Submitted by malekz on
One of the great benefits this web site provides members is the short articles M&M include in their newsletters. I recently read with great interest their article titled “Reporting” in newsletter March 2, 2011. M&M correctly pinpoint a problem that many written reports seem “off,” but they could not initially figure out the problem.
Then they found out the problem was that the manager’s reports were designed to report on what happened and add, “Reports aren’t supposed to just announce what already happened. They’re supposed to support making decisions about the future.”
This is where I think some clarification will be necessary because many people fall into the all too frequent confusion between the two genres of “Reporting” and “Proposing.” By “proposing” here I mean it can be a request from your boss for an “internal proposal” on how to solve a particular problem. The source of confusion is several linguistic subtleties in writing and persuading:
The language tense of a report is in the past while that of a proposal is in the future. When I say, “I propose X,” it means I have not done any work yet, and I do not know the answer to your question yet. The structure of persuasive writing in this case is that of “how?” (See, The Pyramid Principle: Logic in Writing, Thinking and Problem Solving by Barbara Pinto in Book Reviews on this web site)
On the other hand, when I say “I recommend X,” it means I have already done work on your question and now I am reporting it, even proposing that you should choose option X. The language tense is in the past and the persuasive structure is that of “Why?” (See: The Pyramid Principle) notwithstanding that it supports a future decision.
The reason many “Reports” seem off is because they do not use the logical and persuasive structure of “Why?” But rather they use slots such as “Findings,” “Conclusions,” and “Benefits,” forcing readers to figure out on their own the reasons and connections among data dumps in Findings with various Conclusions and Benefits.
Mixing “proposals” with “reports” is all too common and a main cause of many writings to seem “off.”
Gramatically correct, but
While this post may seem accurate, I think it will confuse more people than it helps. I had no thought at all in my head about proposals when I wrote it.
The point my recent note made was that some reports are ONLY catalogs of what has happened in the past. In other words, there is no thought put into the idea of "why does knowing the past help us now?" Or, "Because I know this about yesterday, how will my decision making about tomorrow be different?"
Thinking about reports as a help to future decisions rather than as simply historical records often causes to report different things, or to highlight different things, or structure a report to make conclusions - as opposed to data gathering - easier.
Grammatically Correct, and Structurally Correct Too
Let’s put the issue of writing a “proposal” aside.
In order for a report to help a future decision effectively, it should be in the form of a recommendation: “I recommend X.” The structure of the report follows the “Why?” structure (The Pyramid Principle by Minto). In other words, it takes the structure of:
I recommend X ->
Why? -> Because … (Reason 1)
Why? -> Because … (Reason 2)
Why? -> Because … (Reason 3)
Compare this tight and efficient structure to another report that first begins with dumping data in “Findings” slot in the first few paragraphs or pages, then moves onto “Conclusions” and “Benefits” slots in which the author attempts to tie up data in Findings with Conclusions and Benefits, hoping to lead the reader to the final conclusion that deciding in favor of option X is the best.
The Why-structure is a tight “Bottom Line- Up Front” way of reporting that would not seem “off.”
No, not really
I disagree with your recommendation. It won't work for the majority of managers. It disagree that "[i]n order for a report to help a future decision effectively, it should be in the form of a recommendation: “I recommend X.” "
Most bosses of a manager producing a report would not want the reports they read to start off with a recommendation. That said, before we submit a report, we ought to ask ourselves, is this report structured in a way that will help us make decisions? I don't think I have to have a report in the form of an actual recommendation in order for me to make a decision effectively.
It boils down to organization culture and management style
This is going to be my last contribution on this topic; I am eager to read any input others may have.
As the original post suggested a recommendation is the answer to the question your boss has asked you, "How do we solve this problem?" You have worked on it and now you are reporting with your solution recommendation. I can imagine other situations in which you end up reporting something to your boss without being asked a question first, But why just report a problem or a situation without recommending a solution or a position to it as well? Asking yourself if your report is structured such that it will help the decision making is the least you can do.
I can also imagine situations where by not giving a specific recommendation, politically you have not committed yourself or even your boss to that specific solution where you can wait to see where the consensus is or which way the wind is blowing. Your recommendation won't get rejected and you save face. I guess it all boils down to organization culture and management style.