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Hierarchy of Advice

As an architect over the years I have given a lot of advice, some of it even asked for :) Over time, my choice of words when providing advice has evolved into a very precise hierarchy.

Hierarchy of Advice

Random Thought

At this lowest level this is not advice but merely thoughts that are thrown out with very little, if any, evaluation of whether there is any merit to them. Brainstorming is the perfect time to throw out random thoughts, since by design the objective is to be creative rather than critical. I sometimes relay a random thought to raise a point that is radical given the organizational context in order to cause some cognitive dissonance and stimulate thinking.


Ideas have some merit to them, at least theoretically, but have not been evaluated as to whether they would indeed be advantageous and worth pursuing.

I find it interesting that ideas are so low on the hierarchy - they really are not that useful in their raw form. This runs counter to common perception that ideas are valuable. In reality, it is the analysis of ideas that converts them to higher levels of advice which adds value, and this analysis typically needs to be grounded in the organizational context and awareness of the other options ('ideas') that are also applicable.

Good Idea

Good ideas have a lot of merit to them that are generally useful in a broad set of contexts, but have still not been evaluated. Often what people call best practices fall into this category because they blindly tout the practice without analyzing its applicability.


A suggestion is what I consider the first level of real advice. I have evaluated the benefits and believe acting on the suggestion will have a positive outcome. Unlike the higher levels, however, I am not confident of a large return on investment. Compared to other competing options I see only a slight advantage.


A recommendation has a clearly positive outcome that I am confident is superior to competing alternatives, and that I have determined has a good return on investment compared to other ideas. Doing the analysis to justify making a recommendation is not always easy: I have written previously about the difficulty of making a good recommendation.

Highly Recommend

I highly recommend something when it has a clearly superior return on investment and is one of the best options compared to other ideas. Since I seldom like to be completely dogmatic, I sometimes use the phrase "highly recommend" to describe something that I feel should absolutely, positively be done.


The underlying message behind this hierarchy of advice is that good advice is so much more than just touting so-called "best practices" - it is grounded in deep thinking: brainstorming options, understanding the organizational context, evaluating return on investment, and prioritizing.

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