Briefing Papers: Best decision making tool ever

Best Tool Ever … The Briefing Paper

$100M Wonder:

I first learned about briefing papers at an AASA conference 40 years ago.  The presenter, Bill Banach, claimed they were worth a million dollars.  Since then I have proven them effective with $8M, $35M and $100M projects. No, they don’t manufacture money, but they come close.


Briefing papers are meant to be … Brief … ideally ONE PAGE. They summarize:  Topic, Background, Goal, Proposal A and B, Pros and Cons for each proposal, and action steps.

  • Topic:

    A few simple words to focus the reader and frame the issue.

  • Background:

    Bullets to briefly summarize the important facets of the problem.

  • Goal:

    A value statement about what ideally will be accomplished.

  • Proposal A:

    A short summary of your best solution.

  • Proposal B:

    A short summary of your best “Plan B.”

  • Pros and Cons for each of the proposals.

    Honestly and neutrally stated.  If you can’t think of any cons, think time and money, the two universal objections.
    Note: Every proposal has cons; winning proposals have solutions for each obstacle.

  • Action Steps:

    What can be done in the next 24 hours to move closer to a decision without committing the organization?

Park Benches:

I can still remember the story told to introduce the briefing paper:

  • Topic: Caring for Park Benches in Michigan
  • Background: Weather is hard on park benches in Michigan
    • Tourism is important and we want park benches to look nice
    • Park benches typically have been brown, green or varnished
    • Keeping three different paints and brushes is difficult
    • Park bench repair is often delayed when adequate materials are lacking
  • Goal: Beautiful park benches to promote tourism
  • Option A: Pick one color and buy paint by the tank car.
    • Pros: Less expense (in bulk); less time on maintenance; less delay in refurbishing
    • Cons: Cost of a tank car of paint; however, we will save on quantity discounts
  • Option B: Continue with three color options as we do now
    • Pros: It is easy and we are used to it.
    • Cons: Delays in maintenance; more expensive in the long run
  • Action Step(s): Call to get prices on a tank car of paint and check back with you

Working Documents:

The briefing paper is no magic potion.  It is a tool that engages our best thinking.  When you don’t know what else to do, it helps clarify thoughts and issues as you get them down on paper.  And it is a great, iterative, problem solving tool.  Give it your best shot, write “draft” on it, and start circulating it.  Capture the best thinking – in the words of the participants.  Quite often a new – third way or middle option – will emerge as the best solution.  Letting people see the sausage being made engages best thinking and builds consensus.

Big Examples:

Back to those $8M, $36M, and $100M successes:

  • $8M: Classified employee support workers rallied around equitable pay raises and succeeded in getting a state-wide fix.
  • $36M: State budget reductions triggered unintentional reductions in local tax rates; briefing papers helped point the way to a solution that saved school budgets from double jeopardy.
  • $100M: Angst about lower math scores statewide was transformed into a state-wide solution – providing professional development for math teachers.

A Better Way of Thinking:

The briefing paper helps us bring our best thinking to issues large and small each and every day.  The briefing paper may be the most lasting legacy that I leave in every place I have worked.  It simply becomes common practice. When there is a problem, you are expected to come prepared with a briefing paper.  Discussions are far more focused, productive and collaborative.

Briefing papers … save time, save money, build consensus and improve outcomes.  Give it try!

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Larry Nyland – Leadership Coach and Consultant.
Seattle Schools superintendent 2014-2018

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