You may have heard of the ‘KISS’ principle: keep it simple, stupid. It was reportedly coined by rock singer Gene Simmons in 1980s—wait, sorry, that’s engineer Kelly Johnson in 1960. The principle has been adopted into military and popular culture thereafter although it was not used by 1980s rock bands.
The KISS principle itself is actually pretty useless as it does not give any insights into how we achieve it. We see this in most aspects in life as well as in organsations, which are increasingly realising that simplification can be the antidote to the frustrations and inefficiencies caused by complexity. When workplaces are complex this causes cognitive overload and can have a detrimental effect on staff mental health and wellbeing. Conversely, when organisations are simplified, this offers mental clarity and contributes to an environment when staff can thrive and be at their best.
So how can organisations implement the principle of KISS? No, not by painting your face in crazy black and white make-up (pardon the dated KISS rock band reference).
Before leaders embark on any simplification activity, they can first assess the system of work. In an earlier blog, post 8 principles of simplification were described, and organisations can use these to help diagnose their most common areas of complexity.
After conducting this assessment, here are some specific practices that can encourage simplification amongst employees and the design of work.
Keep your eye (and mindset) on the prize
As a first step, leaders need to adopt a simplification mindset. That is, they must mentally be focussed on simplification and be aware of what it is and the benefits it provides. Second, leaders must put in place tangible initiatives that are prioritised and be willing to drive them through.
Third, leaders need to resist theurge to compromise. For instance, adding more procedures to make a process ‘easier’ can sometimes have the opposite effect. Often stakeholders contaminate an elegant solution by adding extra layers of complexity that add minimal value. How many times have you seen a very simple communication become burdened with the ‘extra’ layers of subtext and disclaimers?
Without this awareness and commitment, opportunities for simplification may be missed, and individuals may view simplification as a ‘buzz word’ rather than a way to drive better performance and improve organisational effectiveness. That is, this whole thing called ‘simplification’ actually made things more complicated in the end because we never really stuck to the KISS principle.
When in doubt, less is usually more
Simplifying is about minimising and cutting back on the unnecessary distractions and information. Contrary to the phrase ‘more choice is better’, research has continuously highlighted a large assortment of choices can lead to unsuitable preferences (2).
Whilst choice provides the individual with freedom, it can also lead to confusion. When there are dozens or even hundreds of options, individuals cannot dedicate the time to evaluate every option carefully. Therefore, they can make poor choices that do not align with their needs. Furthermore, the presence of more options can actually expose the individual to more ‘bad’ options, not more useful alternatives.
Individuals also feel less satisfied with their choices when they feel they have not conducted a thorough search. Think of the ample soft drinks and brands of sweets available on the market today. Does that make your decision any easier when you’re looking for that one amazing drink or sweet? (8) Or how often have you cycled through Netflix only to find a show to watch but also an itching feeling that there might be something better worth watching out there?
The phrase ‘less is more’ was brought to fame by the architect and furniture designer Ludwig Mies Van Der Rohe who is known to be one of the founders of modern architecture and a simplistic style (10).
The same mindset is useful for job design where it can be applied to cutting back on unnecessary processes, procedures or elements that can hinder employee mental health, wellbeing and performance. Neurologically, this also makes a lot of sense, as our brains can only keep a small number of concepts in short-term memory at any given time. So, choose wisely what information needs to be conveyed to employees so they can do they their job effectively without unnecessary stress and pressure.
Act instead of react
When we react to events from the flight fight response, adrenaline takes over and we tend to focus on alleviating threats in the short term. However, when we respond from a place of certainty and calm, our brains are able to think more creatively and act in a way that is most efficient and considers the longer-term outcomes.
Overly complicated systems are often made worse by a concept called ‘scaffolding’, where instead of building a solid, robust system we just add new details and controls on top of old information. If there is a confusing business rule, we create an additional rule to reconcile the confusion rather than fixing the original rule. Often leaders can feel as though they need to scaffold due to competing priorities and set aside the long-term planning and development for a day when it is quiet. But the quiet times often do not come, and new leaders come and go with aspirations that are never met due to the tendency to react.
It is important to pause and assess priorities, consider job design, and ensure simplified processes are in place. This will set teams up for success in dealing with high job demands and uncertain events that may arise. Taking the time to process a difficult situation is always better than jumping to conclusions impulsively. This will ensure you are not filled with regret later.
Don't sweat the small stuff
Connect to what is meaningful and what has an impact, so you can remind your team what matters. All too often staff get bogged down in the weeds of work and miss the broader perspective. It is important as a leader to encourage your team to raise their level of thinking and look outside their role, team ,division, and organisation.
A lot of wasted energy is burnt on issues that actually do not need that much attention. In fact, you can often overlook the improvements and innovations when trying to fix the same problem with the same types of solutions. Instead of endlessly rewriting procedures, rules, and communications, a new system might be needed that automates the problem.
The cost and time to build or procure the system might outweigh the years of manual entry and debate amongst employees. Instead of endless instruction provided to staff, maybe they need a day off site for dedicated training and support?
There are times when detail is necessary, and that is certainly a skill anyone would want in a surgeon operating on them. However, many organisations and people waste a lot of time perfecting details that in the end don’t really matter. I recall a friend who informed me that a policy document involved over50 reviews. Do you think it looked simple at the end?
Divide and conquer
This involves using skill sets of others to create efficiencies by leveraging strengths. This also requires designing people’s jobs so that team members support each other with their gifts and natural talents.
Divide and rule comes from the Latin term ‘divide et impera’ and is a concept that was generally used by rulers throughout historic times (4).In the context of work, this will accelerate the speed at which work gets done, which leads to more efficient operations (3). When a team is split upto work on different components, they can focus more on what each member is good at, and thus, productivity will increase. Through simplifying workplaces, employees can be encouraged to work towards their individual talents instead of working across a range of tasks that are not entirely relevant to their job roles.
However, care has to be made in dividing too much, which is a concept referred to as reductionism. Breaking work down into smaller and smaller tasks seems like a simpler approach but it can also lead to work feeling less meaningful and individuals feeling disconnected from the bigger picture. Therefore, effective leaders design the work so that it balances meaning and ‘completeness’ with task efficiency. When leaders provide and encourage this connection to meaningful work with staff, their mental health and wellbeing improves.
We hope these tips will help you engage in simplifying your workplace and working towards a more thriving work environment! And remember what Gene Simmons said! Wait…
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