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Applying the KISS principle

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By Dr Jim Dale

Some thirty-five years ago, naive and fresh faced, with my head full of management theories from Maslow, Hertzberg, Adair and McGregor, I embarked upon my first leadership role with the Metropolitan Police. As a newly promoted sergeant I was responsible for ten constables based in the Old Kent Road area of South East London (later, affectionately to be known as Del Boy country of Only Fools and Horses fame). 

My boss at the time was an old-style cop whose education had been the university of life; the post war streets of south London. It was clear he had little time for the niceties of management theory but he did teach me a gem that has remained with me ever since. “Son”, he said, “you have to communicate in a way that the bobby on the beat understands.”
In short always follow the KISS principle.  

I was later to find out that Keep It Simple, Stupid (sometimes referred to as Keep It Simple and Straightforward) was a principal invented and first applied by the US Navy in the 1960’s. Yet it is as relevant today for the project management profession as it was then and let me explain why.

Following retirement from the police some eleven years ago I have been fortunate enough to act in a project management review capacity, assessing individuals, projects / programmes, project academies and organisational maturity. The experience has been both humbling and enlightening. The most capable professionals are able to explain a vision for their project / programme in a way that is easily understood and that excites and stimulates.  They can also articulate a compelling business case where the benefits clearly exceed the risks, costs and timescales. The project team are motivated and committed acting with clarity of common purpose.

I’m afraid to say that the juxtaposition is also often the case. Candidly, I have heard fellow professionals speak complete gibberish when describing the intended end state of their projects / programmes. On other occasions they use terminology that is either patently untrue or a gross exaggeration. The term ‘transformation’ is frequently used to describe projects/ programmes where, at best, a minor step change is all that is likely to be achieved. Other examples include the glib use of phrases such as ‘achieving strategic alignment’, as if this labeling justifies spending millions of pounds in pursuit of some vague and intangible aim. This appears symptomatic of a wider concern regarding an inability to articulate the business case. Occasionally I see exasperation and even distain in eyes my fellow ‘professionals’ as if something so complicated could not possibly be explained to someone who was not a member of Mensa.[1]

The man on the Clapham Omnibus test is an important concept of British law. Introduced during the 19th Century the man on the Clapham omnibus is intended to depict an ordinary, reasonably intelligent and educated person. This hypothetical individual provided the litmus paper by which to judge the behaviour of others. My plea to the project management community is to apply ‘the person on the Clapham Omnibus’ test as frequently as you can. Are you able to set out the project/ programme vision in a way this mythical individual can buy into? Can you clearly explain the benefits as part of a compelling business case that passes the ‘elevator test’.[2]

My contention is that too many project professionals do not adhere to the KISS principal.  Whether acting sub consciously or consciously they over complicate or bamboozle.  The result is confusion, bewilderment and poor engagement.  In the words of Pete Seeger (US music writer, singer and social activist) “any darn fool can make something complicated; it takes a genius to make it simple”.

Now a date for your diary. KISS and demystification will be central themes at the Programme Management SiG’s annual conference: Programmes demystified, scheduled for 15 March 2018.


[1] Mensa is a society where membership is restricted to those who have an IQ within the top 2% of society.

[2] An elevator pitch is a brief, persuasive speech that you use to spark interest in what your organisation does. You can also use them to create interest in a project, idea, or product – or in yourself. A good elevator pitch should last no longer than a short elevator ride of 20 to 30 seconds, hence the name.


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  1. Merv Wyeth
    Merv Wyeth 09 November 2017, 10:49 PM

    Hi Jim, a good read with some thought provoking insights and sage advice. I know from first-hand experience that ProgM SIG will organise a top-notch conference next March and I/BM SIG will be happy to support you in any way I/we can. #eventroi