When I was at McKinsey my friends used to jab me: what is a management consultant? It’s a guy that that can tell you 100 different positions on how to have sex, but doesn’t know any women.
Sadly there’s truth to that. Yes, it usually is a guy. And yes, management consultants tend to be removed from the everyday reality of designing, making, buying, and selling.
But in McKinsey’s defense, I’ll say without hesitation they certainly know how to dissect a problem, analyze it to utter exhaustion, and drive to conclusion. It’s remarkable how good they are at this. While you’re on staff they’ll relentlessly pound such methodology into your DNA and it stays there forever. To this this day I still invoke some of the lessons I learned at “The Firm” almost instinctively. For that alone, I’m incredibly grateful.
But why am I bringing this up? Because some of these lessons are directly relevant to the daily activities of marketing types everywhere. Really, I’m not kidding. As hard to believe as that may sound, they actually do teach tricks that are applicable in the real world.
And the best part is this: you don’t have to sweat it out at McKinsey to get these morsels of goodness – you can get it all for free right here!
So here we go, how to get your very own McKinsey mojo in 7 (not so easy) steps.
1. Get the Facts, All the Facts
The first thing you learn at McKinsey is that “I think so” is grounds for termination. Instead, it’s about “fact-based analysis”. Early on, you spend your life gathering as much raw information as you possibly can about all aspects of a problem. Until you’ve mastered data collection, you’ll stay in the basement. No windows, no trace of life. It’s foundational. Facts come first and nothing gets said unless there’s data attached.
Personally I find this level of exhaustive fact gathering rather Draconian, and I’d suggest we all temper this with a heavy dose of pragmatism.
But you get the point: assemble relevant data.
2. Always be MECE
Mutually Exclusive, Collectively Exhaustive. It’s one of the pillars of consultant-speak everywhere. And an extremely valuable trick.
This is about categorizing facts, bullet points, statements and everything in between into buckets. The buckets should be as non-overlapping as possible. If you’ve got points that belong in multiple buckets, the buckets probably aren’t right so try again.
Also, when taken together the buckets should span the entire field, or topic, you’re trying to discuss. Make sure your buckets cover the landscape, else you need to look sideways for more information.
Driving toward MECE categorization helps you achieve two things. First, it forces you to be clear and crisp. Second, it brings elegance to your train of thought. Sure, it takes some discipline up-front, but it returns the favor when you’re trying to explain your points to somebody else.
3. Bring your POV
God help you if you walk into a meeting at McKinsey and don’t have your facts assembled, all nice and MECE, with your own Point of View layered on top. You’re expected to bring your POV, and again, “I think so” won’t cut it. Your POV is key to the process of hypothesis-driven discovery. In marketing, you might call these insights.
Your POV is not a restatement of the facts. Instead, it should be your stab at what the facts tell you. What conclusion do you draw from the facts? Is there anything you can infer? If you had to decide right now on a hypothesis that explains the available facts, what would that be?
And just as important: what is your POV on what needs to be explored next?
4. Test your Hypotheses
You can probably see the pattern already: get information, sort it out MECE, formulate your POV and drive to a list of hypotheses, or potential explanations. Repeat over and over.
Keeping a catalog of your current hypotheses is an interesting concept. It’s not necessarily about figuring out “the ultimate answer”, but rather being able to say “here’s my best answer based on what I know right now”.
The key is, always strive to improve your hypotheses. Test them against additional data and analysis. Discard when proven wrong, refine when you gain clearer POVs , augment with extra hypotheses if warranted.
Remember, in life and even at McKinsey, being wrong is OK – but being unfounded is not. Just keep plugging away in a fact-based, MECE, POV and hypothesis-driven manner.
5. Fit a Framework
Now let’s shift gears and think about the bigger picture. How should you approach a problem in the first place? How do you break it down into pieces you can digest?
This is where the framework comes in. It’s not just about solving the problem, but how to go about solving the problem. You can get elected partner at McKinsey if you master the framework. Those guys are amazing at it. But you can do it too.
Looking for a good bottle of wine? Apply the proverbial 2×2 matrix! Along the Y-axis, white on the bottom and red at the top. Along the X, a spectrum from bad to great tasting. Plot the wines, those in the upper-right are the ones you want!
Absurd of course, but not entirely. 2×2 or 3×3 matrices are actually very nice ways of breaking things down (although 4x4s might get you fired). Other examples of frameworks include ROI trees, value-add chains, price-value maps and even the Porter Five-Forces model.
The key point is: decide how you’ll frame up the problem before you start solving it. Look at the bigger picture and break it down into components that add up to the solution. That’s right: be MECE in your approach to problem-solving too. You need a game plan before you take the field.
6. Tell a Story
As you solve a problem, chances are there’s an audience you want to impress with your brilliant solution. How do you tell them about it? With a story!
Sounds trivial but it’s not. Just like a good book or movie with an intriguing plot, storytelling isn’t easy. There should be a compelling hook up-front that immediately captures attention. That’s followed by twists and turns, tension and release, steadily building to a crescendo. Finally an outcome that ties up loose ends – yet leaves a few dangling threads for a sequel.
Situation, conflict, resolution. With an underlying theme, or narrative, across the entire adventure.
Of course, that’s just one framework for storytelling, there are many others.
Regardless, the story is really about communication. You can be the best problem-solver in the world, but if you can’t communicate what you’re doing, how you’re doing it, and why it matters to the listener, you might as well be alone in the basement.
Tell your story, rehearse it well, and put a little of yourself into it. Like all great communication, it should include substance and even a little performance art.
7. Always Ask, What’s the So What?
I’ll even ask again: so what is the so what? This may be the single most asked question inside McKinsey at all levels. And a great notion on which to end this post.
Challenge yourself, at all times, to summarize everything you know about a particular problem to one key point of learning. “Net it out”, as we say in the software game, to one key conclusion.
But with a wrinkle: it’s not just the key conclusion you’re looking for. Push beyond that toward the key implication.
What is the call to action? How does it change behavior? What should we be doing differently? What is the meaning of life?
And that, my friends, is the ultimate so what.