The phrase “keep it simple, stupid” is believed to be coined by one of the lead engineers at Lockheed Skunk Works, Kelly Johnson. This was a company behind a number of famous aircraft designs used by the air forces of several countries.
Kelly is said to have told designers that whatever they made had to be something that could be repaired by a man in a field with some basic training and tools (Lockheed’s products were designed for warzones). If their products weren’t simple and easy to understand (and fix) – they would quickly become obsolete.
The principle of keeping it simple has been adopted by a variety of different companies, educators and managers in many different professions all over the world – including yours truly.
There is so much to be gained by keeping it simple. A good example is from Virgin Orbit’s LauncherOne: we aren't seeking to build the world's fastest rocket, nor the biggest rocket, nor the strongest. Instead, we're aiming to build the world's most affordable, flexible, and reliable rocket. Simplicity is a great way to build something that works well without costing too much. It is, of course, still a rocket - but by the standards of rockets, the design of LauncherOne is about as simple as it gets.
Virgin Orbit rocket
At The Spaceship Company, fewer parts make assembly simpler by eliminating it. To build the next two SpaceShipTwos, the team used a modular build to reduce part count. For example, three major parts had been separately built and assembled for VSS Unity’s lower nose structure. Those three parts are now made in one shot on the same tool, reducing assembly time. Building the spaceship as modules (such as the cabin — which Professor Brian Cox and I worked on, well, moved!) also improves schedules and design and focuses build scope.
Keeping it simple is also a great help when it comes to communication. I am dyslexic and find it much easier to digest information in clear, concise chunks. As Einstein said, if you can't explain it simply, you don't understand it well enough. It often baffles me how much people waffle before getting to the point.
This also relates to pitching ideas. I recently met with a group of Irish entrepreneurs that were customers of Virgin Media Business while I was in Dublin. One asked me what my best advice for getting their idea listened to, and I told them to keep it simple.
If you can’t sum it up in two or three sentences, you’ve probably lost my attention. I’ve had people pitch me ideas all over the world in weird and wonderful places. I was in Cape Town and was asked if I fancied doing the Cape Argus bike ride – a gruelling challenge as I hadn’t ridden a bike in quite a while. T eday before, I was riding a new modern bike, sweating and trying how to work out how to use the gears, while people were riding up alongside me trying to pitch ideas.
The key is being concise and knowing what makes you stand out.