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Brevity: The Soul of Success

WHEN GIVING OPINIONS to senior management, some middle managers and most front-line workers tend to give advice without thinking about how to craft it so that decision-makers will be receptive to it. That can doom a good idea to oblivion.

How information is structured when presented to management is important. Whether the solution proposed is bold, obvious common sense, absolutely applicable, or brilliant and creative, managers will absorb advice better if it fits into their processing approach, builds on their intuitive skills and experience, and allows them to assimilate the information.

The keys are brevity and a structure that follows the format managers use to make their decisions. The elements of this format are: situation, analysis, goals, options, recommendations, and justifications. Omitting or skipping any step subtracts from the value of the advice given.

Brevity. Brevity is important because concentrated, well-structured information presented verbally

or in writing is powerful and more likely to be assimilated and owned by others. What’s more, being brief shows that you respect the boss’s time.

What’s the definition of brief? Believe it or not, most ideas can be clearly explained and supported with facts in three minutes. I call this the three-minute drill. If your strategic recommendations fail to fit this timed structure, go back and rethink, make repairs, and rehearse again. The drill is structured in six steps that impose a useful decision-making structure as follows.

Situation. In 60 words, you should describe the nature of the issue, problem, or situation that requires decision, action, or study. This is the factual or perceptual basis for “what we know now,” “why we need to take the boss’s time, now, to discuss this,” or “this is a new and important topic that we need to talk about now.”

Analysis and assumptions. You should, in about 60 words, describe what the situation means, its implications, and perhaps how it is a threat or represents opportunities. Include one or two key assumptions that validate your analysis. The emphasis here is to communicate why the idea matters. The executives you are trying to win over will need to know the “why,” but not in great detail. They are also interested in the intelligence you possess or have gathered that supports your analysis and assumptions.

The goal. Again, using around 60 words, you should state the objective to be accomplished and why achieving this goal is important. The purpose here is to tell the boss where the idea will take the company.

Keep in mind that goals provide focus. Useful goals are understandable, achievable, brief, positive, and time and deadline sensitive.

Options. Next, devote 150 words to laying out the options for achieving the stated goal. You should provide at least three response options to address the situation as presented and analyzed. Option one is to do nothing; option two is to do something; and option three is to do something that goes beyond the ideas in option two. Providing multiple options is what will keep you at the table and avoid the high-risk strategy of making a single recommendation, which can be torpedoed by a single question such as “how are we going to pay for this?”

Recommendation. In about 60 words, be prepared to make a specific choice among the options you presented. You will usually make your recommendation on the basis of which option will cause the fewest unintended negative consequences. This is where you earn your paycheck.

Many times I have heard advisors offer reasonable options, but when the boss ultimately asks the question—“What is the first thing I should do?” “What are the next steps?” or “Of the three recommendations, which would you choose and why?”—far too often the response from the advisor is, “I need to think about that.”

That response probably makes the boss question why the person put the issue on the table without fully thinking it through and whether the person is capable of that level of decision making. So be sure to be ready with a recommendation and supporting information every time.

Justification. Every management decision or action has intended and unintended consequences, most of which can be anticipated with a little forethought. Inadequate provision for consequences can sometimes sabotage an otherwise useful strategy. You should make sure that you have given appropriate consideration to this issue. In the final 60 words of the presentation, you should then justify the option you have chosen by reiterating that it has the fewest negative intended or unintended consequences.

Disciplining yourself to provide advice in this 450-word format, which translates to roughly three minutes, will give you a powerful tool that will get you invited back to the table. Anyone who consistently offers concise ideas for problem-solving rather than simply complaining about the status quo is extraordinarily valuable. Keep this up, and you could become the boss’s first call when it matters.

James E. Lukaszewski is chairman and president of The Lukaszewski Group in White Plains, New York. This article is excerpted from his book Why Should the Boss Listen to You? The Seven Disciplines of the Trusted Strategic Advisor. This material is used by permission of John Wiley & Sons, Inc.