Clausewitz, “On War”, Book 4: keep it simple stupid

I’ve got no idea who coined the phrase “keep it simple stupid” (KISS). If anyone can enlighten me, go right ahead. Reading book 4 of On War, which deals with battle, it’s clear that in this respect, as in others, Clausewitz was well ahead of his time. In chapter 3, Clausewitz emphasizes the need for simplicity in planning and execution:

“rather than try to outbid the enemy with complicated schemes, one should, on the contrary, try to outdo him in simplicity”.

Clausewitz’s reasoning is clear. In war, planning and executing a complex attack takes time (and, incidentally, increases the opportunities for friction). You run the risk that the enemy will act quicker than you, using a simpler attack to seize the advantage and wreck your grand designs…

“an active, courageous, and resolute adversary will not leave us time for long-range intricate schemes….this is proof enough of the superiority of the simple and direct over the complex.”

Critics might argue that this is a recipe for disaster, that it led to World War One frontal attacks against entrenched machine guns and artillery. (Didn’t British theorist Basil Liddell Hart slam Clausewitz in part on these grounds?) In fact, the bloodbaths on the western front bear out the wisdom of Clausewitz’s remarks, as each offensive was meticulously orchestrated over many months, with intentions telegraphed well in advance to the defenders.

What I take from Clausewitz is that if you want to defeat a thinking opponent, you can’t hang about – you have to act quickly and decisively even when the circumstances are less than ideal. Think simplicity, speed and shock.

This approach doesn’t just apply to war. We can all think of sports teams that beat their more fancied rivals, because they played it smart, simple and “up the middle”. Or businesses which made a killing because they got an inferior product to market faster than their competitors, who were still farting about with their fancy-pants design.