Best Tool Ever … The Briefing Paper
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.
A few simple words to focus the reader and frame the issue.
Bullets to briefly summarize the important facets of the problem.
A value statement about what ideally will be accomplished.
A short summary of your best solution.
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.
What can be done in the next 24 hours to move closer to a decision without committing the organization?
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
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.
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!