Friday, March 9, 2007

The K.I.S.S. principle and the stickiness of ideas

K.I.S.S. - Keep It Simple Stupid

Long an acronym in corporate circles, the so-called KISS principle means exactly what it says. It is something uneducated execs say to their techies (or Economists) all the time, keep it simple, meaning relate it to something I can understand. I run into this challenge all the time in my day job. I am busy explaining why this metric I developed is the best thing since sliced bread, and I get a blank stare from my boss (not an economist). I get frustrated and remember back to my grad school days of tutoring and nurturing young minds in the basics of economics, and inevitably drift back to my first econ class in college (micro 1A). In that class, we learned the basics of utility (or as later professor termed, it "happiness") through the idea of binge drinking (something most college students understand rather well).

In pitching an idea, I have learned to stay away from the exciting technical aspects involved with data collection, etc (ed. Yeah... like watching paint dry exciting) and paint with a broad brush the idea and its outcomes. Big surprise... this works much better.

I think in the same vein, whether it be business, economics, real estate, or whatever, the ability to convey precise information in a concise manner is all important. This readily explains the appeal of socialist economics, and protectionism. Environmentalists are also notorious for this tactic. (watch Al Gore's movie, or the "Save the Whales" campaign, acid rain, the anti-ddt campaign). Socialism as an idea is so appealing because it is utopian and easy to understand. Socialism also takes advantage of an innate trait of humanity to be slightly risk-averse. The answer is why worry, it will be taken care of. The stark reality of socialism is a painted writ-large across Eastern Europe, Russia, China, etc. That message, and view countered the simplistic idea of security, equality and prosperity for all.

Environmentalists are often wrong, but they have been so successful in propagating their message because they have been experts at finding the right way to deliver their message. For instance, DDT, the bane of malarial mosquitoes was banned because Rachel Carson, wrote a book called "Silent Spring." It was a title, and a subject everyone could relate to. They took this simple message, and caused a stir, and got ddt banned. The ultimate consequence is being born by millions of dead Africans over the last 30 years, and not to mention that her ideas were wrong on a scientific level. The usefulness of DDT was hard to explain in the face of silent spring. The environmentalists were able to portray a complicated idea in a simple manner and create stickiness.

Stickiness becomes important, because it take a proposition, and is able to communicate that proposition on a simple level that the intended audience is able to relate to. Talking about deadweight losses due to tariffs or trade barriers is hard when it is compared to the image of a 50-year old steel worker, head in his hands, talking about his mill won't be able to operate anymore because his plant was outsourced. The unemployed steel worker was sticky. The idea that free trade isn't always a good thing becomes sticky. I am not sure what the solution is, but economists, especially free-traders need to do a better job of winning the idea war against the easy path of statism. Don Boudreaux over at Cafe Hayek, does a great job again of arguing for the free market and in this respect uses the unfortunate example of Walter Reed Hospital in this post.

When it comes to business, you should be able to state your reason for business as a KISS principle. Why are you in business? Why do we (as a company) need to do your project?

Remember, kisses are sticky (consequence of nature), and your ideas should be too. So next time, when you are pitching a project, talking economics at the proverbial cocktail party, explaining to your client why this building is so great, think of kisses, and then talk.

No comments: