the pyramid principle part two: logic in thinking book review

This review is the second of a four-part series on Barabara Minto’s 2010 version of The Pyramid Principle.  This book is one of the seminal texts in the consulting world and is increasingly popular in the broader business world 

My goal in writing these reviews is to make the ideas and suggestions practical and to help people apply these skills.  

If you’d like to go to the previous section you can find the following links to each:

  1. Logic In Writing
  2. Logic In Thinking
  3. Logic in Problem-Solving
  4. Logic In Presentation

In my opinion, this part is not as epic as part I, which stands on its own in a remarkable way. The best parts in this section are the ones that go deeper on what makes a strong takeaway or insight and also a little more nuance around how to order ideas.  I did not cover everything in this section (especially, “State The Effect of Actions”) but have covered the items I think are most useful for business thinking and communication.

Two Major Flaws: Lists and Labels

In the first part of this book summary, we explored how to define the issue you are working on, ask a question that can be answered and start to identify the “key ideas” as Minto calls them.

In the second part of the book, she takes us deeper into thinking about the quality of the “key ideas” and suggests that people often make two common mistakes.

First is that people default to lists. She argues that lists are fine as a “rough approximation” but the flaw in using a list is that the items are often not linked by any internal logic. For example, the items on a list of “ten problems” are only connected by being problems and not any higher-level insight. And this tendency, to give a list a generic label like “ten problems” is the second mistake.  Minto calls this kind of label an “intellectual blank assertion.”   Minto pushes us to go beyond the list and to “make sure that the ideas in each grouping actually possess an intrinsic logic, and then explicitly to state the insight that that logical relationship implies.“

All of this feels obvious but isn’t. Over and over again in my coaching work, I am surprised at how little time is spent on actually processing information and thinking about how other people might interpret certain information. This is why simple rules like the “rule of three” can be so powerful. It’s a nudge to go beyond sharing a bunch of information and thinking about what you are really trying to say.

Minto says this is hard work but ultimate a valuable use of time:

Looking critically at groupings of ideas requires hard work-indeed it is the essence of the thinking process-which is no doubt why it is so often ignored. But ignoring it means that you never quite say what you mean to your reader and worse you never quite grasp the essence of your own thinking.

Logical Order

In the next section, Minto discusses three main ways of imposing what she calls “logical order” on a set of ideas. She argues that a lot of information lacks logical structure but when it is present, it will be the result of organizing information in three ways:

  1. Determining the causes of an effect (example: hypotheses to solve a problem)
  2. Dividing a whole into parts (example: services of a consulting group)
  3. Classifying like things together (example: types of food you are getting at a supermarket)

While these can be used in combination, Minto argues that at least one needs to be used if you are trying to communicate effectively. Without one of these, you have more work to do. 

Layered on top of these three approaches, you can also impose logical order in three ways: time order, structural order, and degree order. Let’s take them one by one.

Time order: A common example of this in the business world is thinking in terms of the phases of a project. By dividing things into “phase one” and “phase two” you are implying that phase two is dependent on phase one and thus, comes after.  By moving up one level of abstraction you can avoid a list of actions that may actually be dependent on each other or occurring at the same time.  

Another example of time-based logic could be a list of arguments that if told in a different order may no longer make the same point.  For example, you might say something like the sales team had 20% of the team leave last year and this drove a reduction in sales of 20% this year. You could say these in the opposite order but it would have a different effect than telling them in the order they occurred. 

Structural Order: This is a way of giving order to things that already have some sort of categorical structure. For example, financial reporting within a company is often segmented in various ways: by business unit, product line, and by region.  While these may be arbitrary, they probably make sense in the organization’s context because that is how people are staffed.

Another way of applying structure is through frameworks. For example, let’s say you are assessing a business. You might create a simple framework looking at things from a high-level: strategy, finance, operations, and talent. You could even create a simple diagram to make this clearer and add detail at the lower level:

structural order the pyramid principle

Degree-Ordered: Minto argues that when we think about the most important things, “it is here that the  tendency to list rather than to think becomes most acute.” So when ranking things, it is likely a good excuse to group and sort them by importance.

For example, you may have a list of fifteen possible initiatives but then when you rank them on a two-axis chart ranking financial impact and ease of implementation, you end up with only three important initiatives:

degree ordered pyramid principle

You might then present these three as the important next steps in a project. But in reality, you are saying that these three are more important than all the other potential next steps. 

Avoid “Intellectually Blank Assertions”

One of the most important parts of organizing information is developing a clear summary or insight that describes the group.  From the first part of the book, you will remember Minto’s second rule of the pyramid structure: “ideas at any level in the pyramid must always be summaries of the ideas grouped below them.”

Minto argues that until you have a summarized takeaway, you have not completed the thinking.

“Most writers simply group ideas, without completing the thinking. As we have seen, the tendency is to tie together ideas that have a general rather than a specific relationship, so that the ideas don’t truly go together and therefore can’t be summarized”

Many people fall into the trap of what she calls “intellectually blank assertions.”  Some examples she offers:

  • The company should have three objectives
  • There are two problems in the organization
  • We recommend five changes

These don’t say anything and as Minto warns, “they are deadly for both the reader and the writer.” 

To make this more concrete, imagine you are making a pitch to your manager.  You want them to buy in to your analysis of the department. You’ve determined there are three main issues.  You can start off your explanation in one of two ways:

  • Summary #1: “We are facing three problems”
  • Summary #2: “The main problems we are facing are all related to profitability”

Minto calls the first a case of incomplete thinking. The second example is an improvement. You are giving meaning to a number of data points and telling your audience what is notable or important. Another thing that makes the second case powerful is that it inspires thinking in your audience. Immediately your manager will be thinking about profitability and assessing the additional information you offer through that frame.

To avoid intellectually blank assertions your summaries should either tell you the effect of carrying out specific actions or it should explain the importance of the underlying information. 

Three Steps To “Complete” Your Thinking

The main idea to take away in this second part is that most ideas you see in the business world are not “complete.”  In the final chapter in this section, Minto offers a three-step process to know when you have completed your thinking. 

Step 1: Begin the “thinking process” –  create a simple listing of points that may be worth thinking about.

Step 2: Prove that these points actually do belong together by identifying the common link that justifies separating them from 

Step 3: Spell out the wider significance of the existence of that connection link – that is to create a new idea

She argues, and I agree, that the latter two steps are quite rare. Most of what you see in the business world is random, unstructured information that is not organized in any meaningful way. 

In the end, she offers a vital question you can use to reflect on groups of information:

Why have I brought together these particular ideas and no others?

She says the answer should be one of the following two answers:

#1 They all possess a characteristic in common, and are the only ideas linked in this way. (In which case your summary point will be an insight gleaned front having contemplated the significance of the similarity. )

#2 They are all of the actions that must be taken together to achieve a desired effect. (In which case the summary point states the direct effect of taking the actions.)

And why does this matter?

lf you force yourself to justify each grouping of ideas in this way, the thinking you communicate to your reader will be totally clear, and will more likely than not convey insights that you did not know you had before you sat down to ·write. 

This is really the process of thinking and what I talk about in creating space for thinking, or as I call it Think Before You PowerPoint!

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