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The Trust-Building Memo
Jumping to conclusions is a great way to clear a cliff. Lots of processes could have fewer errors with almost just as much speed.
I require briefing memos before meeting a person I am managing or advising. I find these help make great use of the time. We both come in with the best thinking the person had before we started the meeting. Sometimes their thinking has evolved, and we get to work on the following idea beyond the memo. I love these meetings. Sometimes they are just laying out where they are stuck. Sometimes starting the note makes them realize they don't need me. They might have found their problem and have a theory for solving it. (I keep this from becoming an infinite cycle through time-boxing, but that's for another day).
The memo itself does not need to be lengthy or discursive. I require that it has four parts, each smaller than the preceding. I train a specific structure I have found to be most helpful to everyone.
The memo should answer, in order:
What did I do
What do I know
What do I think, and
What do I recommend?
What did I do? Open with activity. What steps did you take related to this issue? The purpose is to establish the validity of the data you will present in the next session. Time-boxing is helpful for storytelling. "After learning about this issue, I set aside 60 minutes to take the first pass at it. I allocated the first 30 minutes to get to a point where I could replicate. Then I investigated the error message using web searches and walking the code to see which line triggered the issue."
What do I know? Add the data you have gathered. Your opinions of what is important do not go here. However, the views of experts or articles you consulted along the way do count because you read or heard those words. This focus on facts allows you to marshal the evidence and testimony gathered as part of your activity into one place. This step can be the most useful for getting an analyst or report to reconsider their process. Should they go back to another round of data collection before requiring a meeting or making a recommendation? In a good memo, this is usually the bulkiest section.
What do I think? Now is the time for analysis. What do you think matters out of the data you have gathered? What is the root cause or the smell? You get a lot more license because you have the evidence that grounds your opinions. That said, in a good memo, this section will be much shorter than the preceding. The thinking should flow downstream from the data and the actions taken to date. Usually, a beefy "think" section by someone trained in this technique means the problem is blocking them. A lot of thoughts imply the data does not support a conclusion well.
What do I recommend? Intuitively, this is the step where we all want to start. It feels like the other three were just friction keeping us from jumping to here. But when we apply all four steps of this technique in order, the recommendation carries weight. A customer or colleague is more likely to implement this idea when it flows from activity, data, and analysis. This section is the shortest because it should be downstream of the history, data, and analysis of the previous steps. And sometimes the answer is "I don't know," and the recommendation is to get more help. The "I don't know" 4 is a pretty common reason for meetings that get on my calendar.
This 1-2-3-4 technique has become a standard operating procedure in my teams. We've even adopted the numbers as shorthand. "This is a 3-4 conversation, but we need the 1-2." "This is a 1-2 conversation today to see whether we have enough to move to a 3-4." I referred to the "4" in the previous paragraph. This shorthand keeps pushing us back to observation. That way, the conversation is grounded, and we make good decisions with efficient use of time.
In addition to decision support internally, I recommend this for customer communications. Even when the answer is obvious, putting the recommendation in context communicates respect. The customer believes that their problem is complicated. By respecting their difficulty with a clear connection between work and suggestion, we show alignment. The structure and transparency also set the stage for the day when we do not know the answer. By revealing the process to the customer, we earn trust for that inevitable day we cannot answer the question ourselves.
These four steps combine into a system that generates trust. So much of what we do requires belief in each other. Believability is our most important asset. Build more of it with a simple approach: 1-2-3-4.