The Art of the Brief (Part 1)

When it comes to communicating a significant idea, planning a major project or preparing to collaborate on an important task, I would recommend you take the time to prepare a Brief.

What is a Brief?

A brief is a summary of facts, findings, arguments and objectives which are prepared to give its reader or receiver a quick, overall view of an investigation, plan, situation, goal, objective, etc.

The word “brief” comes from the old French word “brevis” which means short.

For me, it most often takes the form of a one-page document. There is beauty in simplicity. Expressing yourself concisely on a single page is an art that takes practice and discipline to master.

As Leonardo da Vinci so aptly said, “Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication”.

Why is a Brief important?

We’ve often got so many ideas and impulses floating around in our heads, competing for our attention. We need a way to manage those creative aspirations to ensure the best, most relevant ones rise to the surface, at the appropriate time. This will help ensure they get the attention they deserve.

In project management, there are four stages that projects typically go through:

  1. Design
  2. Plan
  3. Build
  4. Review

However, many people find that they have more ideas than resources available. As such, I’ve found it useful to insert an additional stage into this four-step process, right up front, which I call the Brief stage:

  1. Brief
  2. Design
  3. Plan
  4. Build
  5. Review

At the Brief stage, we have not necessarily committed to take an idea, opportunity or challenge through the following four stages – we’re simply considering, incubating and testing our thinking to validate that we want to move a concept forward.

There are four fundamental purposes for preparing a brief:

  • Clarity
    There is a management maxim that says: “you can’t manage what you can’t see”. When you externalise your thinking, you can be more objective about your thinking.
  • Focus  
    Likewise, getting ideas out of your head and on to paper notionally frees up mental RAM, leaving your mind freed up to work on other things rather than burdened by having to unnecessarily remember the details of a range of things that could be managed via an external information system. Ultimately, this enhances your capacity to focus on the task at hand.
  • Engagement
    A Brief helps other people metaphorically see the world through your eyes. Promoting transparency allows other people to augment your thinking, identify risks in your blind spots, challenge your ideas and contribute resourceful suggestions about how to achieve your intended outcomes.
  • Performance
    Most ideas come with a cocktail of opportunities and obstacles. You/your team have to be resourceful about how to address the challenges you’ll face to realize the fulfilment of your envisioned outcomes. Once you have prepared a Brief at the conscious level, your sub-conscious can go to work on it.

Collectively, these four dimensions enhance the adaptability of a person, team and organisation.

How do you create a Brief?

Essentially there are two choices when it comes to creating a brief:

  1. The project owner, sponsor, leader can take the time to sit down and organise their thinking into a brief, or
  2. They can orally brief an assistant, someone that will be on the project team or a third party who can then distil the essence of the Brief down into a concise document / format. This is sometimes called a reverse brief.

The latter often happens when we brief a lawyer, accountant, graphic designer or other service provider about our requirements. They then provide a written proposal back to us that specifies the scope, time and budget dimensions of a project we are considering engaging them to deliver for us.

Who should create a Brief?

You can often speed up the process of engaging the right service provider and generating the desired outcomes by preparing a written brief for them in advance of your first meeting to discuss a potential project. A Brief forces you to articulate your intentions, organise your thinking and create some clear boundaries around the idea under consideration. If you can send that to others in advance of a meeting, it allows them to come to that meeting better prepared to potentially collaborate with you.

How can you prepare / deliver a Brief?

A brief normally takes the form of a written document, of say 1-2 pages in  length. However, with today’s technologies, a brief can also take a range of other forms:

  • A mindmap
  • An audio recording
  • A video recording
  • A spreadsheet
  • A presentation
  • A poster
  • A conversation
  • A speech
  • An agenda for a meeting
  • An index card (3″ x 5″ card)

It can also be helpful to have a dedicated home for where you store your briefs. This might be a physical folder, a folder on your file server, or an application like Evernote.

How can you use your Briefs?

When it comes to project portfolio management, there are times when we need to be able to visualise our portfolio of projects to determine:

  1. Which stage various projects are up to
  2. Which project/s to progress from incubation (stage 1. Brief) into implementation (stage 2-5 outlined above)
  3. What resources need to be redirected from one project to another

Here are a couple of suggestions on how to use the Briefs you prepared to assist with this process:

  • Line your briefs up on a table, wall or computer screen and allow yourself to sense which one/s to move forward first/next.
  • Create an index card for each brief with just the name on the front (you can add some notes or bullet points to the reverse side if you wish) and lay them out on a table or the floor. Organise them into streams, sequence them and/or place those that are parallel alongside each other.
  • Engage a coach, mentor, advisor, colleague or friend to listen as you talk through your rationale of how you have mapped the relationship between them to determine priorities.
  • Develop or update your core information architecture (C.I.A.) to help ensure you don’t suffer information overload.

Meetings and Briefs

The primary purpose of most meetings is to make important decisions. Important decisions have strategic (long-term and systemic) implications and involve the investment of limited resources (time, money and energy).  Often those decisions have to deal with which projects a team (including a Board or Committee) should prioritise over other projects.

Many people who work in the governance and management of organisations like to clearly consider and discuss project ideas before they are ready to make decisions together in meetings. Investing the time to prepare and distribute (several days or weeks in advance of a meeting) a clearly articulated Brief about a project or initiative that you’d like the group to consider and/or endorse can be very effective in persuading others about the merits of your ideas. A well organised Brief can collectively save you and others a lot of time and effort, catalyse group decision making, build confidence in the process of “making bets” and ultimately accelerate the rate of innovation / adapting within an organisation or community. Consider preparing a Brief akin to a dress rehearsal for presenting your ideas to others.

Many stakeholders don’t end up working directly on implementing a project they have been involved in approving. However, they do need to re-orient themselves periodically about the essence of a project as they receive progress reports on how the project is moving forward. A project brief provides an invaluable way for these stakeholders to re-brief and re-orient themselves to the primary intention / purpose and intended outcomes of any given project they are responsible for tracking and monitoring the progress of within a project portfolio. Likewise, as members of a team, committee or board change, Brief’s allow new arrivals to be introduced to the set of initiatives that are already actively in play, before they dive into the details of those projects.

Goal Setting and Briefs

One of the reasons many goals and aspirations don’t become a reality is that people stop short of preparing a brief. Rather than simply making a declaration or resolution, take the time to expand each of your genuine intentions into 1-2 page Briefs.

You’ll be surprised how much more you can achieve and how much easier it can be to manage success across the different domains of your life.

In terms of formats, you can use one or more of the following approaches:

  1. What, Why, Who, When, How, What Else headings, which is the same approach I’ve taken to write this article
  2. The Natural Planning Process outlined by David Allen in his book Getting Things Done
  3. Simply brainstorm an idea, get your thinking down on paper, then organise the content into meaningful headings on a project by project basis
  4. The S.P.I.N Approach (Situation, Problem, Implications, Need) outlined by Neil Rackham in his book SPIN Selling.



If you enjoyed this article you can continue reading and learning more here. In The Art of the Brief (Part 2), I introduce you to the S.P.I.N. model and how it can be adapted for use in developing effective Briefs.

If you’d like to see examples of the other approaches I outlined above; like the “What, Why, Who, When, How, What” format (one of my personal favourites), get in touch. Let’s talk about making your next project a “WOW Project” together…

P.S. WOW = walk on water


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