One of the fundamental shifts needed when you first start working in a consulting firm is to move away from the expectation that you will be told what to do and towards a mindset of learning the “how.” By the how we are talking about the structured problem-solving process which this site covers in detail.

The reason this mindset is so hard to adopt is that most of us spent more than a decade in a school system where we were continuously told the requirements of an assignment and praised on our ability to meet those specifications rather than on our mastery of the process of research, writing and synthesis.

Man teaching a class

If you were told that you needed to write a 6-page paper on Benjamin Franklin and then discovered in your research that the real story was Franklin’s relationship with his brother in Boston, you might risk getting a bad grade in the paper. So what you do is stay in your lane and write a rather generic paper about Franklin based on what everyone else wrote about him.

The secret here is that the teacher who is grading the paper is desperately hoping someone breaks the rules so she has a unique paper to read (or at least I would if I were teaching!). However, it rarely happens in most schools because of the fact that homework is treated as a single iteration event: do the assignment and then get a grade. Since most students write their papers at home, the teacher is stuck with judging the finished product rather than coaching and praising them along the way approach.

The nature of consulting enables focus on the process

In consulting, the nature of small teams, constant iteration, and culture of feedback enables a shift towards focusing on the process instead of the output. At its best, consulting can be critical thinking-as-a-service.

In one of my first jobs out of college I was working at GE and my job was similar to being in school. I was given five or six tasks and reports I was responsible for, taught how to do them and then told to keep doing it like that over and over.

“Training” really just meant that I needed to learn how to follow the rules, just like school.

When I first got a job at McKinsey & Company, I discovered a completely different approach to working, thinking, and creating.

The first week of training, we spent time learning the process of how to solve problems in the form of a mock case. We got constant feedback on our approach and process, not on the output.

The output didn’t matter (yet, at least). If we learned the process, the output would eventually take care of itself.

Shifting from solutions to problem solving

Consulting is about starting with problems instead of solutions

Next time you are having a discussion with someone about a problem our world faces, notice how quickly the person jumps to offering solutions.

“We need to raise taxes on the rich”

“We need to move to a single payer healthcare system”

“We just need to pass a basic income”

“We need to eliminate regulations”

In consulting training, we were taught to avoid this. The first step, instead, is to start with a rigorous identification of the problem.

Are we even solving the right problem?

Take the US Healthcare system. People jump to solutions and start to argue over whether people should have more or less coverage or more or less access to insurance.

A trained consultant listens to this and scratches his head: What problem are they even solving?

You might define a more focused problem:

The way our current healthcare system delivers care means that when some face unexpected health challenges, they risk losing all of their resources and possessions. How do we design a system that lowers the cost of staying healthy and eliminating the risk of financial ruin?

Then you move on to developing hypotheses for how you might solve this problem and then finding data that proves or disproves your hypotheses. You might go into the process with a hunch of what the answers might be, but the whole process is designed so that you can imagine a broader set of possibilities.