How often have you read through pages and pages of a PowerPoint report to find that there are just two pages at the end featuring the conclusions and recommendations? It is a let down and it reflects badly on the authors. The reason is usually because the authors were so weary at the end of the report they had no energy left for further thought, or they simply had run out of ideas and had no understanding of how to develop conclusions and recommendations. There is no balance between a 100 page report with just a couple of pages at the end.
So, what is the best way of developing insightful conclusions and actionable recommendations?
Step 1: Consider the audience and objectives. Start by considering your audience and the aims of the report. What were you setting out to do? What hypothesis were you aiming to prove or disprove? It follows that the analysis, the conclusions and recommendations must align with the objectives. State what these are.
Step 2: Assemble your thoughts as you write. Every report will have an analysis of data and a discussion of findings. It usually isn't necessary to wait until all the analysis is complete before seeing glimmers of light as to the conclusions and recommendations. It is worth making a note of these ways forward so that they aren't lost or forgotten as the analysis continues.
Step 3: Use frameworks for structure. Sometimes there is so much data it is difficult to see the wood for the trees. Now is the time for brevity and clarity. Remember, the conclusions are not a place to rehash data that has been covered in the report, nor should new facts be introduced that haven’t previously been discussed. It is always helpful to summarise the data. It is why, frameworks are so important because they create a structure and clarity. There is always an appropriate framework for organising the data. Nearly everyone is familiar with the SWOT framework and, for good reason. It is an excellent means of classifying data according to positives and negatives and recognising those that are internal, within the company and external within the marketplace.
Step 4: Look for interrelationships. It is the interconnection of data that leads to conclusions and recommendations. In the case of the SWOT analysis, it is when we align a company's strengths with market opportunities that we recognise a course of action. Similarly, we can look at a company’s strengths and market threats, company weaknesses and market opportunities, and company weaknesses and market threats. In aligning these modules a course of action will be evident. Recommendations will become obvious.
Plotting data on an XY graph can similarly suggest actions. A customer satisfaction survey that shows a company has a strong performance on certain attributes that are important to customers, indicates these are clear strengths to build on. Equally, if the XY analysis shows certain attributes are important to customers and yet they are weaknesses of the company, these would be obvious candidates for correction.
Step 5: Make clear, actionable recommendations. It may be sufficient for the report to finish with broad recommendations. However, it would be better if it goes further and outlines who should be responsible for the action, the resources required, and a timeline. Also, there may be limitations of the research which should to be stated including any recommendations for a follow-on study.
Specific and actionable recommendations should state how they stem from the findings. Not all recommendations will have an equal weight in which case they should be ordered in priority, indicating the rationale for the order.
And finally, throughout the report and especially within the conclusions and recommendations, it is important to be clear, concise and relevant. The conclusions and recommendations are likely to be the most read part of any document and, arguably, they carry weight way beyond their number of words.