The McKinsey problem solving process is a series of mindset shifts and structured approaches to thinking about and solving challenging problems. It is a useful approach for anyone working in the knowledge and information economy and needs to communicate ideas to other people.
Over the past several years of creating StrategyU, advising an undergraduates consulting group and running workshops for clients, I have found over and over again that the principles taught on this site and in this guide are a powerful way to improve the type of work and communication you do in a business setting.
When I first set out to teach these skills to the undergraduate consulting group at my alma mater, I was still working at BCG. I was spending my day building compelling presentations, yet was at a loss for how to teach these principles to the students I would talk with at night.
Through many rounds of iteration, I was able to land on a structured process and way of framing some of these principles such that people could immediately apply them to their work.
While the “official” McKinsey problem solving process is seven steps, I have outline my own spin on things – from experience at McKinsey and Boston Consulting Group. Here are six steps that will help you solve problems like a McKinsey Consultant:
Step #1: School is over, stop worrying about “what” to make and worry about the process, or the “how”
When I reflect back on my first role at McKinsey, I realize that my biggest challenge was unlearning everything I had learned over the previous 23 years. Throughout school you are asked to do specific things. For example, you are asked to write a 5 page paper on Benjamin Franklin — double spaced, 12 font and answering two or three specific questions.
In school, to be successful you follow these rules as close as you can. However, in consulting there are no rules on the “what.” Typically the problem you are asked to solve is ambiguous and complex — exactly why they hire you. In consulting, you are taught the rules around the “how” and have to then fill in the what.
The “how” can be taught and this entire site is founded on that belief. Here are some principles to get started:
Step #2: Thinking like a consultant requires a mindset shift
There are two pre-requisites to thinking like a consultant. Without these two traits you will struggle:
- A healthy obsession looking for a “better way” to do things
- Being open minded to shifting ideas and other approaches
In business school, I was sitting in one class when I noticed that all my classmates were doing the same thing — everyone was coming up with reasons why something should should not be done.
As I’ve spent more time working, I’ve realized this is a common phenomenon. The more you learn, the easier it becomes to come up with reasons to support the current state of affairs — likely driven by the status quo bias — an emotional state that favors not changing things. Even the best consultants will experience this emotion, but they are good at identifying it and pushing forward.
Key point: Creating an effective and persuasive consulting like presentation requires a comfort with uncertainty combined with a slightly delusional belief that you can figure anything out.
Step #3: Define the problem and make sure you are not solving a symptom
Before doing the work, time should be spent on defining the actual problem. Too often, people are solutions focused when they think about fixing something. Let’s say a company is struggling with profitability. Someone might define the problem as “we do not have enough growth.” This is jumping ahead to solutions — the goal may be to drive more growth, but this is not the actual issue. It is a symptom of a deeper problem.
Consider the following information:
- Costs have remained relatively constant and are actually below industry average so revenue must be the issue
- Revenue has been increasing, but at a slowing rate
- This company sells widgets and have had no slowdown on the number of units it has sold over the last five years
- However, the price per widget is actually below where it was five years ago
- There have been new entrants in the market in the last three years that have been backed by Venture Capital money and are aggressively pricing their products below costs
In a real-life project there will definitely be much more information and a team may take a full week coming up with a problem statement. Given the information above, we may come up with the following problem statement:
Problem Statement: The company is struggling to increase profitability due to decreasing prices driven by new entrants in the market. The company does not have a clear strategy to respond to the price pressure from competitors and lacks an overall product strategy to compete in this market.
Step 4: Dive in, make hypotheses and try to figure out how to “solve” the problem
Now the fun starts!
There are generally two approaches to thinking about information in a structured way and going back and forth between the two modes is what the consulting process is founded on.
First is top-down. This is what you should start with, especially for a newer “consultant.” This involves taking the problem statement and structuring an approach. This means developing multiple hypotheses — key questions you can either prove or disprove.
Given our problem statement, you may develop the following three hypotheses:
- Company X has room to improve its pricing strategy to increase profitability
- Company X can explore new market opportunities unlocked by new entrants
- Company X can explore new business models or operating models due to advances in technology
As you can see, these three statements identify different areas you can research and either prove or disprove. In a consulting team, you may have a “workstream leader” for each statement.
Once you establish the structure you you may shift to the second type of analysis: a bottom-up approach. This involves doing deep research around your problem statement, testing your hypotheses, running different analysis and continuing to ask more questions. As you do the analysis, you will begin to see different patterns that may unlock new questions, change your thinking or even confirm your existing hypotheses. You may need to tweak your hypotheses and structure as you learn new information.
A project vacillates many times between these two approaches. Here is a hypothetical timeline of a project:
Step 5: Make a slides like a consultant
The next step is taking the structure and research and turning it into a slide. When people see slides from McKinsey and BCG, they see something that is compelling and unique, but don’t really understand all the work that goes into those slides. Both companies have a healthy obsession (maybe not to some people!) with how things look, how things are structured and how they are presented.
They also don’t understand how much work is spent on telling a compelling “story.” The biggest mistake people make in the business world is mistaking showing a lot of information versus telling a compelling story. This is an easy mistake to make — especially if you are the one that did hours of analysis. It may seem important, but when it comes down to making a slide and a presentation, you end up deleting more information rather than adding. You really need to remember the following:
Data matters, but stories change hearts and minds
Here are four quick ways to improve your presentations:
Tip #1 — Format, format, format
Both McKinsey and BCG had style templates that were obsessively followed. Some key rules I like to follow:
- Make sure all text within your slide body is the same font size (harder than you would think)
- Do not go outside of the margins into the white space on the side
- All titles throughout the presentation should be 2 lines or less and stay the same font size
- Each slide should typically only make one strong point
Tip #2 — Titles are the takeaway
The title of the slide should be the key insight or takeaway and the slide area should prove the point. The below slide is an oversimplification of this:
Even in consulting, I found that people struggled with simplifying a message to one key theme per slide. If something is going to be presented live, the simpler the better. In reality, you are often giving someone presentations that they will read in depth and more information may make sense.
To go deeper, check out these 20 presentation and powerpoint tips.
Tip #3 — Have “MECE” Ideas for max persuasion
“MECE” means mutually exclusive, collectively exhaustive — meaning all points listed cover the entire range of ideas while also being unique and differentiated from each other.
An extreme example would be this:
- Slide title: There are seven continents
- Slide content: The seven continents are North America, South America, Europe, Africa Asia, Antarctica, Australia
The list of continents provides seven distinct points that when taken together are mutually exclusive and collectively exhaustive. The MECE principle is not perfect — it is more of an ideal to push your logic in the right direction. Use it to continually improve and refine your story.
Applying this to a profitability problem at the highest level would look like this:
Goal: Increase profitability
2nd level: We can increase revenue or decrease costs
3rd level: We can increase revenue by selling more or increasing prices
Each level is MECE. It is almost impossible to argue against any of this (unless you are willing to commit accounting fraud!).
Tip #4 — Leveraging the Pyramid Principle
The pyramid principle is an approach popularized by Barbara Minto and essential to the structured problem solving approach I learned at McKinsey. Learning this approach has changed the way I look at any presentation since.
Here is a rough outline of how you can think about the pyramid principle as a way to structure a presentation:
As you build a presentation, you may have three sections for each hypothesis. As you think about the overall story, the three hypothesis (and the supporting evidence) will build on each other as a “story” to answer the defined problem. There are two ways to think about doing this — using inductive or deductive reasoning:
If we go back to our profitability example from above, you would say that increasing profitability was the core issue we developed. Lets assume that through research we found that our three hypotheses were true. Given this, you may start to build a high level presentation around the following three points:
These three ideas not only are distinct but they also build on each other. Combined, they tell a story of what the company should do and how they should react. Each of these three “points” may be a separate section in the presentation followed by several pages of detailed analysis. There may also be a shorter executive summary version of 5–10 pages that gives the high level story without as much data and analysis.
Step 6: The only way to improve is to get feedback and continue to practice
Ultimately, this process is not something you will master overnight. I’ve been consulting, either working for a firm or on my own for more than 10 years and am still looking for ways to make better presentations, become more persuasive and get feedback on individual slides.
The process never ends.
The best way to improve fast is to be working on a great team. Look for people around you that do this well and ask them for feedback. The more feedback, the more iterations and more presentations you make, the better you will become. Good luck!
If you enjoyed this post, you’ll get a kick out of all the free lessons I’ve shared that go a bit deeper. Check them out here.