THE JOURNAL OF LEADERSHIP APPLICATIONS
Vol. 10, No. 10
(626) 350-1500 Ext 102
KEEP IT SIMPLE, STUPID
© 2013 William A. Cohen, PhD
I don’t care what your plan is, the more clear and concise it is, the easier it is to implement and the less that can go wrong along the way. In fact, the phrase, “Keep it simple, stupid” has now worked its way into virtually every aspect of life. But the first time I heard the phrase, it didn’t come from an American corporate executive or a football coach or a software developer or a political consultant. It was used by an Israeli general who spoke during an interview about the reasons for a recent victory of his military against overwhelming odds.
The Six Day War
In the spring of 1967, Egypt, Syria, and Jordan joined together “to liberate Palestine.” In those days, the three countries made no bones about their intentions. They were going to destroy Israel and “throw the Jews into the sea.” Jordan held the land today claimed by the Palestinians on the West Bank of the Jordan River. The three Arab countries declared that the strip of land called “Israel” was actually “Palestine” and Israel had no right to exist as a country. They announced that they intended to rectify that situation.
On the face of it, there was no doubt that the three Arab states could defeat the Israelis and eradicate Israel exactly as they threatened to do. The combined standing armies of the three Arab countries were several times the size of Israel’s. They outnumbered the Israelis in planes, tanks, artillery, and ships. Moreover, the Arabs boasted first-line MIG fighters from the Soviet Union. Israel flew mostly older aircraft bought from many sources. The only U.S. aircraft Israel owned were relics from World War II.
Russian advisors were embedded in both the Egyptian and Syrian armies. Until only a few years before, a British general had commanded the Jordanian Army, which still had embedded British Army advisors. The Jordanians used recently manufactured British equipment and aircraft. Jordan’s King Hussein had attended Sandhurst, England’s West Point.
With heavy financial backing from the oil-rich Arab states, the three Arab allies faced an Israel that had little capital and a population of only a few million. All things considered, Israel was likely to be overwhelmed.
There was sympathy in the United States for Israel, but officially the U.S. remained neutral. Interviewed by American media, King Hussein stated that if the U.S. prevented the three Arab countries from doing “this thing,” the Americans would forever be enemies of the Arab people. Nevertheless, the U.S. did try to persuade the Arabs not to attack and attempted to get the UN to help. American diplomats achieved little success. U Thant, then Secretary General of the United Nations ordered UN troops to withdraw from the Sinai desert, which separated Israel and Egypt. They had been placed between Egypt and Israel precisely to prevent a war. The UN’s withdrawal permitted the Egyptian armies to move in and advance right up to the Israeli border. With a large caucus of Arab countries now in the UN, it appeared that this organization, which in 1948 had voted to support the establishment of Israel, now intended to support her destruction. President Lyndon Johnson instructed United States government agencies to begin planning on how to handle whatever Israeli refugees survived the irresistible Arab onslaught to come.
On June 4th, everything changed. The Israeli armed forces launched a pre-emptive attack that took their enemies completely by surprise. The Israeli Air Force spearheaded the assault by striking the vastly superior enemy air forces at their bases and destroying most of the Arab planes while they were still on the ground. From the first day, Israel dominated the skies, and helped their armies on all fronts.
The resulting “Six Day War” was an incredible turnaround, with repercussions that continue to this day. Since 1967, Israel has been seen as the dominant military power in the Middle East. As a result of the war, Israel not only fended off its attackers, but also occupied lands belonging to Egypt, Syria, and Jordan. Israel refused to return this land except in exchange for a peace treaty. Syria has still never signed a peace treaty with Israel. Such a treaty was eventually signed with Egypt in 1979, and the lands captured from Egypt were returned. Many years later, in 1994, Jordan also signed a peace treaty with Israel, but it did not want the West Bank returned. Jordan had itself previously expelled Yasser Arafat and his armed forces from the same territory in 1972. Jordan now declared that the West Bank belonged to the Palestinians, and essentially told Israel to work out its problems with the Palestinians on its own.
The world was amazed. How did Israel accomplish such a feat? Military analysts from many countries poured over maps and studied the actions, particularly the air attack that gave Israel air superiority over the battlefield from the first day. What highly sophisticated, well-rehearsed and complex plan could enable the tiny country of Israel, with a population at the time of only two million inhabitants, to defeat its far more powerful, wealthier, better-armed, and more numerous, foes?
The U.S. military, at the time bogged down in the Vietnam War, questioned Major General Motti Hod, then commander of the Israeli Air Force, about this wonderful plan and sophisticated strategy. What were the components? How did they integrate and coordinate all the elements? What were the secrets of the perfect timing and coordination? Hod responded that while they did have a plan, it was simple. Identify the proper targets, take off, keep your mouth shut, and hit the enemy as hard as you can. “We have a motto in the Israeli Air Force,” he said. “It is ‘keep it simple, stupid!’ And that’s what we did.”
Simplicity Applies to Business Strategy
The concept of simplicity is just as valid in planning business strategy as it is to conducting military campaigns. An analysis conducted by the prestigious Booz Allen Hamilton consulting firm showed that in one industry after another, large traditional companies faced the identical problem: overcomplicating their business. The strategies they developed to run their businesses had become so complex that profit margins had almost disappeared. Naturally this left them vulnerable. As these previous market leaders struggled under the burdens of the complicated business models they themselves had devised, smaller, nimbler competitors with less complex strategies swallowed up market share by meeting customer needs at a lower cost.
According the Booz Allen Hamilton analysis, this is best illustrated by the large U.S. hub and spoke airlines. As a result of their complex strategies, it costs these carriers twice as much per seat mile as low-cost carriers to complete a 500-mile flight. This is because their solution to the goal to take anyone, anywhere led them to massive physical infrastructures, fleets of dissimilar models of aircraft, expensive information systems, and large pools of labor.
Keep It Simple, Stupid!
Whatever actions strategists decide upon must ultimately be implemented or nothing happens. But the more elements that make up each action, the greater the likelihood that one or more will fail. NASA once noted that if every single part in one of their space systems was 99.9% reliable, they couldn’t launch it because the overall reliability would be less than 50%! That’s because of the huge number of necessary parts and the resultant complexity of the overall system. The 2003 space shuttle Columbia disaster proved once again that in a complex system, it doesn’t take much to cause everything to go awry and fail completely.
If the actions you must take to implement a strategy are overly complex, you may have difficulty keeping them straight. Others may have difficulty following their part of the plan. The more complex the plan, the more problems can crop up. Complexity has caused numerous otherwise brilliantly designed plans to fail when executed. Thus simplicity itself is powerful and compelling.
Failure to incorporate the principle of keeping plans simple has caused failures in all fields of human endeavor. An entrepreneur lost a multimillion-dollar contract to a competitor even though he was the inventor of the product and held patent protection on it. His complex pricing formula resulted in his pricing an order for thousands of units of his product at the same price at which he sold a unit one at a time! This drove the customer, which happened to be the U.S. government, to issue a contract with a competitor who could supply the product for 60% less. The U.S. government doesn’t enforce patents. That’s up to the individual who holds the rights to the patent. Although a lawsuit was possible, his attorney advised him that even if his patent were declared valid in the courts and he won his case, the award would be based on a percentage of the price paid, not his price. As a result, he would be awarded less than the cost of the legal action.
I Fail Pricing 101
I must confess that at one time I fell victim to a similar error in pricing. Increasingly, corporations and professional associations had called upon me to give speeches and seminars for their organizations. At first I had a simple pricing system based on the length of the speech. However, I had read an article in an academic journal that had developed a sophisticated pricing model for services. In my enthusiasm to be on the cutting edge, I decided to implement this sophisticated model of pricing. As I recall, this required quite a few entry variables which considered not only the length of the speech, but the number of attendees, the size of the organization, annual sales, etc.
In any case, I prepared myself to use the model and tried several examples. They seemed to work. The next time I received a call and was asked to speak and was questioned about my fee, I was ready to show what a sophisticated guy I was. I asked for the required variables, plugged them into the model, and before I stopped to consider the results, reported them to the caller. There was a stunned silence on the other end of the line. The amount I had quoted was so low that it was a joke. My would-be client finally gasped something about “having the wrong Dr. Cohen.” She hung up. I tried some more examples and realized that the model may have worked well for some service businesses, but not for speaking professionally. I returned to my former method of pricing.
Keep the Message Simple
Most people, even professionals, don’t read textbooks, even though they are much more comprehensive than regular books, and even though almost every statement in these books is both thoroughly researched and documented. Why don’t people read them? Instead of making textbooks easy to understand, many professors who write textbooks actually make them more difficult. Why? Professors seem to like complicated books. Sometimes I think this is because they think if the material is difficult to understand it must contain something of substance.
Students rarely agree. Complicated textbooks are both difficult to understand and more difficult to apply to practice. But students have little choice. Professors make the decisions as to which books will be used. Not so in the real world. That’s probably why one of the most popular management books of all time is about as far removed from being a textbook as it could possibly be, with a simple, easy-to-follow message, large type and only about 100 pages. The book is The One Minute Manager by Kenneth Blanchard and Spencer Johnson (New York: William Morrow). Since publication, this book has sold over seven million copies. There are hundreds of textbooks on the same subject. They contain much more information, but they are lucky to sell a few thousand copies each, and probably wouldn’t sell that many if it were up to the students who are required to buy them.
Simplicity is Vital for All Success
This essential strategy principle demanding simplicity is itself quite simple. It is also vital for success. You can see importance of simplicity in coaching team sports. I was amazed to hear about or read in the biography of almost every highly successful coach in every single sport that each and every one of them seemed to emphasize a single characteristic in their coaching. They believed in focusing not on fancy, complicated plays, or on tricky moves by their players, but on the fundamentals. They insisted that their players practice the fundamentals over and over and over again. In other words, all of these coaches believed the same thing: the road to victory was founded not on the complex, but on the simple. It was their version of “keep it simple, stupid.”
Superior Web Design Strategy
Several years ago Inc Magazine announced the winners in its annual competition for best web site design. In an article announcing the results of this competition Inc said, “Effective Web design is not about creating flashy graphics and piling on the features. The best sites appreciate the value of simplicity.”
Three entirely different Web site entrants took top honors in the Design category that year. And very different they were. Yet all shared that common characteristic of simplicity.
One, a scooter manufacturer and retailer from New Hampshire, got the nod from the judges by creating a strong brand image and an easy-to-use format. In Massachusetts, a “techie” information portal for network-storage professionals received top marks primarily due to its clear organization. The third top winner was a ceramics wholesaler located in Boulder, Colorado. Judges liked the wholesaler’s warm color palette and minimalist display of its product line in its online catalog.
These were all very different companies with different products, in different industries, and with different objectives each was trying to achieve. But according to Inc, all three had the same philosophy when it came to creating a Web site. “Each followed the golden rule of Web design: Keep it simple.”
Inc Magazine needed only to add the additional word “stupid” to be completely in accord with what General Hod had said about Israel’s victory in 1967.
How to Keep Your Strategy Simple
The secret of keeping your strategy simple can be summarized by only four (simple) actions. These are:
- Minimize the Major Actions and Organizations You Must Coordinate
- Develop Simple Organizational Relationships
- Simplify Your Directives and Orders
- Avoid Complex Actions or Solutions
THIS MONTH’S THOUGHT FOR LEADERS
“To be simple is to be great.” – Emerson
Recent Linked Articles by Dr. Cohen not Published in the Journal of Leadership Applications:
Heroic Leadership – It May Not Be What You Think (Heroic Leadership) from Corporate Learning Network
Drucker Knew: In the Board Game Risk® and in Business, Concentration is the Key (Lessons from Peter Drucker) from Human Resources IQ, Customer Management IQ, Six Sigma Management IQ, and Corporate Learning Network
5 Important Facts about Leadership (Lessons from Peter Drucker) from Human Resources IQ, Customer Management IQ, Six Sigma Management IQ, and Corporate Learning Network
Why Obeying the “Rules” of Job Search May Work Against You from Human Resources IQ, Customer Management IQ, and Six Sigma Management IQ
The Ultimate Means of Running an Organization Well from Human Resources IQ, Customer Management IQ, and Six Sigma Management IQ
The Most Peculiar Leadership Model from Human Resources IQ, Customer Management IQ, and Six Sigma Management IQ
You Must Know Your Strengths from Human Resources IQ, Customer Management IQ, and Six Sigma Management IQ
Peter Drucker and the Accomplishing of More with Less from Human Resources IQ, Customer Management IQ, and Six Sigma Management IQ
The Richest Source of Innovation from Human Resources IQ, Customer Management IQ, and Six Sigma Management IQ
Ignorance is Good from Human Resources IQ, Customer Management IQ, and Six Sigma Management IQ
Drucker’s Stellar Approach to Leadership
A Class With Drucker: Part I
A Class With Drucker: Part II
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