Beyond the pyramid principle

In my consulting days, Barbara Minto’s (in)famous Pyramid Principle had the status of a gospel. 

Consulting boils down to two essential things: persuasion and data. And given that data often can tell multiple stories at once (or that you can simply pick the data you want), persuasion is possibly the most important skill of a consultant. 

The Pyramid Principle is all about that. Clear, structured communication, with the only goal of delivering a recommendation, proving a thesis, obtaining a (favourable) decision. 

One of the main points in the “principle” is clearly structuring your thoughts before starting to write. The reason: once you have written something you are inevitably committed to it. Improving it after the ink has hit the paper becomes almost impossible. Even if no ink, and no paper, are involved.

Compare this approach with the open ended, exploratory nature of the “essay”, a style started by Montaigne and popularised in the tech circles by Paul Graham[1]. In this type of writing, not knowing (precisely) what you are going to write about is a deliberate decision, more than a simple stylistic choice. Writing in this form “doesn’t just communicate ideas; it generates them”, or in other words “ [the] writer writes to see what happens”. 

The comparison can be stretched beyond the realm of literary forms. In a way, the two styles reflect opposite views of society. The pyramid principle, like the profession it has helped creating, is an offspring of the industrial economy. Its fundaments are clear facts (content) and clear planning (structure). It is Taylorism applied to writing. The open essay, on the other hand, is attuned with the fluid nature of today’s organisations. With a creative process that values action just as much as speculation. A process rooted on the idea that creation itself generates your thoughts. That you cannot tell where you are going before you start walking. 

Barbara Minto is right, however, when warning against the risks of getting stuck in that unplanned first version. This is even more important in the explorative writing form. Using action to generate ideas assumes the ability to throw away dead ends, to completely re-write entire sections, to let the flow dictate the topic. Explorative writing is a metaphor of our “trial and error” society, a society that forces us to embrace uncertainty and where failure is the natural flip side of innovation. Learning how to destroy our creations becomes therefore a necessary skill, a resistance to pain that we all need to cultivate [3].

And so we are back to this post. I had started off writing about small stores based on a thought I had during the weekend as I was going out to buy some shorts. As I started, the post took a completely different turn, forcing me to think again about my initial idea and broadening it up to investigate whether people would pay a premium to preserve human jobs (it not only generates ideas, but also research topics). The post is still there and will take longer to finish. But it made me think about the value of writing, and the fundamental difference between this approach and writing simply to prove a point. Without starting on the small stores I wouldn’t have thought about the Pyramid Principle and this post would not exist. 

It is a beautiful metaphor of life in the age of uncertainty, a life we all need to learn how to embrace. So, write, even if you don’t know about what. 

[1] Paul Graham: Writing, briefly

[2] William A. Covino: The Art of Wondering

[3] A great example of this is Amazon, “The best place in the world to fail”, as stated recently by Jeff Bezos. Not surprisingly, Amazon is one of the most successful company of our times.