KISI is a variation on Keep It Simple, Stupid, but the I doesn’t stand for idiot (or even intelligent people, although we’ll need some of them too). It was coined in a recent chat I had with consultants who wanted my advice / trenchant opinion on the institutional arrangements for a big new carbon-related initiative to be managed by the government here. I think it is also relevant to the cook-stoves problem I discussed in my previous post.

In developing countries major new government agencies are often launched through one or more big development grants. Basically there is a big push at the start, and then things tail off quite rapidly, though the more committed donors will continue to provide some kind of capacity-building support for a while. The trouble is that this sucks as a method of systems development.

My favourite example of this kind of approach failing spectacularly is the disastrous launch of the then new London Ambulance Service Computer Aided Dispatch system in 1992 that keeled over on day one. These days IT developers are much more keen to get their new wares out to be trialled by users as soon as possible – witness all those beta apps in Google Labs. At the far end of the scale Extreme Programmers aim to produce a new version of their software every two weeks!

The key to this approach is to start off with something simple that solves just part of the problem, field test it, and then iterate based upon the test results. As you go along you can add further features based on user feedback. The system evolves as much as it is designed.

The trouble is the development sector hardly ever iterates, or at least not within the same project. So much time, money and effort is invested in the first version (often with a ridiculous number of regional consultative meetings with people who have no real idea what is being talked about) that there is no stomach either in government or donors to review and revise. Dogmatic officials will insist that this is now the policy / procedure, and hell shall freeze over before it changes (or words to that effect).

One of our achievements of which I am proudest is a method for involving fully local communities in a tricky technical assessment. I am less proud to admit that it took us three or four attempts to get it right, but very proud that we were not satisfied until we’d got a method that really worked, and which local communities could understand and participate fully in its implementation. Too many other development or conservation organisations / projects would be happy to tick the box ‘Method Developed’ at the first time of asking; the promised output was delivered, so no-one should have any complaints … except for awkward people who seem more concerned about the flaws in the final product than the effort that went into producing it.

So, in case you hadn’t guessed, KISI stands for Keep It Simple & Iterate. KISI might also help solve the cook-stoves problem; they’ve probably iterated two or three times already, now, perhaps, we just need to iterate over a few more cycles to get something that really works.


9 responses to this post.

  1. This reminds of what’s happing in the IT space, where they found many years ago that traditional waterfall project management doesn’t work too well, with total project failure rates averaging 50%.

    They have since invented techniques like Agile, and Extreme Programming, which you mention. The latter (XP) works like this:
    • collect user stories (of how the system works)
    • build a little bit
    • release it for use on a daily basis
    • continue to collect user stories

    In other words: it’s completely iterative.

    Extreme Programming:

    I’ll post a more extensive article on my blog in the next few days, and link back to here:


    • Absolutely. Iterative approaches don’t work so well when, say, building a bridge, but luckily we’ve had a few thousand years’ experience of that, so we have some well established standards and are much better able to get it right first time. However, in both IT and in development methodologies, we are essentially engineering ideas, and new ideas at that. Chances of getting it right first time are slim. And yet most development projects assume they only ever need to go through the process once. At the end of the project there may be lesson learning activities, which might help other projects later (though wide dissemination can be difficult), but the original project is usually stuck with whatever it first came up with. This is either a little bit arrogant, a little bit stupid or a little bit of both.


  2. Thanks for giving this challenge the attention it needs. Part of the problem is that we have few systems/vehicles in the sector to share information and lessons learned about what is working (and what didn’t) and tips for how to successfully iterate. Hopefully with more online tools available for sharing and collaboration we will see more of this. Here is one site a colleague and I have started. I would love to see an organization with broad reach take up the challenge of an online resource site or sites to make this kind of learning more accessible.


  3. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Linda Raftree and Bonnie Koenig, Katherine Lucey. Katherine Lucey said: RT @meowtree Why KISS should be KISI: Keep it Simple and Iterate. […]


  4. […] Tagged: adaptive management, human capital, iteration, protected areas. Leave a Comment David Week suggested KISI essentially being about Adaptive Management. To which I would agree; Adaptive Management is a […]


  5. […] Scott talks KISI about water point […]


  6. […] takes an iterative approach, making tweaks and improvements as we go along (what I term the KISI […]


  7. […] stages of project development. This is also why starting small is so important; it allows time for KISI. Alas too many people in conservation and development are often in such a rush that they want to […]


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