Laws of Combat: What is SIMPLE?


The Dirt World can be a complicated, complex place. There are lots of dependencies in play, from contractor to vendors to architects and even clients. Building plans themselves can be hopelessly complex, as can local building codes and zoning laws. But, as Willink points out, the more complicated a plan is, the more ways it has to fail. That applies to projects on your job site — but most importantly, it applies to how you lead, plan, and communicate with your team.

Keep it simple, stupid.

"There's a tendency for human beings to make things more complex," Willink mused. "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, as Willink put it, the simplest plans are the best, as are the simplest, most straightforward methods of communication. After all, they're the easiest to understand and interpret, and in the Dirt World, that often means doing so on the fly at a busy job site.

"The simplest way of communicating the plan is always the most effective and efficient way," Willink explained. "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. As leader of Task Force Bruiser, the most highly decorated U.S. special operations unit in the Iraq War, Willink saw firsthand how effective keeping it simple can be. That's because, as he noted, complexity breeds error.

"The simpler plan is more efficient, more effective. And the smartest plan you can come up with is the simplest plan."

Break it all down.

While simple may be smarter, things will get complicated eventually. After all, managing a project or job site is a bit like conducting a symphony, with different people and teams performing many different tasks side by side. So how do you keep it all from going off the rails?

"We've worked with a lot of construction companies that are working on four-year projects," Willink noted. "And so, how do you simplify? You have to break down these components 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 other words, the approach Willink is advocating is not unlike agile or lean frameworks, which — at the risk of oversimplification — operate largely by breaking larger, complex tasks down into smaller, more manageable ones. Let's use a very Dirt World example: pouring a concrete slab. Instead of telling your team, "Your job today is to pour this slab," make it a series of steps that can be checked off one by one, like so:

  1. Build the frame
  2. Dig out the area within the frame
  3. Add gravel
  4. Mix and pour
  5. Screed
  6. Finish

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" steps.

By making each step a milestone, you're giving your teams clear, simple direction on what to do at each step, what comes next, and what needs to be finished before moving on to the next. This minimizes room for error and provides clarity at each stage.

The need for this kind of simplicity, Willink noted, becomes even more vital as tasks and projects increase in complexity.

"We work with energy companies that are building, you know, massive projects that are extremely complicated," Willink said. "Aerospace companies that are building hardware — you know technology, hardware, incredibly complex things that they're building. So what do we do with those? How do we simplify them? We have to break down the components so that the components are simplified. And then we have to show in a simple way how these components fit together."

"There are things that are inherently complicated, and then it's even more important that we simplify them."

Takeaways.

The best way to avoid confusion and errors is my breaking complex tasks or projects down to their simplest components. This makes each task manageable, measurable, and less likely to go off the rails.

The same applies to your communication style as a leader. Avoid the urge to overcomplicate your comms simply as a means of making yourself sound smarter. It doesn't work, and your message may get lost amid the jargon or unnecessary verbiage.

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