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Making Recommendations: 5+2 Principles for Effective Decision-Making Advice

When making recommendations, the Cassandra Predicament is the worst place you can be in. In Greek mythology, Cassandra was a priestess of the Greek god Apollo. While she accurately predicted fateful events, such as the fall of Troy, she was never believed. Likewise, you may have done your research, analysed the data, talked to the experts, drawn your conclusions and put your crystal ball back on the shelf.

Now it’s time to tell people what you found. It’s time to give them options for action and avoid sharing Cassandra’s fate. I’ve compiled seven principles for making recommendations to help you give the most effective decision advice. Because being right alone doesn’t guarantee that you’re being heard.

5 Ways to Frame Your Recommendations

Before we dive into the principles, it’s worth bearing in mind that your findings may seem obvious to you. However, they’re most likely a black box to your clients. After all, that’s why you were tasked to look into an issue in the first place. That said, your clients may still have preconceived notions of the results of your work and their implications.

If you’re in charge of making recommendations, there’s also a good chance that you’re not a decision-maker yourself. But that doesn’t mean you don’t have one or more preferred options based on your findings. So ultimately, the question is how you can best frame them. There are five principles you may find useful when making recommendations.

1. The Gold Standard

Our gold standard is the course of action against which all other options are measured. We can think of it as the intervention we’d pick if the problem at hand was the only one in need of solving. It’s the best option available that could reasonably work under ideal conditions. But let’s face it: When are conditions ever ideal?

In reality, we have to deal with limited resources, changing risks and other trade-offs. The Gold Standard, however, can be used to illustrate what’s hypothetically possible. It’s likely not to be selected but does represent one end of the decision continuum, thereby putting all the other options in perspective.

Think of it this way: If you’re looking to become a wine connoisseur, you may want to taste one that’s indisputably remarkable. Not to have it every day for lunch, but to get a sense of what outstanding winemaking is able to achieve.

2. The Do-Nothing Option

In my estimation, the Do-Nothing option is too often overlooked. Would I be wrong to assume you sometimes find yourself endlessly zapping through TV channels or browsing Netflix on a Sunday afternoon? Trapped in a perceived obligation to choose, you missed that one button that could solve your problem immediately. It’s usually red and somewhere at the top of your remote. That’s right, it’s the off switch.

That’s why this type of recommendation sits at the other end of the decision continuum. It’s entirely possible that the best thing to do is to do nothing. Strategic silence can buy you time to gather more information. Tactical patience can be an opportunity to observe how a situation develops further. Sometimes, no deal is better than a bad deal.

That being said, the do-nothing option is not free of risks. The potential price should be factored into the recommendation along with an indication of when doing nothing is no longer feasible. Inaction doesn’t necessarily mean that a problem should disappear from a decision maker’s radar entirely.

3. Small Decisions

It has become a truism that interventions of any kind tend to have unintended consequences. One of my favourite examples is a billboard ad I once saw in Minsk, Belarus. The government had prohibited advertising alcohol. This caused vodka companies to start producing table water, filling them in remarkably similar bottles. The billboard ad I saw was for their fresh clear water, but everyone knew what it was really promoting. The government’s policy fell largely flat.

The problem is that you rarely know what those consequences will be before you implement anything. Your Gold Standard could turn out to be a white elephant. Making small decisions instead of big ones can be a solution to this conundrum.

Elephant in the Room

The principle is to act in a small and measured way and observe. Just enough to see how the dynamic of a situation changes. Hypothetically, this can be applied to any recommendation. It may come in the form of a mere surfacing of your intentions, or a small trial of an intervention. Metaphorically speaking it’s about tipping the toe in the water to check how cold it is before throwing your whole family in. Whatever that translates to in your context.

Another way to interpret this type of option for action is to fill the gap between the two poles of the Gold Standard and the Do-Nothing option. This gap is where you’d place two to three responses that increase/decrease in their efficiency and effectiveness. It provides decision-makers with a range of ranked options.

4. Straw Man Proposal

The Straw Man Proposal is derived from the straw man argument. Strawmanning is usually understood as a fallacy that leads someone to attack a position that his or her counterpart doesn’t actually hold. When making recommendations, the straw man can be used strategically to guide decision-makers towards your preferred option.

The technique works by deliberately crafting and placing an inadequate solution in the list of recommendations. The straw man is then contrasted to the available options including the preferred one. It’s similar to an exercise of inverted thinking in that the strengths of your preferred option become apparent by highlighting the characteristics and consequences of an inferior solution.

It’s important, however, to keep the goal of the endeavour in mind and also to keep the discussion of the options as objective as possible. The Straw Man Proposal is neither intended as a destructive exercise nor is it an invitation to be manipulative.

5. Pareto Efficiency Analysis

There’s a classic line in The IT Crowd, a British sitcom about a bunch of lazy IT service staff. They’re tasked with sorting out computer problems for technologically inept colleagues. IT guy Roy tends to answer the phone with two questions: “Have you tried turning it off and on again?” and “Are you sure it’s plugged in?” The running gag is that this often solves the IT issue without even diagnosing the problem.

Essentially, this is the idea behind the Pareto Efficiency Analysis. In 1879, Italian economist Vilfredo Pareto discovered that 20% of causes/input are responsible for 80% of effects/output. Put differently, 80% of potential IT problems are solved by only 20% of potential solutions. Or: Only 20% of IT staff solve 80% of all IT problems.

How does the 80/20 rule apply to making recommendations? It can be an intuitive trap to assume that a single solution fixes a problem. Sometimes a combination of several options is the best way forward. But which ones? Using the Pareto Principle, we can assign a score to our potential options based on how effective we deem them to be. Proposals are then rank-ordered with the top 20% of solutions considered to be of the greatest benefit.

Surely, there’s no guarantee this will work. Obviously, results depend on the validity of your scoring. How far available resources stretch is another factor. But it’s certainly a better option than rolling the dice if you’re ever forced to make a choice and you lack relevant data.

2 Bonus Principles for Making Recommendations

Now, it may very well be that you still have plenty of potential options to recommend. You’ll most likely have to strike a balance. Between those that actually solve the problem and those that will be acceptable for decision-makers. Here are two bonus principles on how to identify the least risky option and on the art of persuasion

1. Irreversible and Reversible Decisions

As our first five principles imply, some options are riskier than others. In order to tell them apart, the distinction between reversible and irreversible decisions can help. It goes back to a shareholder letter written by Amazon founder Jeff Bezos. He distinguished between two types of options:

Some decisions are consequential and irreversible or nearly irreversible – one-way doors – and these decisions must be made methodically, carefully, slowly, with great deliberation and consultation. If you walk through and don’t like what you see on the other side, you can’t get back to where you were before. We can call these Type 1 decisions.

But most decisions aren’t like that – they are changeable, reversible – they’re two-way doors. If you’ve made a suboptimal Type 2 decision, you don’t have to live with the consequences for that long. You can reopen the door and go back through. Type 2 decisions can and should be made quickly by high judgment individuals or small groups.

When making recommendations it can be useful to highlight to what extent they are one-way streets or easily reversible. If your preferred one is of the second type, it could speak in its favour. Careful though, if a decision is indeed reversed later, you should have an alternative ready to go.

2. Tactical Empathy

“The most dangerous negotiation is the one you don’t know you’re in,” says former FBI hostage negotiator Chris Voss. Put bluntly, if you care about the impact of your proposals, you’re in a negotiation. According to Voss, whose book Never Split the Difference I reviewed earlier, Tactical Empathy is the foundation of persuasion.

The concept is all about getting you closer to your goal by seeing the world through your counterpart’s eyes and labelling or summarising their situation and emotions. Regardless of what you’re trying to achieve, your main aim should always be to leave the negotiation table with the relationship intact.

Granted, this works best in a face-to-face exchange, but there are some points to consider even when writing recommendations, such as:

  • Addressing the mainstream solution, the one the client will expect and recognise – even though it might not be feasible.
  • Including a new opportunity, previously unexamined dynamic or anything else you know they will find attractive.
  • Anticipating, articulating and thereby diffusing their fears and doubts in regard to your preferred option or the recommendations in general.

Even though it’s your job to tell your counterparts something, there are ways to make them feel heard. The better you can show them you see the world through their eyes, the more they will trust your judgement.

Closing Thoughts

How you make recommendations depends on your philosophy. You can be as neutral as possible, list advice and be done with it. Or you lay out the proposed courses of action more strategically. Either way, it’s important to remain transparent. Your biggest asset is your credibility. The better your personal relationship with decision-makers, the more effective the principles will be.

That probably sounds quite idealistic. In reality, you often have only bad solutions and need to pick the best bad one. Or decision-makers already made a call and your report was a mere compliance exercise. Sometimes, like the Troyans, clients are particularly advice-resistant. Perhaps that’s a sign for you to go independent and take decision-making into your own hands. You’ll need a company name, though. How does Cassandra Consulting sound?

If you’d like to dig deeper into the sources and methods of this post, I recommend Hank Prunckun’s Scientific Methods of Inquiry for Intelligence Analysis and Chris Voss’ Never Split the Difference. You’ll find those and similar books on my reading list and in my posts with books on critical thinking and intelligence analysis.