emerging Enterprise Center

KISS – alternately known “keep it simple, stupid”, “keep it short and simple” and “keep it simple and straightforward” – is an acronym reportedly coined by Kelly Johnson in the early 20th century, a lead engineer at Lockheed Skunk Works who created the Lockheed US and SR-71 Blackbird spy planes. It’s also a design principle noted by the US Navy in 1960 believing that most systems work best when you avoid unnecessary complexity.

The concept is nothing new and has been embraced by innovators throughout the centuries, from Leonardo da Vinci “Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication” to Steve Jobs “That’s been one of my mantras – focus and simplicity. Simple can be harder than complex: You have to work hard to get your thinking clean to make it simple. But it’s worth it in the end because once you get there, you can move mountains.”

Lean and Six Sigma were both based on the simplification and optimization of processes to increase productivity and reduce the potential for error. Alan Turing – considered the father of computing and artificial intelligence – built the stunningly simple Turing Machine which is today the basis of all modern computers. The same applies in the business world. Whether it’s a go-to-market plan, the design of a new process, or implementing cultural change the key to success is simplicity.

By simplifying and communicating sometimes complex organizational strategies and discussions, it makes them accessible to the entire organization which in turn enables the entire organization to embrace them. So the concept of QA in manufacturing can be viewed less as a system of forms and check marks and more as a fundamental belief in manufacturing products of the highest quality possible. Innovation can be viewed less as a function of R&D or Engineering, divorced from the rest of the organization, and more an overriding vision that is integrated into the mainstream of the organization, engendering commitment at all levels.

Similarly, the communication of complex, technical products needs to be broken down into language understood by anyone involved in the purchase process, with clear explanations of the pros and cons surrounding their purchase decision and based on trustworthy information. Too often, marketing of complex products – especially at a B2B level – is communicated in language and concepts which may hold great value to some in the decision making process, but may hold little value to others. Ensure that the communication is clear enough to be understand by all involved in the purchasing decision.

In their excellent article published in Harvard Business Review, Patrick Spenner and Karen Freeman discussed their findings after a 3-month long study on what drives consumers to opt for, or stick with, a specific brand. They found that “the single biggest driver of stickiness, by far, was “decision simplicity” – the ease with which consumers can gather trustworthy information about a product confidently and efficiently weigh their purchase options. What consumers want from marketers is, simply, simplicity.”

So how do you go about simplifying communication? The steps are simple (pun intended):

DECONSTRUCT: Break down the idea to its basic elements.

SIMPLIFY: Simplify the premise by taking out excess information that does not directly contribute to the value expected by the end user(s).

RECONSTRUCT: Reconstruct by focusing strictly on the value, bearing in mind that value may represent different things to the various members of your audience.

COMMUNICATE: Communicate in a language that is accessible to a wider audience. Use clear language, avoid the use of jargon and acronyms that only a limited audience would understand.

I’ll leave the final word to that great genius Einstein:

“If you can’t explain it to a six year old, you don’t understand it yourself.”

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