Effective Recommendations are the Key to Business Decision-Making
Note: this is a sample reading from my upcoming book, due out early 2022. Get on my book waiting list for exclusive news, goodies, and details!
Here’s a bold statement: Action should be the primary reason the data presentation exists. The actions we bring to our stakeholders come in the form of recommendations, and they are the key to moving the business forward based on the area you're charged with measuring.
Which, if you remember, is what your stakeholder is silently asking for.
In Nancy Duarte's DataStory, an essential library addition, Duarte explains the imperative of mastering the art of recommendation: “When you use your data to provide timely and critical guidance to decision-makers, you change organizational outcomes. You become the mentor, and your data is the magical tool that gets them unstuck on their journey. Giving others data in the nick of time brings greater success in reaching a desired goal.”
I find that presentation recommendations are often vague, uninspiring, unrelated, and at times, crammed into the back of the deck as an afterthought. In making and reviewing countless recommendations over my 12 years as an analyst and seven years as a trainer, I've crafted a set of criteria that ensure a recommendation's survival past the end of the workday.
These five magic criteria have positioned my recommendations for successful adoption and completion with even the toughest stakeholders. You may recognize them as a popular framework for professional and career goal-setting. Hint: they can make you and your recommendations sound a whole lot SMART-er.
That's right, I've adapted Peter Drucker's SMART goal system (often used for employee performance evaluation). Here's how they break down:
S for Specific: The recommendation outlines a clear course of action.
Make it abundantly clear what you think the team should do. I've found that the clearer the path to completing the recommendation, the more likely it will get completed. Some of the recommendations I've come across in client presentations are phrased like “complete migration of accounts,” “lower ad spend,” and “improve conversion.”
These are fine places to start, but how are you going to do these things? What's the first next step that needs to happen? Make it Windex clear.
The classic recommendation standby of “we'll continue to monitor performance” also falls squarely into the valley of vague. Continuing to monitor performance is not a strategic recommendation; that is our job as stewards of data. Our vigilance is a given, so choose directives that lean toward what's beyond our daily tasks.
I'll show you a few examples and build upon them using the criteria in turn:
- “Decrease ad spend on ABC website”
- “Conduct five new subject line tests”
- “Create five new FAQ articles on account management issues”
Notice the specificity of the tasks suggested, as well as how each recommendation begins. Each of these starts with an action verb, which creates clarity around what exactly is to be done. Below is a table of suitable action verbs with which to begin your recommendation (inspired by collections from Nancy Duarte’s Data Story and Cole Nussbaumer Knaflic’s stellar Storytelling with Data):
Now, while I hope you shoot for the moon at work and in life, I also advise grounding your suggestions in the reality of your organizational or client constraints.
If you suggest that the VP of Marketing approve of a new email software vendor migration within three weeks when your vendor approval process spans three months, then there's a good chance it won't happen. Be specific about what you're asking everyone to do and the first next steps.
M for Measurable: The recommendation's impact can be feasibly measured and is motivating toward action as a result.
I theorize that many recommendations are too “soft” or fail to galvanize an audience because they aren't clearly measurable. It's essential to communicate the “why” behind the recommendation, gather consensus on what you are measuring, and how it will translate to success.
I'm not talking about “vanity metrics” like website visits and time spent on site. The usefulness of those metrics have been long called into question as possibly feeding an emotional need for significance (more on what that means exactly in Act IV).
Measurable recommendations inherently make clear the impact they will have on the project or business. Here's how we'd build upon our previous examples:
- “Decrease ad spend on ABC website + to lower Cost per Conversion“
- “Conduct five new subject line tests + to increase Email Open Rate“
- “Create five new FAQ articles on account management issues + to reduce customer service inquiries” (secondary success measure = Pageviews of articles)
When you assign measurement as a concrete way to revisit a recommendation, your audience will understand its impact and feel more confident executing it. And honestly, who wants to act on a suggestion with low impact or low measurability? In this age of extreme busyness, does anyone have time for that?
A recommendation's measurability is a good indicator that it meets the Specific criteria above, killing the first two birds with the second stone.
A for Assigned: A person or team is accountable for task completion
Guess what happens to a recommendation given the green light during a meeting (yay!) but not assigned to anyone (doh!) The answer is: typically, nothing. Until someone invents a magical “Recommendation-ator” machine, a person or group of people must be tasked with execution.
That may look like:
- “Decrease ad spend on ABC website + to lower Cost per Conversion + Assigned to: Digital Ad Team“
- “Conduct five new subject line tests + to increase Email Open Rate + Assigned to Ellen on Email Team“
- “Create five new FAQ articles on account management issues + to reduce customer service inquiries” (secondary success measure = Pageviews of articles) + Assigned to Customer Content Team
With this, no one will exchange awkward glances at the next meeting when the VP asks whether the recommendation was executed. I'm not suggesting that you assign all of your recommendations to people before going into the meeting. That's because some of them may not get the green light, and that call may not be yours to make. I'm also not suggesting you order your CMO to complete a task in public. (Awkward!)
What I am saying is that if a recommendation is accepted, it should have an owner by the time you all leave the room. Stewarding that process puts you in a position of power and influence, which is a good thing.
This is where a senior advocate can be helpful as a resource for pushing assignments through bureaucratic red tape. Your stakeholders include peers whose jobs may be made more complicated or task list longer because of your recommendation, and they may resist. We'll discuss the benefit of having a senior advocate in your corner in a later chapter.[LSP1]
R for Relevant: The recommendation is tied directly to an insight in the presentation
More often than I'd like, I'll watch a presenter make a recommendation that completely catches me off guard. That's because I can't figure out why they're recommending it. Then I realize it's because the recommendation had nothing to do with any of the insights presented.
This habit of sliding a recommendation “under the conference table” is a tricky play because it can confuse the audience. While I appreciate the effort to use the floor available to cross off any niggling to-do list items, it isn't the time or place if they're not directly related to the presentation objective and throughline.
Make sure any recommendation you make directly references an insight you've already shared.
T for Time-bound: The recommendation is assigned a reasonable deadline
Remember that funny thing that happens to an action that isn't assigned to anyone? The same funny thing happens when the action isn't given a deadline or time frame.
Deadlines help prevent what I call “hangnail” recommendations. These are direct symptoms of the FYI culture and glaringly persist on every readout, but no one does anything about them so they never go away. The key is to make the deadline achievable with enough room so there's no cutting it close to major marketing events. Deadlines are critical for meeting seasonal or holiday objectives, such as launching Fall Fashion creative on time for Fashion Week.
Here's how we round out our recommendations with time:
- “Decrease ad spend on ABC website + by August 31st + to lower Cost per Conversion. + Assigned to: Digital Ad Team”
- “Conduct five new subject line tests + within next ten weeks + to increase Email Open Rate. + Assigned to Ellen on Email Team”
- “Create five new FAQ articles on account management issues + by end of Q4 + to reduce customer service inquiries” (secondary success measure = Pageviews of articles) + Assigned to Customer Content Team
A truly SMART recommendation will read like this: “Decrease ad spend on ABC website by August 31st to lower our Cost per Conversion. Assigned to: Digital Ad Team.”
Damn… that's a mighty fine recommendation right there!
When you compare the recommendations above to our earlier example of “complete account migration”, do you see how much more motivated a stakeholder may be to act upon it?
Where did recommendations go so wrong?
As with all of the other habits called out by this book, the best way to effect this habit change is to examine how we got here. The “we will continue to monitor” maxim was once my dearest friend and is now my greatest foe.
Stating the obvious didn't add any value to the presentation. I'm now aware that I used this in lieu of something more specific because, well, there just wasn't anything notable or groundbreaking to report out.
Repetitive and murky recommendations are, in my opinion, a direct symptom of the FYI meeting (or Fake Your Insights, as I call it). I believe the more organizations examine their codependency upon these, the more fresh insights will emerge for every future readout.
Which would feed directly into superbly crafted recommendations with a fighting chance at becoming a reality.
A data nerd can dream, no?
- Recommendations are the fuel for business progress and demonstration your value beyond being just a “number cruncher”.
- Crafting your recommendations using the SMART criteria will give them the best chance at earning the green light.
Run your recommendations past these five SMART criteria: