The Advantages of One-Page Memos (HBR)

Give it to me as a one-page memo!

Many managers have received this directive from their bosses when preparing to present an idea. Ronald Reagan was famous for asking for one-page summaries and today many executives follow that example. It is good practice because it challenges the petitioner to reduce his idea to its barest essentials as a means of ensuring understanding as well as developing a platform for advocacy. This methodology is something that I have coached executives to ask for as well as to develop for themselves.

While it is good practice, it does have a serious drawback: In the effort to shrink the argument there is a tendency to reduce salient points as well as obstacles to neat bullet points. By doing so, we eliminate complexity and avoid nuance, both of which may be necessary to full understanding of the issues.

Let’s say two competitors form a strategic alliance to develop and market a new product. This occurs routinely in the pharmaceutical industry. On the surface it may look good because two companies can pool brainpower and resources and improve efficiency. However, a look beneath the surface we may uncover other issues related to customer satisfaction, vendor issues, employee collaboration, other competitors and perhaps regulatory issues. None of these issues by themselves, or even taken together, are enough to kill the alliance, but it is easy to see that reducing discussion of such an alliance to bullet points could be flawed because the context behind each point may be overlooked.

Striving for clarity in a summary memo is essential, but managers need to ensure that they are hearing the whole story. So when issues are significant enough to affect the outcome of the enterprise, you must take steps to take to ensure that the decision-maker receives a full picture rather than a side view.

Set the context. Make it known that you want your team to consider the big picture. Talk about the environment in which you operate and the competition you face. Make it clear that you want your people to consider multiple variables when they research their pieces of the picture. Stress that you do not want opinion; you want facts that support as well as disprove your argument.

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First posted on on 4/06/2010