Top down thinking for Enterprise Architects
Blueberries have a higher proportion of antioxidants than any other food, which means they are very good for you. Unfortunately, they are rare and expensive here in the UK. To solve this dilemma, I will open a blueberry farm and grow and sell my blueberries locally. You and I will then be able to get our blueberries cheaply.

This is the opening of a top down argument. It comprises the following parts:

SituationBlueberries are packed with goodies
ComplicationThey are difficult to get hold of
QuestionSo what will I do about it?
AnswerI shall open a blueberry farm
Audience winPlentiful and cheap healthy food

I could have regaled you with the fact that blueberries are also known as bilberries or whortleberries, and that my preference is bilberries - it is what Mr Pogle (of Pogles Wood) called them. Equally, I could have regaled Samuel Longhorn Clemens fans with the fact that Blueberries are also known as Huckleberries, and that Huckleberry Finn might have been Blueberry Finn but for a twist in the spread of language. However, none of this is relevant in a top down argument, so is not there. The opening statement is brief, focused on a goal and with noise eliminated.

The situation is a statement of known facts that cannot be disputed by the audience. The complication is a problem with, or change to, the situation that presents us with an opportunity. The question is not stated in the opening gambit, it is raised silently in the mind of the audience, and usually of the form so what are we going to do about it? Once the question is framed, the answer is presented as the Governing Thought. This is your selling point, and of the form, “What I wish to convince you of is…” It is followed up with the audience win, “What you can expect out of this is …”

AudienceEnterprise Architects
SituationImpeccable communication is a part of our work
ComplicationBut we often fail to get our message across
QuestionWhat can we do to improve?
AnswerWe can structure our communications to engage and persuade our audience
Audience winWe will be more successful

It is a method of structuring spoken and written presentation to identify a goal, and to sell the goal as a worthwhile investment in the audience’s time and efforts. It is the opposite of the more natural and democratic process of grouping ideas and formulating conclusions.

Top down thinking seeks to focus on a single high-level insight, the Governing Thought. The Governing Thought, in turn, ensures the audience is positioned correctly to receive the argument, and through argument sets up an implied question and answer dialog so that no unanswered questions remain at the end, and only relevant information is presented at the right time.

Here is a top down example presented to a board concerned about the high value of support costs and poor management information compiled from disparate IT systems. As an Enterprise Architect, how would you sell the changes you are proposing?

Who could say no?

We will now investigate how to support the governing thought by a Key Line and three types of inference, namely deductive, inductive and abductive argument.

Structurally, the entire top down process may be presented as follows:

The Key line is a series of no more than five statements. Three or four is ideal; more leads to confusion as the audience struggles to build a mental model of your argument. In the key line, all objections and questions raised by the governing through are given voice, then resolved through the best argument available.

It is important that the key line is a set of mutually exclusive and collectively exhaustive (MECE) statements, with no overlap between points, and no gaps through which a counterargument may thrust.

The three types of argument


Given a rule and a case, we can deduce a result. Rule: All beans in this bag are white. Case: I have a bean from this bag. Result: This bean is white.

Deductive reasoning is the safest way to reach a conclusion.


Inductive reasoning takes a result and a case to create a rule. It argues its point on a strong likelihood rather than a deduction. The sun will rise tomorrow, just as it has risen every other day is an inductive argument.


Abductive argument takes a result and a rule to get a case. It is a weaker argument than the other two, but better than no argument at all.

If a rabbit has eaten my carrots, they will not be growing in the garden. They have gone, therefore the rabbits have them.

Top down presentations

In a top down document or slide show, the conclusion is presented as the governing thought, right at the front. This is a difficult concept for those of us weaned on introduction, method, results and conclusion from school science. You are not arguing towards a conclusion, you are presenting a course of action and supporting it with argument. Your audience knows where they are going right away.

How to build a top down document

The introduction is of the format situation, complication, question, answer and audience win. The items in the key line form the highest level headings for your document, and each subsequent layer of questions and answers forms lower levels of heading. There should be no more than three layers of questions and answers. If so, the argument will be lost because of over-complexity.

How to build a top down presentation>

A presentation, by its very nature, holds fewer words than a document. Each section of the introduction’s situation, complication etc must be a one liner. You must include further explanation in your verbal communication.

The introduction is followed by a slide showing the items of the key line. Each item is then stepped through by arguments on one slide. Each two or three point argument should be presented on a single slide.

Is TDT suitable for everything?

A narrative allows a reader to create their own mental model. This is the reason you hear “the book was much better than the film.” The film is someone else’s model and it doesn’t match the viewer’s preconception. It is this disagreement top down seeks to avoid, by creating an uncomplicated and structured mental model for the audience.

However, TDT is undemocratic. It has been used as a dictatorial management method to railroad an audience into a train of thought, with gaps in arguments carefully closed.

It will get you from A to B quicker than any other (civilized) method and can be very effective in gathering consensus for a course of action.