Writing great proposals to speed up decisions

Making decisions quickly allows us to move quickly. We need to know which decisions we have to make, and have them presented for easy deciding.

I encourage people to use a common format when they want us to take action about something. These key pieces of information make it much easier to get results:

  • Problem — why do we need to take action? What’s the context for this proposal? Create a sense of urgency, but don’t get too bogged down in details
  • Solution — how do you suggest we solve this problem? What needs to change about our approach? How should we shift resources or focus?
  • Alternatives — what are the other ways that we could solve this? Ideally bullet-point list. Remember that doing nothing is a legitimate default.
  • Negative consequences — what bad things will happen as a result of doing this? Who will be upset? Customers, employees, specific individuals? What is the impact on cash?
  • Actions — if we were to do this, what are the first things we’d need to do? Who would we brief? Who takes responsibility for what?

Framing the proposal in this way avoids a number of annoying traps.

The first of these are solution-only proposals. These take the form of someone requesting resources or changes without giving an adequate explanation of why they are needed. By requiring that the problem comes first, it’s clear to everyone that there may be many ways it can be solved.

The partner of solution-only proposals are problem-only proposals. These consist of someone identifying a problem, but not putting any thought into how it can be solved. These frustrating “drive-by opinions” often leave everyone thinking “sure, I acknowlegdge that, but what can we do?”. Coming up with solutions is pretty hard, and can’t be dumped on the doorstep of others.

Many solution only proposals involve greater and greater definition of a single solution. This is basically just confirmation bias in action. Brevity is important in proposals, especially at the early stages. It’s expensive to produce long docs, and is also expensive to consume. It’s better to get a shared sense of whether an idea is worth exploring or not as quickly as possible.

Massive proposals also encourage loss aversion on behalf of the creator. This harms their ability to be objective, and makes it difficult to live by the important maxim of “strong opinions, loosely held”.

Negative consequences and alternatives are both designed place more responsibility on a proposer to question their own ideas. By doing this, they might even come up with a reason that makes the change unnecessary.

More often, the alternatives will simply provide a number of cheaper and more expensive options. This then becomes a more productive conversation at the decision-making stage.

Listing the negative consequences forces the proposer to acknowledge them properly. It’s easy to pretend that only good stuff will happen as a result of a change, but this is seldom the case. Recording these issues early means that they are properly weighted in the discussion. They’ll also be available for review further down the line.

Awareness of consequences will shape the plan of attack. Hiding them away can lead to silly slip-ups.

Finally, having actions is always helpful to maintain momentum. It’s never good to have a proposal that causes people to say “that sounds interesting, but now what?”. Providing clear and easy steps forward is the obvious solution.

These points combine to make a simple system that anyone can follow. I encourage it for anyone proposing a change. I use it for my own thoughts, even if it’s about a decision that I have the power to make myself. In this sense, it’s not just about seeking permission for action, the format is really just a great way for spitballing an idea in a known way.