Laws of Combat: What is SIMPLE?

The Dirt World is a complex place. There are lots of moving parts, from contractors to vendors to crews to clients. Building plans can be insanely complicated, as can local building codes and zoning laws.

But as former Navy SEAL Jocko Willink points out, the more complicated a plan is, the more ways it has to fail. That applies to projects on your jobsite—but most importantly, it applies to how you lead, plan, and communicate with your team.

Keep it simple, stupid (KISS)

"There's a tendency for human beings to make things more complex," Jocko says. "And I used to wonder why. I think it's a natural tendency because we want to sound smarter than we are, and we figure if we make something more complex, it'll make us sound a little bit smarter. And the opposite is actually true."

That's because the simplest plans (and communication) are the best. After all, they're the easiest to understand, especially when you're doing things on the fly at a busy jobsite.

Jocko explains, "The simplest way of communicating the plan is always the most effective and efficient way. So when you formulate a plan, simplify it as much as possible. And then, when you deliver that plan to the team, use the most simple, clear, concise language that you can so that they actually understand what it is they're trying to do. Because if the team doesn't understand what the plan is, or if they don't understand how you communicate to them, there's no possible way that they can execute it."

This advice comes not from a leadership seminar or a trendy business book but straight from the battlefield. Jocko saw firsthand how effective keeping it simple can be when he was a leader of Task Force Bruiser, the most highly decorated U.S. special operations unit in the Iraq War. 

"The simpler plan is more efficient, more effective. And the smartest plan you can come up with is the simplest plan," he says. That's because, as he notes, complexity breeds error.

Break it all down.

While simple may be smarter, things will get complicated eventually. Managing a project or jobsite requires a lot of different people performing many different, interrelated tasks at the same time—sometimes for a long time. So how do you keep it all on the rails?

"We've worked with a lot of construction companies that are working on four-year projects. So, how do you simplify?" Jocko asks. "You have to break down each component and get the components simplified so that people understand what these various components are. And then we have to explain, in a simple manner, how these components are going to fit together."

In many ways, Jocko's approach is similar to agile or lean frameworks that operate by breaking large, complex tasks down into smaller, more manageable ones.

Let's apply this to the Dirt World. Instead of telling your team, "Pour this concrete slab today," make it a series of steps they can check off one by one, like this:

  1. Clear the site
  2. Build forms
  3. Add and compact gravel inside the forms
  4. Set up any mesh, rebar, or reinforcements
  5. Mix the concrete
  6. Pour the concrete
  7. Screed the top of the concrete
  8. Finish the concrete with a metal trowel

You can even break these down further into sub-steps. Take the "finish" step, for example. It could be broken down into "smooth," "edge," and "seal."

You're giving your team clear, simple direction on what to do at each step, what needs to be finished before moving on, and what they're moving on to. This minimizes error and helps them stay on task.

Jocko notes that the need for simplicity becomes even more important as tasks and projects get more complex: "We work with energy companies that are building massive projects that are extremely complicated. [We work with] Aerospace companies that are building hardware—incredibly complex things. There are things that are inherently complicated, and then it's even more important that we simplify them."


The best way to avoid confusion and crew member mistakes is by breaking complex tasks or projects down to their simplest components. This makes each task manageable, measurable, and more likely to stay on track.

The same applies to communication. Avoid the urge to make yourself sound smarter. It doesn't work, and your message will get lost. As the saying goes, "To be unclear is to be unkind." Just be as straightforward and honest as you can—and for goodness' sake, keep it short.

As Jocko points out, it takes a smart person to build a simple plan—so consider your ability to simplify as a demonstration of your own brilliance.

← Read Laws of Combat: Cover and Move

Read Laws of Combat: Prioritize and Execute →

Join the thousands of Dirt pros who get our top workforce development tips.