Thinking and running have something in common. Anyone can run, but if you want to be a racing champion, you need to learn the right techniques for running faster. Similarly, anyone can think, but if you want to think smarter than anyone else, you need to acquire the right techniques.
In 1963, Barbara Minto was one of the first women to earn her MBA from Harvard Business School. After becoming McKinsey & Company’s first-ever female consultant, she was sent to McKinsey’s London office in the late 1960s. Her job was to travel around Europe training McKinsey’s non-native English speakers to deliver clear presentations in English.
In the course of her work, Minto made an interesting discovery: it wasn’t the English language that was giving the consultants problems with their presentations, but a lack of logic in their thinking. Her solution to this problem was to create the famous Minto Pyramid Principle as a practical thought-organization tool.
She publicized her insights in The Pyramid Principle: Logic in Writing and Thinking. This book is so impressive that we had it translated it into Japanese at GLOBIS in the 1990s. Much to Minto’s astonishment, sales in Japan at one time accounted for half of the book’s worldwide sales!
The ability to think logically, clearly, and critically is a crucial business skill. That’s why we introduced Critical Thinking as a class early on, in 1996—years ahead of most other MBA schools. It remains one of our most popular core courses. Faculty members tell me that the discussion skills of students who have taken the Critical Thinking class are noticeably transformed. The students become more constructive, more concise, and more methodical.
The pyramid structure is one of the methodologies that we teach in Critical Thinking.
Perhaps the most distinctive thing about the pyramid structure is that the conclusion is presented first, supported by a second layer of key messages (reasons), which can in turn be supported by a third layer of evidence (data or facts). Ironically, this back-to-front approach guarantees maximum clarity of message. Key messages give your argument greater solidity and balance.
So how does the pyramid structure work in practice?
Imagine you want to ask your boss for a raise. Casually saying, “Hey, I’m a nice guy, so I deserve more money,” probably won’t get you very far. You need to build a structured argument by asking yourself why you deserve that raise.
Start with the conclusion, or the tip of the pyramid.
Here’s a possible conclusion you could start with at the top of your pyramid structure:
“I deserve a raise because I add value to the company and directly contribute to improved business performance.”
Once you’ve got your conclusion, add the key messages, taking care to ask yourself “So what?” with each, so that you can justify them when challenged.
1. I’ve brought in more clients.
So what? → By bringing in more clients, I’ve boosted overall company revenue.
2. I’m a team builder.
So what? → The fact that I’ve hired and trained a new team shows I can create an environment that’s aligned with the company’s vision and mission.
3. I’ve upgraded my skill set.
So what? → Upgraded skills mean I can do more faster and deliver higher quality work more efficiently.
So your pyramid-structure request for a raise would look like this:
The great thing about fitting your thoughts into the pyramid structure is that you can present your argument to fit any time frame. If you have thirty seconds, give your boss the elevator pitch: the conclusion only. If you have five minutes, give your boss the conclusion, plus the three reasons. If your boss asks “So what?” then you can go on to support your three reasons with factual data.
Once you have internalized this way of thinking through the pyramid structure, your thoughts will automatically structure themselves into the optimum format for maximum accessibility, adaptability, and impact.
The pyramid structure is a fantastic tool. It empowers you to say precisely what you need to say in the manner best suited to the time available.