How to Transform Management Consulting with One Simple Change

By: Ryan Stelzer

McKinsey’s leadership is suffering from self-delusion, or so stated last month’s Schumpeter column — a regular feature of The Economist covering business, finance, and management. The firm’s partners are “in a clueless mess” wrote the authors, and to make matters worse, “they don’t get that they don’t get it.”

Reading the words “they don’t get it” in the context of management consulting immediately brought to mind the experience of those who apply for jobs at the major consulting houses.

Entry into an elite consulting firm requires the successful completion of a case interview. To prepare for this rite of passage, firms suggest that applicants purchase popular case prep textbooks. The contents of each book include tricks for doing math with large numbers, suggested attire for interviews, and even a list of likely questions candidates will hear. The bulk of the content is indeed helpful for gaining admission to a firm, but not always helpful for solving the legitimate challenges faced by the firm’s clients.

When confronted with a question for which the consultant does not have an answer, one such book suggests that candidates fabricate an answer; it plainly suggests they lie. Even though they may be unsure of the truth, it is far better for a consultant — according to the book — to remain confident yet wrong, rather than stumble in front of a client. The consultant must tell the client what to do because, after all, that’s precisely what consultants are paid to do.

The ongoing debacle amongst McKinsey’s senior leadership may simply be rooted in this philosophical lapse. How can pretending to know the answer be better than pursuing the truth?

Therefore, to save management consulting — from itself — firms must shift away from the role of “tellers” and into the role of “thinkers.”

By teller, I do not mean the person standing behind the bank counter processing your deposit. Instead, I mean somebody who tells you what to do, a director of sorts. Consulting companies are really good at telling people what to do. It’s how they make their money.

And there will always be an appetite for this directorial role. Certain corporate exercises, like rebuilding IT infrastructure, are highly procedural. Consulting companies have a tremendous array of procedural experts who can direct the X’s and O’s of these tactical engagements, and they are likely to remain as huge profit centers for the firms. Rightfully so. But companies turn to management consultants for non-procedural engagements as well, and the problems facing McKinsey’s senior leadership are equally non-procedural.

“When hiring a management consulting firm, clients do not know what they are getting in advance, because they are looking for knowledge that they themselves lack,” said the late Clayton Christensen, a former professor at Harvard Business School. To put it more bluntly, consultants, in the eyes of the business world, have answers.

In many cases, organizations turn to management consultants almost saying to themselves “they [the consultants] will know how to get us out of this mess.” But getting out of a mess, or exploring whether to launch a new product, or contemplating a new strategic direction — these are largely problem-solving exercises. And problem-solving exercises require a different approach than the procedural playbook fancifully displayed on PowerPoint slides across corporate boardrooms by consulting giants.

To better understand the difference between a teller and a thinker, consider the following scenario: you are contemplating a breakup with your partner. So, to get some guidance, you call two friends.

The first friend you call immediately goes into teller mode. They tell you how to break up with your partner, when to breakup, what emotional needs you should be considering, and even how to sweep your feelings under the rug if you decide to stay. In other words, this directorial first friend inundates you with breakup best practice.

Now, you call a second friend. But, instead of reciting what they learned from a relationship expert, they jump into active inquiry mode and say something like the following: “This must be so unbelievably hard for you. It sounds like you’ve understandably had a lot of sleepless nights these past few weeks. I wonder, what’s brought on some of these feelings lately?”

This is a drastically different approach, but one that is highly effective at solving non-procedural problems. Your second friend isn’t telling you what to do. Instead, they are thinking through the problem with you by posing open-ended questions — questions that do not have simple “yes” or “no” answers and that are a staple of the Think Talk Create methodology.

An oft quoted founding principle of western philosophy is the Socratic notion that the wisest people are those who admit they know nothing. Now, we can’t expect a high-powered consultant to barge into their client’s office, throw their feet up on the desk and loudly proclaim “I know nothing!” That wouldn’t be very good for business.

But that’s not exactly what Socrates meant, and the quote is often misunderstood. What Socrates is reported to have said is something closer to, “I am wise because I do not pretend to know that which I do not.” This stands in stark contrast to the lessons conveyed by the consulting interview case prep book. It instructed applicants to pretend if they did not know, and even double-down if they assumed they were wrong.

With complex problem-solving exercises, especially those that grapple with the complexity of human decision-making or cultural appetites of the future, knowing the right answer is impossible. What matters more is the approach one takes when solving the problem.

The case prep book encouraged applicants to pretend they knew even when they did not because, to the author, it displayed confidence and strength — popular traits in any professional environment. But, in actuality, it takes far greater confidence and strength to not pretend that you know something when you do not, and instead embark on an intellectual journey to uncover the truth. That, by definition, is a thinker.

Consulting firms will have to increasingly address non-procedural questions. In other words, they will increasingly have to put the bullhorn down and put their thinking caps on. McKinsey itself has reported that as work becomes more and more automated in the future, the tasks that will remain are those that “involve managing and developing people or that apply expertise to decision making, planning, or creative work.” The tasks that will remain call for thinkers because these tasks are fundamentally human.

Consulting firms will need to be thinkers, not tellers, for the myriad of organizations that approach them in the future with problems that are human in nature. And if they are going to be thinkers for external engagements, it would be in their best interest to think internally as well.

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Co-authored by David Brendel and Ryan Stelzer, Think Talk Create: Building Workplaces Fit for Humans will be published by the Hachette Book Group under the PublicAffairs imprint on September 21, 2021.

Now available for pre-order!

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