Embracing a learning mindset is both necessary and challenging.  Many people claim to enjoy learning, but don’t actually have a good understanding of it.

I think everyone should have to take Barbara Oakley’s Learning How To Learn online course.  When I took it, I was blown away by what I learned about learning. I also was shocked at how some of the things I learned in the consulting industry (at least some of the default modes of thinking) were perfectly suited for learning.

The Consulting Learning Mindset

Strategic Consulting learning mindset

I summarize the consulting learning mindset as a combination of two things:

  1. A healthy obsession with better ways to do things. 
  2. Being open to shifting your ideas and embracing different approaches

Most of the people that are attracted to consulting in the first place share these traits.  They want to engage with new problems, embrace change and experiment with new solutions. 

Yet even among consultants a “status quo bias” can trickle into the thought process.  The status quo bias is defined as “an emotional reaction that perceived any change in the status quo as a loss.”

In consulting firms, you often come up against this feeling rather quickly.  It doesn’t even have to be major changes.  It can be from feedback on your initial framing of an ideas, your takeaway from an article you read or an attempt at synthesizing the initial findings.  That feedback can feel like an attack.

I know in my first months at McKinsey, as open minded as I thought I was, I realized that I was rather tied to my own ways of thinking and own approaches.

Over time, through the results of team effort, iteration and endless amounts of feedback, I realized that the team output was often much better than anyone could achieve alone. 

Avoiding “modishness” & the “best practices” trap

Modishness might be the best word to describe much of the behavior in the corporate world without many people knowing what the word means.

As defined by the dictionary, “modishness” means “being in or conforming to the prevailing or current fashion.


A more well-known term might be “best practices.”  Best practices is a way of saying “this company that is doing really well is doing behavior X, so this must make sense for us!”  This causality trap has sadly creeped into more and more strategy consulting work (after all, many companies hire consulting forms as a form of legitimate spying).  While it may be a way to try to make sense of what matters, it is a lazy way to arrive at solutions and likely won’t give you the best answer to a problem.

It may be impossible to know why companies succeed.  Some researchers have suggested that as little as 20% of business success of large companies may be attributed to leadership decisions.  Others suggest it may just be luck. 

The book “The Halo Effect…And Eight Other Business Delusions” detail how we make this mistake over and over again. In the book, the author shares the different reactions to Lego’s CEO as the company faces economic ups and downs.  The behaviors and actions that are credited for his success during the up period are then offered as the cause of his demise in the downturn. 

The book is very much worth reading, just to gain some humility about what we really know.  Even people that I would respect make these mistakes all the time.  When I read How Google Works and Work Rules!, both of which detail how google is run, my takeaway was that google is a company that continuously experiments and tries new things. 

What did most people takeaway?  A simple search of “OKR” (googles performance assessment process) shows over 20 million results.  It seems people are just trying to copy their current process and hope for the same result.

Realizing that we make mental errors all the time should not be cause for concern.  It should help make us comfortable with the fact that we need to constantly challenge our ideas and keep looking for evidence that might prove or disprove our analysis. 

As Socrates said, “”The only thing I know is that I know nothing”

The bottom line…

The consulting process requires comfort with uncertainty combined with a slightly delusional belief that you can solve problems that have not been solved before…ALL while embracing the mindset that you may never really be sure what the “right” answers are.

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