When to Fight Against the One-Page Memo

Last Updated Apr 20, 2010 12:49 PM EDT

Managers have fallen in love with the one-page memo. "Charlie, give me a one-pager on how we should handle the quality problem we are having with our supplier."

You understand that the boss wants a summary of the issue, and some potential responses tagged with pros and cons.

The one-pager is truly a great format for both clarifying your own mind on what the essential business issues are, and for bringing your boss up to speed at decision time.

But it is not good for setting the groundwork in highly complex or bet-the-company situations, points out HBR.org blogger John Baldoni.

"In the effort to shrink the argument there is a tendency to reduce salient points as well as obstacles to neat bullet points. By doing so, we eliminate complexity and avoid nuance, both of which may be necessary to full understanding of the issues."
In these situations, preserve complexity by:
  • Setting the context. "Make it clear that you want your people to consider multiple variables when they research their pieces of the picture."
  • Insisting on two teams. "Ask for two separate decision-memos. One will be drafted for the argument; the other against it."
  • Forcing a debate. "Encourage them to express reservations they may have about the decision and its consequences."
Read his post, One-Page Memos, Without Reductionism.

(Memo image by typicalgenius, CC 3.0)

  • Sean Silverthorne

    Sean Silverthorne is the editor of HBS Working Knowledge, which provides a first look at the research and ideas of Harvard Business School faculty. Working Knowledge, which won a Webby award in 2007, currently records 4 million unique visitors a year. He has been with HBS since 2001.

    Silverthorne has 28 years experience in print and online journalism. Before arriving at HBS, he was a senior editor at CNET and executive editor of ZDNET News. While at At Ziff-Davis, Silverthorne also worked on the daily technology TV show The Site, and was a senior editor at PC Week Inside, which chronicled the business of the technology industry. He has held several reporting and editing roles on a variety of newspapers, and was Investor Business Daily's first journalist based in Silicon Valley.