Thursday, February 12, 2015

Using Inductive Thinking to Communicate Strategically

The Problem Statement

You're making a presentation before your company executives and two slides into the deck the CEO says "Can you just tell me how we're going to fix it?" The first time you encounter this you may be surprised and full of anxiety (nothing like being challenged). I'm here to tell you that if you don't prepare your presentations to cater to your audience, you've failed as a product manager. When we all start our careers in product management we are rarely afforded the opportunity to interact directly with executives (I know there are exceptions, particularly in start-ups where teams are small, but this is an exception rather than the rule). As our careers progress, we have more and more of these encounters and I'd like to introduce a concept that may be unfamiliar to many of you - or in many cases you've already figured this out but I'll formalize the concept a bit. In general the topic is about inductive thinking and applying the technique to communication, especially in presentation.

The Pyramid Principle

The interaction we have as product managers with technology teams, customers and executive management can be both a blessing and a curse. On the one hand, we are placed right in the middle of where all the action occurs, where we can have the most influence on the outcome and great visibility towards progress, sort of a 50 yard sideline view (for those of you familiar with American Football). For most who have product management roles, that provides great incentive to "get out of bed in the morning." So if you're like me and have been doing this for a while, you've already come up with some of these techniques - in particular I relate these ideas to some journalistic training I was exposed to in school called the Pyramid Principle to communicating (specifically in how to write an article for the traditional print media newspaper - I may be dating myself here). The Pyramid Principle is fairly simple and many of you may already be using it, whether you realize you are or not. Basically, you begin your writing with a very short summary of what your article is about. This is usually just a few sentences or a short paragraph. The second section expands on what you have summarized with additional, second level details - basically the "meat" of what you are trying to communicate, providing enough details that the reader can understand your opening statement (the tip of the pyramid). Finally, you provide all the details that underlie your assumptions, providing the foundation or base of the pyramid. In journalism this technique provides two functions. The first is to provide a summary for those that are just reading headlines so the largest amount of topics can be included on the front page or first few pages. If the reader is interested he'll continue reading and if it's of great interest look towards the back sections of the paper to find all the details. The second function it provides is to fulfill this mantra: "Tell the reader what you're going to tell them; tell them; then tell them what you told them." While in general that last idea is a bit different (it's very effective to reinforce teaching, but in regards to the Pyramid Principle it's not exactly the same concept) fro pyramiding, it does have a similar effect, just a different impact. Inductive thinking and communication takes the Pyramid Principle and applies it a bit differently by placing the solution first.

The Difference Between Deductive and Inductive Thinking

So how does Inductive thinking apply? Let's first go over the what most of you are already familiar with, deductive reasoning - made most famous by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's detective character Sherlock Holmes. In The Sign of the Four, Homes says "...when you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth (sic)" In deductive reasoning, you use top down logic based on premises assumed to be true to reach a logical conclusion. Doyle's detective takes this concept and uses a series of elimination steps to remove possibilities until a single conclusion emerges - the issue with this type of analysis is that sometimes you're asked to "boil the ocean" to get to an answer. With inductive reasoning just the opposite occurs. You select examples to supply evidence for your conclusion and use logic to support the answer. Deductive reasoning works best when the problem has a limited number of factors and the process of elimination leads to a definitive conclusion. Inductive reasoning works best when time is of the essence against a large number of data or factors; and you have a good understanding of a solution based on what you know to be true, using cases to support your conclusion. Sound familiar? I think deductive reasoning works very well for troubleshooting and fixing bugs, as in software development we often know the context of existing systems. Inductive reasoning resonates well when making decisions on new features, especially those that have little or no existing context (think new opportunities or "green field" development).

Applying What You've Read

So how does this apply as a strategy for communication, especially when communicating upward? You need to understand what's happening in the minds of those vaulted executives. In general, executive management is bombarded with information, often on subjects where there is little context, experience or time to invest, making it very difficult to come to a quick, reasoned decision. There's usually also a huge backlog of information and decisions needing to be made from multiple sources, vying for time and attention. Using inductive principles, you can best apply your thoughts to appeal the most efficiently to people who make decisions that are saddled with too much information. You open your communication with both a summary of the problem or opportunity, and a definitive solution. The rest of your article or messaging provides supporting arguments derived from the artifacts and any details are either pushed to the back or made available as appendices. I use the term solution with article and presentation for a reason - in general your format is as important as your message. It's my opinion that to fully illustrate a problem and solution, using diagrams or graphs of information are easier to both communicate effectively and for the reader to absorb. If you can get all this into a few PowerPoint slides, all the better, as that software has great utilities for diagramming and representing information graphically.
This technique is also sometimes called "Answer First" - instead of building to a conclusion you state the problem and solution first, then use the rest of the information to build your case(s). This all starts with a hypothesis as "the answer" and to support your decision, you should focus on two questions: What is it? (Hypothesis) and Why should you do it? (Controlling Idea/Answer) To make sense of this you start with a controlling ideal like "The hiring of FTEs should be increased in 2015 to execute the new service level strategy worth $300M in cost savings." You then apply a controlling structure in everything you communicate to reinforce your supporting ideas, justify your decisions and get buy-in to what you are asking to be done. An effective structure involves two aspects and two key benefits:
  1. Arranges ideas into distinct, logical groups so it's easier for the reader/viewer to absorb and remember the information
  2. Putts emphasis on the supporting logic so the reader/viewer arrives at the conclusion you intend.
  3. Serves as a roadmap for analysis to help you drive toward a finished product
  4. Enables syndication of the story prior to analysis to allow you to get that coveted "buy-in" so you can make changes easily - the fail early and often scenario.
You'll notice that you can apply this structure to everything you do, from analysis, to presentations, to business cases to messaging.

So what are the pitfalls of this approach?

  1. It's still very possible for the problem and solution to be confused and/or challenged if it's over-simplified.
  2. Sometimes it's better to develop a more deductive approach rather than an inductive one, depending on the audience.
  3. Inductive reasoning itself can be flawed - by myopically selecting only those cases that support the argument it's easy to disregard competing cases which can lead to a poor outcome.
  4. PowerPoint (slide) format is great for communicating small amounts of information but you don't want to fall into the habit of 100+ slide decks - you're basically ensuring that most of the information won't be read. A general rule-of-thumb is that if the information is to be presented live, try to keep the ideas within the first 20 slides or so. If there's special emphasis on the data and means to a conclusion, it's probably more appropriate to use a different format.
  5. Decks are no substitution for actual conversation. Think if your presentation first as a means of conveying ideas (diagrams and charts), second as a pre-presentation resource (it's great when those you're presenting to have good, relevant questions) and finally as a leave-behind (your executives will want to cross reference your information in the future).
In any case, I hope that I've provided something for you to think about.
And now for some disclaimers. This article merges some of my experiences with some ideas garnered from training I was exposed to several years ago. I tried to keep most of the terms used fairly generic and broad of scope as I don't want to infringe on anyone's IP. I'm also not sure who derived the training so if there is an attribute please let me know - the diagrams and images used are my own.