The Pyramid Principle – Barbara Minto

Will B

The “Pyramid Principle” is a McKinsey problem-structuring tool. Barbara Minto first popularised it in her book and it has since come into common usage by consultants around the world. It is used for communicating in a fast, direct and efficient manner. Believe it or not, Barbara Minto also invented MECE!

“By deliberately forcing yourself to think first and write later in the manner it suggests, you should be able quite dramatically (a) to cut down the time you normally need to product a final draft, (b) to increase its clarify, and (c) to decrease its length.”

Barbara Minto

The Pyramid Principle is something that most consultants do without knowing it. It means separating your answer into branches or buckets. It also means leading with a single “answer”, or the culmination of your other sub-buckets.

“Good ideas ought not to be dressed up in bad prose.”

Barbara Minto

Top Down

Firstly, the Pyramid Principle requires a top-down approach. This means that when presenting a solution or simply answering a person-to-person question, your first line should directly answer it.

  • This generates a sense of conviction. When asked by a client “what should we do?” a McKinsey consultant has a fast answer.
  • It contextualises your evidence. Rather than starting with your supporting backstory, like you might in an essay, start with your answer so that a client can see how you got there, rather than the other way around.
  • Big picture. This is how CEOs think. Starting with your answer is equivalent to starting at the top and then zooming in to different elements of the problem. This is the nature of running a company.
Barbara Minto

Your argument

This is where the notorious consulting “buckets” come in. After you have stated an overall thesis, it is important to subdivide this into compartmentalised reasoning.

“Ideas in writing should always form a pyramid under a single thought.”

Barbara Minto

If it is a market entry problem to which you have recommended an acquisition, these buckets might be “cost of starting from scratch”, “competition” and the “tech, personnel, legal, taxation advantages of a merger”.

Where possible, use three buckets. When thinking of how to makes these divisions, Minto suggests doing it “Deductively, chronologically, structurally or comparatively.” These are useful guidelines, but it is also acceptable to just make similar decisions as you would during a case study. If possible, structurally is always the best.

If for no other reason, Barbara Minto’s way of doing things, simply matches how the human brain works.

“All mental processes apparently utilize this grouping and summarizing process, so that the information in a person’s mind might be thought of as being organized into one giant conglomeration of related pyramids.”

It makes sense to present information in the same way. As you get older and more senior, you tend to spend more time writing. Whether that be in propositions, reports or emails, get stuck into the Pyramid Principle and it will definitely be of use at some point.

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