How do you know if you are thinking clearly? Write it down. Any gaps in your thinking will become visible. And the writing will also advance your thinking. The Pyramid Principle is a framework for clear thinking and writing.
Barbara Minto developed the Pyramid Principle while working at McKinsey. She then started her own company teaching the principle. You can read more about it in her book ‘The Pyramid Principle’.
What it is all about
A comprehensible (business) communication consists of two parts: an introduction that leads to a question and an answer that is structured like a pyramid.
The introduction motivates the communication. Its aim is to get the recipient into a state that he is ready to listen to your answer. So for sure, the recipient needs to know the question. But where does the question come from? In the introduction, you also explain the situation and the complication. The situation is the common ground everybody can agree to. It gets everybody on the same page. So far, so good. The complication introduces a change. Something happened. New information, a need to act, or a problem. In any case, this complication then leads to the question that you want to answer. A good introduction with situation, complication, and question ideally moves the recipient through three reactions: (1) nodding – ok, agreed, that’s clear; (2) paying attention – ah, that’s interesting, a twist and different turn; (3) being curious – so what (next)?
You can vary the order of the three elements and get a different tone of the introduction. (S)ituation-(C)omplication-(Q)uestion is considered, Q-S-C is direct, and C-S-Q is concerned.
The answer part, well, gives the answer to the question asked. It should be as convincing as possible. Adhering to the Pyramid Principle makes your argument more powerful. You start with one and only one main statement at the top. Make it abstract enough such that it covers all your other necessary thoughts. The next layer than has to support the main argument. In other words, if you buy into the second layer, your main statement will follow and be accepted. This logic is replicated for any element in your pyramid until an element stands for itself and doesn’t need any further clarification. There are a few rules that apply to constructing such a pyramid:
- To support the point above, elements below answer the (implicit) questions HOW or WHY.
- The elements have the same logic and are inductive or deductive by nature. Inductive elements are types of action ideas (e.g. steps, changes, or recommendations) or types of situation ideas (e.g. reasons, problems, benefits, proofs). If the line of elements form a deductive reasoning, they consist of a situation, a second idea as a comment, and as a third point the implication that leads to element above. For example, the statement ‘Sokrates will die sometime’ can be backed by the deductive argument: (1) men are mortal, (2) Sokrates is a men, (3) therefore Socrates is mortal.
- Inductive elements should be MECE, that is mutually exclusive, collectively exhaustive. As an example: claiming that you either win or loose a soccer game is not exhaustive – you can also tie. Claiming that you either not loose or not win is not mutually exlusive – the tie is mentioned twice. The claim that a soccer result is win, loss, or tie is MECE.
- It is preferable to have an inductive layer after the main statement. This exposes the main findings very early in your communication.
Why I find it valuable
Clear thinking is hard work. It needs a lot of practice. The Pyramid Principle clarifies the underlying structure of any sound reasoning. It helps me to reflect and find the loopholes in my reasoning.
It focuses the work on the substance in order to get my ideas across. No time is wasted by understanding the structure or relation of different arguments.
One caveat: while the Pyramid Principle covers a lot of ground, there are situations that are not MECE, that cannot be but into a hierarchical structure. In complex systems you’ll find feedback loops that are incompatible to true causal relationships. In other situations, you’ll only have statistical reasoning. So it could be that some of your elements in your Pyramid are of those two types that have to be explained or argued differently (i.e. with system dynamic diagrams and statistical distributions).
Relevance for product management
Product management is a lot about creating a shared understanding: what is the main problem we are solving? How should we prioritize the backlog and why? What is our roadmap going to be? What is the data telling me? These kind of questions need a lot of thinking. In my experience, people in digital product management tend to write too little. And an opportunity for rigorous thinking is missed.
In addition, the Pyramid Principle helps you to understand what you know and what you don’t know. Good hypothesis for testing can be derived from applying the Pyramid Principle.
Caution: don’t fall in love with a framework. They support, not replace thinking. Frameworks always have a point of view on reality. There are other views as well. Stop using a framework if it doesn’t help to create insights.