There are three foundational elements of consulting teams that are hard to emulate in other environments:

  1. Teams with psychological safety
  2. Non-hierarchical attitude
  3. Iterative, “yes, and” feedback

These elements help teams continue to move forward, challenge each other and have a positive (though not to be confused with “happy”) team environment that can do great work.

#1 Psychological Safety

Harvard Professor Amy Edmondson first defined psychological safety in 1999 as “a shared belief held by members of a team that the team is safe for interpersonal risk taking.” Put more simply, you’re not scared of speaking up because someone might tell you your approach or ideas are silly.

In 2012, Google kicked off a study on their own employees’ effectiveness called Project Aristotle. They found that teams with psychological safety are“more likely to harness the power of diverse ideas from their teammates.” Overall, they also found that psychological was the most important factor for determining whether or not a team was successful.

#2 Non-Hierarchical Attitude

Psychological safety is often a result of teams who leave their hierarchical roles at the door when they get down to actually doing the work. While there may be necessary process roles such as who “owns” the documents and who performs different elements of the work, a non-hierarchical attitude is fundamental for doing the iterative type of work required for solving complex problems.

From the McKinsey Website

At McKinsey, this is reinforced through a core value: “the obligation to dissent.” While many firms have similar intentions, at McKinsey it is part of the day-to-day lived culture. Over and over again, people have seen the benefits of fully committing to the creative process and have trust that the process works. This is why Senior Partners often will ask the most junior people on the team what they think and really want to know.

Many managers struggle with this. They might say “well we can’t just let people do whatever they want!” But that’s not the point. It does not mean that others on the team have to adopt the ideas. It is about making sure everyone is on an equal playing field for the often frustrating iterative process of doing a consulting project.

#3 Iterative “yes, and” feedback

Many managers miss the point of feedback, especially in today’s business world where creative solutions matter more than ever. While there is a place for the type of feedback that gets people to perform closer to a specification, the type of feedback that contributes to high-performing teams is of the “yes, and ” variety.

In Improv Comedy, the “yes, and ” principle means that you should take what another person says and build upon that idea. The point of this is to keep the skit moving forward in a positive (and hopefully, funny) direction.

If someone disagreed with the new direction and just stopped, it would be a trainwreck. Yet in the Corporate world, this is called management.

Three Feedback Lessons From Consulting

In consulting, the “consulting process” is the backbone of problem solving and ensures that projects keep moving. The process requires all three of these elements are present, but relies on individuals to have the ability to provide useful feedback that helps others improve and keep the project moving forward.

Here are three principles that people should embrace to be a feedback pro:

  • Check your pet peeves at the door: Everyone has pet peeves. Capitalization, word order, Oxford commas. Forget about them. You can fix those at the end. The whole point is to keep the process moving.
  • Overlook small mistakes, fix those and keep moving: Many teams (and controlling managers) waste time pointing out spelling and formatting mistakes to each other. In addition to creating resentment within the team, it distracts the team from going deep and doing meaningful work.
  • Figure out what your teammates actually like doing: Giving feedback to people for things they don’t want to be doing just slows the team down and usually creates friction and resentment within the team. Have frank discussions early in the project to determine what people are good at, what they want to work on and where they are looking to improve.

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