It’s great to generate innovative ideas but if you can’t get your recommendation approved, the idea isn’t worth the paper it’s written on. The Structured Thought Process can help you crystallize your ideas in a clear and compelling way.
The following is an excerpt from my upcoming book The Elegant Pitch: Create a Compelling Recommendation, Build Broad Support, and Get it Approved (CLICK HERE to pre-order your copy).
Too Much Analysis with Too Little Message
Before you learn a new way to think, it’s helpful to understand the current approach for generating recommendations. Once you see how the current process falls short, the new process I’m advocating will make more sense in terms of the rationale for why the steps are sequenced the way they are. Most people I work with on building this skill approach their work in what seems to be a logical way. When they’re asked to make a recommendation, they typically follow this approach:
Step 1: Gather large amounts of data and do a lot of analysis.
Step 2: Look for insights emerging from said analysis.
Step 3: Assemble all the analysis into a comprehensive document to demonstrate the depth and rigor of the work they’ve performed.
Step 4: Share a 30 to 60 page document in a two hour long meeting thinking they’ll impress their audience with the depths of their insights.
Unfortunately Step 5 consists of the audience being frustrated and confused to the point that they don’t approve the recommendation. Instead they request a follow-up meeting to review the idea again. The worst part is, the person making the recommendation goes into Round 2 with even more data than the first time around. They do so under the mistaken assumption that their idea wasn’t approved because they didn’t have enough factual support for it.
The real reason it wasn’t approved was because the audience didn’t understand what the recommendation was in the first place. There was no clear narrative to guide them from their current understanding of the situation to a place where the recommendation made sense. They were overwhelmed by analyses that didn’t present a coherent story they could digest in a matter of minutes. This dynamic is bad enough at the management level of organizations. The situation gets exponentially worse at executive levels. There’s a reason communicating at senior levels is difficult. I call it “Figliuolo’s Law” which states:
An individual’s annual compensation is inversely proportional to the number of slides they can look at before they have a stroke.
The more senior an individual is, the less time they have for detailed explanations of ideas. They want the top level answer. They trust your competence and that of your manager. That’s why they hired you in the first place. They also know if they have questions on a particular point, you’ll be able to walk them through the detail. What they’re looking for when you make a recommendation to them is a narrative that quickly tells them what the recommendation is, why it makes sense, and what you need from them to make it happen. Long presentations frustrate them. I worked with one CEO who used to say “If it has a staple in it, I won’t read it.” You had to get your message across to him on a single page no matter how big the recommendation was!
The common practice of going from data to analysis to presentation is broken. It’s a lengthy and inefficient process because most of the analysis will never see the light of day. It’s wasted effort. When your meetings don’t go well because you tried to cram 40 pages of content into a 30 minute meeting, you’ve wasted everyone’s time – not only in that meeting but also because of the one you’ve created to reconvene and discuss the idea again. Yay! Another meeting! People who continue to use this approach lose credibility. They’re perceived as lacking “executive presence” because they ramble aimlessly through their analyses. Their results suffer because they never get their ideas approved in the first place. This madness has to stop.
The Structured Thought Process
I’m going to ask you to do something completely backward. The Structured Thought Process begins with the answer then works to prove or disprove it. The sequence of steps in the process is deliberate. Don’t jump ahead or do the steps out of order – you’ll cause issues for yourself if you do. The process is as follows:
Define the Question – You have to understand what the problem is before you can solve it. This is where you get clarity from your requestor as to what the issue is and why they want it solved.
Create a “Core Idea” – The Core Idea is your primary recommendation. It spells out the action you want to take as well as the rationale for doing so. It’s a hypothesis as to what the recommendation could be combined with a reason for pursuing it. That reason must be something of value to your audience.
Build the “Architecture” – The Architecture is the logic of your argument. It’s how you’re going to arrange your facts and analyses to support your Core Idea.
Create the “Story” – The Story is your simple narrative that helps your audience arrive at your conclusion. It’s derived directly from your Architecture.
Discuss and Refine the “Story” – This is where you begin involving other people and getting their feedback on your idea. Notice you’re involving others well before you expend a great deal of effort on conducting analysis.
Select Core Facts and Analyses – This isn’t about having all the facts. It’s about having the right facts. The facts and analyses you choose to do will be gathered to support your Architecture.
Prove or Disprove the Hypothesis – The analysis you do perform is done with the purpose of proving or disproving your hypothesis. This focus on required analysis is what makes the method efficient.
Finalize the Communication – Whether you’re creating a presentation, a memo, an email, or any other document, you won’t assemble it until the final stages of the process. Fortunately by the time you reach this step, your entire document is already written. This step is simply an exercise in assembly.
Share the Idea – Ultimately you need to share your idea with your stakeholders. Understanding their preferences for how they like to receive information will go a long way toward generating a successful communication.
The Structured Thought Process will make your life easier. It’s an efficient way to gather facts because it will guide you to the facts you need and help you avoid wasting time on analyzing those you don’t. You’ll spend less time on rework because you’re syndicating your idea at multiple points in the process. This syndication keeps you from wasted efforts like answering the wrong question or not knowing about major obstacles to your recommendation until you present at the “final” steering committee meeting. The process will help you kill off low-value ideas and focus on meaningful ones instead. Your communications will be crisper, clearer, and more compelling. This will reduce decision making time and ultimately increase your odds of getting your idea approved.
I’ve been teaching folks this method for years as part of our Structured Thought & Communications Course (contact me and we can discuss the program). I’m finally putting pen to paper to make it available as a book. The Elegant Pitch: Create a Compelling Recommendation, Build Broad Support, and Get it Approved will be published this August and it’s on presale now. I hope you’ll take a moment to pre-order your copy of The Elegant Pitch. One note on Amazon pre-orders – Amazon has a “pre-order price guarantee.” You’ll be charged the LOWEST price between the time you pre-order and the release. They tend to offer 25-45% discounts during that period so pre-order now and take advantage of getting that lowest price. I look forward to your reactions to the book when it comes out. Thanks in advance for your support.
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