Building a recommendation culture: How to write a P&G reco

How to Succeed in Business Without Really TryingOne of the greatest gifts that management can give to a team is the gift of consistency — the team needs to know what you want to see, and how you want to see it.

P&G has mastered this principle, and used it to become the largest packaged goods company and the largest advertiser in the world. I spent the first decade of my career at P&G, and it had a huge impact on the way I think and the way I approach marketing problems. The funny thing about P&G is that everyone starts there out of school, so at the time you assume that all companies must operate this way … it’s only once you enter the real world that you realize only P&G operates this way. They once did a survey of folks who’d left P&G one year later, and 90% of those who’d left wished they hadn’t…

So, people often wonder “How Does the P&G Mind Work?” Here are some good guiding principles of what’s going on in the heads of all of us who were indoctrinated early in our careers:


  1. Purpose: What do you want me to do? Input, approve, help, support, approve in principle, and align?
  2. Business impact: How will it help the business? (Volume & profit, saving or simplifying a process. Sometimes cancellation of a project or delaying it for more important priorities)
  3. State the idea: What is the idea, simply?
  4. Basis: Why is it good? (No more than 3 reasons). The more data based you are, the better. Also, you can support the idea with learning from other Countries or even competition.
  5. What are the other alternatives? What are the other options considered, pros, cons and cost comparison?
  6. Check Vs. policy / strategy: Is the idea consistent with company policy, strategy, priorities and your 3 focus areas?

At P&G, all decisions are made around the thinking structure of a “recommendation”. These recommendations are generated by the operational level of the organization, and then the “reco” is passed up the management ladder for additional input and perspective from increasingly senior managers, with final approval at the appropriate level of seniority.

The purpose of the recommendation “thinking style” is to accelerate empowerment and ownership in an organization. Importantly, this is not a “form” … it’s a way of thinking. Sometimes, people get caught up in the format – the real issue is to get employees to assess organizational decisions within the framework of “is it on strategy, is it likely to work, and will it save us money/make us money”.

This is a super empowering way to work. Everyone is expected to have a POV, and if your POV is correct — no matter how junior you are — your proposal will carry the day. It’s an incredibly democratizing and powerful way to run a large organization, and is much stronger than the typical approach where employees bubble up “options” from which a manager must choose.

However, it does expose weak thinking, since your logic and your ideas need to stand on their own, in prose. I once re-wrote a recommendation 27 times … it was super precise by that point in its evolution. At the time we all grumbled about re-writes, but I now understand that it was all in the service of making me a better thinker.

The advantages of this system are three-fold:

  1. Training: Employees are trained from day one to *make decisions*, not “provide options”. Since today’s new hire is tomorrow’s VP, it is important to start the process of training good decision making from the beginning;
  2. Ownership: Although the recommendation may go through many phases as each management layer reviews the proposal, the recommendation is always *owned by the originator* — which is a great way to empower and motivate the operational level of the organization (versus the typical “I guess I’ll just wait to let them tell me what to do…”); and
  3. Control: Because there is a well-defined process for approval, the senior management level of the organization can be comfortable that they are seeing all decisions, and that these decisions are being presented to them in a common way – which makes it easy to assess the recommendation and provide added value.

The core of the recommendation is the “Why” … and it always boils down to three questions:

  1. Is it on strategy? (If no, we shouldn’t do it. If yes – how does it reinforce our organizational goals);
  2. Is it proven? (Most ideas have a provenance – provide it to help management understand why you think this will work); and
  3. Is it cost effective? (will this help us be more efficient, more profitable, more effective as an enterprise…)

In business it is our job to drive *rapid and effective decision making*. Therefore we have to make it our mantra to provide clarity, simplicity, and guidance for the organization. A thought–through recommendation means you have distilled the issue at hand into a concise, crystal-clear point-of-view and action plan that can be quickly digested by management, aka the “elevator pitch”. Of course this can and will be fleshed out upon further discussion.

Now, I may not agree with the recommendation. Or, you may not have all the data yet (so it’s a provisional recommendation). But, I *do* want you to  have a recommendation of what you think we should do – and it is from that firm base of options that we can then work together to solve the issue. I’d rather you have a recommendation with which I disagree, than to have no recommendation at all.

The other point of a recommendation culture is that there is also a logical review chain. As opposed to the common gang tackle approach, where senior folks frequently override their reports (the dreaded HiPPO phenomenon — Highest Paid Person’s Opinion), a recommendation culture drive a recommendation process that looks like this:

David writes reco >> Grad add cover note and sends to >> Amy adds cover note and sends to >> Peter (unless it can be approved by Amy) >> and so on…

In business, writing with a stream of consciousness approach is a detriment to productivity and clarity. While writing a perfectly distilled recommendation can appear daunting, there’s nothing wrong with a stream of consciousness on your FIRST DRAFT, (also known as the “vomit draft”). The secret to good writing is in the edit. Here’s a great quote on the importance of editing:

The work was like peeling an onion. The outer skin came off with difficulty… but in no time you’d be down to its innards, tears streaming from your eyes as more and more beautiful reductions became possible. ~Edward Blishen

The best rule I have ever used is: “Write your paragraph. Then, take the last sentence, and make it your first”. The principle here is that in business writing, and especially with recommendations, always *give the end of the story first*. Essentially, give me the conclusion and then tell me how you got there. (“We need to leave the building now! Why? Because it is on fire and the smoke and heat will eventually kill us. You can tell me the long involved story of how the fire started once we’re safely outside…”)

Finally, the recommendation process also applies to e-mails. Don’t send me e-mails with an attachment and a message which reads “FYI”. Always tell me *Why* I should read the attachment, and *Which Conclusions* I should draw from what you are showing me – guide my thinking. I won’t read attachments and attempt to glean the purpose for which you sent them to me … but I will read attachments that support a point you have made in your e-mail cover letter.

What I have outlined below is the *written structure* of how I want you to give me a recommendation, but when I have a discussion with you, I would expect your *verbal structure* to adhere to the same principles.

This is specifically how I would like you to structure your recommendations:

To: Me
From: You
Subject: Be descriptive. Don’t write “NYPH” … instead say something like “Recommendation to move NYPH to Premier Support in Q3 FY15”. Cue the reader to what they are about to assess.

1 or 2 sentences only describing the general issue and lay of the land.

What you want the reader to agree to do / approve / pass along to the SLT for approval. Be *specific* and *clear*.


1.       On strategy: Every recommendation we make should be on strategy – think about how what you are recommending supports our divisional objectives.

2.       Proven: Most things have been done before, successfully. Provide evidence of why you think this recommendation is a good idea … where have we proven that this is the correct approach?

3.       Cost efficient: How does this recommendation improve our financial performance as a company? Specificity and accuracy is critical in this paragraph.

Assuming approval of the recommendation, what would happen next? What processes does “approval” kick into motion?

“Your approval, please.” A nice polite way to say “Say *yes*”