Insights

An idea to boost your critical thinking abilities

When I first joined McKinsey as a communication specialist, I was astounded at how quickly consultants came up with rigorous ways to think about new issues.

Over time I came to see how they did it and wanted to share one related strategy that will help you with your communication.

Thinking top down boosts your impact enormously while also providing a useful framework for doing justice to your analysis when communicating.

Here are three ideas to help you put that into practice:

  1. Understand what top-down thinking is about
  2. Get into the helicopter first
  3. Make like a porpoise

I'll run them through in more detail one by one.

Understand what top-down thinking is about

Top-down thinking is about identifying the things that matter most before either deciding what problem to solve or building the supporting case for your point.

In practice, it’s a bit like when you go to an experienced tailor: they don’t tally up each measurement and then look at a chart to know that you are a size 42 regular.

They take a quick look at you and have a hunch that you look like a 42 regular and then test that hypothesis by taking out their measuring tape to check that they are right.

If their measurements disprove their hunch, they adjust their thinking to conclude that perhaps you are a 40 disguised in baggy clothing.

In problem solving, this means thinking through the roadmap before digging into any particular aspect of the analysis. Consultants rely on previously used frameworks to give them ideas for identifying what that roadmap looks like. You can also do this by adopting the standard framework used in your industry or discipline and complement that by grabbing hold of the HBR guide to Key Management Models.

In communication, this works largely the same way. With experience, we can identify the communication pattern and then test it using a set of principles to check that our message and supporting points do their job. We outline both the patterns and a useful test in our short and practical book, The So What Strategy.

Top-down and bottom-up strategies complement each other but starting with the top magnifies our impact and saves us significant amounts of time.

So, let’s look at how you do that.

Get into the helicopter first

As with many things, the idea of thinking top down isn’t that hard. Doing it, however, is not as straightforward unless you have a process to follow.

Here is how I think about it when preparing a piece of communication.

When thinking through my strategy before I draft anything, I focus on absolutely nailing two things: my purpose and my audience.

This is information that doesn’t appear inside my communication, but rather shapes it.

In going through this process, I ask myself many things to confirm each element. When thinking about my audience though, there is one critical question that I always ask: What would they need to know to agree with me, or do what I need them to do?

I then brainstorm and prioritise my thoughts so that I end up with a high-level list of no more than five points that I must focus on.

I then work top down as much as possible to craft my communication, and work bottom up to test that the ideas are in the right place.

This brings me to my next point.

Make like a porpoise

Have you seen the way a porpoise bobs up and down as it swims?

This is a useful image for me when I think about how I make sure I take full advantage of both top down and bottom up thinking when I prepare my communication.

As discussed above, I first sort out my top-level messaging. Having now been helping people prepare their communication for a couple of decades, I am a bit like the tailor I mentioned earlier. I default to key storyline patterns to fast track this process.

I then iterate up and down through the hierarchy of my thinking until I am confident that all if the ideas I need to communicate have a logical place in my storyline.

This played out real time in today’s coaching session.

I worked with a team to prepare a short but contentious email outlining some changes to their priorities that partner organisations needed to know about.

We started thinking through our strategy, mapped out our high-level messaging and then as we worked our way toward the end, asked ourselves whether each point was in the right place.

To do that, we assessed the links between our ideas and the inferences we were drawing at each stage.

We checked that the introduction would draw the audience into our main point quickly, that the ideas that supported that main point are organised to be MECE (mutually exclusive and cover everything).

We also double checked that the words on the page achieved our initial purpose and addressed the concerns of the most important audience members.

The team will then communicate the message top down. They will begin with a small introduction and follow with the main idea and then the right depth of carefully mapped ideas to support that idea.

 

Davina Stanley is Managing Director of Clarity Thought Partners, and founder of The Clarity First Program. She and her business partner Gerard Castles collaborated to write the The So What Strategy which offers a simple strategy for communicating clearly as well as the seven most commonly used storyline patterns in business.