Reading the Harvard Business Review (HBR) or the McKinsey Quarterly to develop your critical thinking ability is a flawed approach. Reading these publications helps a little, but not a lot.

This article explores why this is the case and dives into what pieces to read, and how to read them, to develop your own critical thinking ability.

I recently received an email from a client. On the Firmsconsulting website we have a complimentary section called What Firmsconsulting is Reading (under community and in groups). And what I do in this section is I post all of the major online articles I’ve read on each day. I read much more, but the pieces I post are the most useful to me. So that way you can track and see what a consulting partner reads.

And my thinking was that by replicating my reading process you can replicate my strategy to build my business judgement. And someone wrote in, a client that I have known for a long time, and asked the following questions.

“Michael, I noticed that you read about fashion, you read about what is happening in Ukraine, you read about business topics, but most of it are newspaper articles. You read the New York Times a lot, you read Bloomberg, Wall Street Journal and so on.

The articles usually about news events. Why don’t you recommend HBR articles for us? Why is that you don’t recommend McKinsey Quarterly articles for us? If you want us to learn to think like a consulting partner shouldn’t we be reading those things?”

My answer is no, that is not what you should be reading if you want to think like a consulting partner. “Think” is the operating word here. And this post, and related podcast, explains why that is the case.

If you read HBR or McKinsey Quarterly you are going to learn about some new concept or idea in business, which is good. And if your objective is to learn about some new concept in business and be able to talk about it at a cocktail party, with your friends at the office or with clients, continue reading those publications.

They teach you useful nuggets of information to share.

HBR consulting

Yet, that’s not the objective we have with our clients. The objective we have is to train you to be able to think in the way that allowed the author of the HBR article to develop the insight in the article. And that is a profoundly different objective.

Our objective is not to train you to memorize useful insights. We want to train you to independently develop useful insights.

That is a different objective and a different skill.

So we don’t teach people to just sound as if they know what they are saying. If we made you read some of the most popular articles in the HBR you will sound as if you know what you’re talking about. However, it doesn’t make you an outstanding management consultant, strategist or business leader.

It does not improve your ability to generate your own insights.

We teach the ability to go through a thought process and come up with the same level of insight that you see in the HBR. That’s what you should learn. That is what is useful. To come out with a great insight, you need to logically analyze the issue and thereafter apply your business judgement to interpret the findings of the analysis.

Many people focus on building their logical problem solving skills while they lack the business judgement to interpret the analysis. Brilliant analyses coupled with weak business judgement leads to weak insights. Wider reading on critical issues which are controversial improves your business judgement.

Striving to recreate the HBR

I was recently corresponding with a member of a business journal at a very prominent MBA program in North America. And he was telling me about how they wanted to move their student publication to the same status as the HBR. That is certainly possible.

He was saying, “Look at the quality of our writing. Look at the quality of our publication. We have invested money putting together good graphics. Our style of writing is very similar to the Harvard Business Review. The way we analyze issues is very similar to the way HBR analyzes issues.”

And I pointed out to him that actually it’s not. There is a profound difference between his publication and the HBR. They may look the same but the process to produce the insights is very different.

In the Harvard Business Review, and I’m just using the HBR as an example because everyone knows it, the people who publish the articles do a lot of work. I don’t know what is the validity of their research or veracity of their findings. Yet, I do know that they do a lot of work: bottom-up analysis, working with real clients, testing the ideas before it’s written up.

For example, I was reading an article recently written by a Bain partner, which was a pretty good article. And he was talking about how he has learned about the process of growth expansion through working with clients and solving their real problems. He has noticed certain patterns and he wrote it up. That is the process he used. His ideas have been battle tested with clients, adjusted as the data disproved their initial hypotheses and tested again until he could see some replicable pattern emerge.

Compare this to the process used by the upstart business journal in question. The business school gets undergraduate students to do desktop research and then write-up these articles.

Just because their articles look similar to Harvard Business Review articles, sound like HBR articles, does not mean the upstart business journal team captured the process to produce articles of that quality. The process matters. Making an article pretty does not make the insight useful.

They are mainly using desktop research. Desktop research is a very limited type of research. Unless authors actually worked with the client all they are relying on is what some journalist is reporting or what some journalist thinks is the issue. So when people base their work on desktop research they are basically regurgitating someone else’s interpretation.

This story is important because it explains the importance of the process followed to create an insight.

Learn to think the way a consulting partner thinks

What I’m teaching you to do in getting you to read the articles I read is to apply critical thinking. I’m teaching you how to build those very important analytical problem solving skills that will allow you to think the way consulting partners think. I am forcing you to learn business judgement. I give you articles to read that sharpen your critical judgment skills and I nudge you towards questions you should be asking while you are reading each article.

I force you to read things that do not conform to your world views. I guide you to see multiple sides and some of it may make you uncomfortable but you are certainly thinking about the core issues. I am helping you to build your business judgment because that is somewhat more important than just the analytic skills.

Another example of a display of a weak critical thinking ability

I will give you another example of a display of a weak critical thinking ability that I am trying to help readers improve.

The immigration debate is a massive debate in the United States. Actually go to almost any country in the world, immigration is a vitally important topic.

And I was having a discussion with someone, lets call him Josh, who was telling me how Asians dominate the Ivy leagues in the US and, therefore, Asians must be more intelligent than any other race. I was careful to not get into a discussion on which race is more intelligent because it’s automatically going to be an explosive topic. However, I needed to help Josh see why his opinion was not based on logic. Our discussion went like this.

Michael: Why do you say that?

Josh: I have read so many different publications. They all say the same things. The Asians dominate the Ivy Leagues.

Michael: Okay, that makes sense. But where does it say that one nation is more intelligent than the other.

Josh: Well, you can infer that.

Michael: You can’t infer that. Logic would dictate that in the 1950s Asians didn’t dominate the Ivy leagues. Are you then saying that Asians were not intelligent in the 1950s?

Josh: Well no, I’m not saying that. I am just saying the Ivy leagues were not popular for Asians then.

Michael: Okay, by that logic if Asians dominate the Ivy leagues now, how do you know the Ivy leagues are not popular with another race which is equally or more intelligent than Asians, but are not applying or permitted to study in the US in large numbers?

What I see with Josh above is a tendency to select data which proves his pre-determined hypothesis. He has already decided this to be true, and he is simply selecting the data to prove it. Now, it may be true or it may not be true. It is just that his data does not support his conclusion.

One could easily argue that attending the Ivy’s are a means to securing wealth. Now, if you could secure wealth without studying, you would do it. So, should we not measure the end goal? Which group is wealthiest? Is that not a better measure of intelligence? I hope you see my point. And I could develop even more arguments.

When you are critically assessing a situation don’t get caught into the media bias. Learn to think critically so you can evaluate information and form your own opinion, free from bias.

When you go in looking for one answer, you will never see the answer.

What news articles teach you and HBR does not

As you approach reading, you need to ask yourself: do I want to be a guy or a lady who can recite the HBR article or who has the ability to produce something of the HBR quality? The reading regimen for these two goals differs substantially.

What you should learn is not how to memorize and recall key concepts from HBR or McKinsey Quarterly, which is what anyone can do. Instead, you should build the skills to critically evaluate any situation, see patterns, link seemingly unconnected data points, develop as well as test hypotheses and form your own opinion, which should be data driven and free from bias.

And this is what the news articles are teaching you to do, if you read them with the right mindset. They are teaching you very foundational skills.

HBR consulting quote 2

It is important to keep your pulse on the current sources of discussion around the world. And to build the ability to think about what’s happening, ask critical questions, see the insights that are not obvious and form your own viewpoints. You have to ask such questions as:

  • Why was this article published?
  • Why was it published today?
  • Who published the article?

Those three questions, which can be answered before you even read the article will tell you more about the article than the content of the article. Try it, you will be surprised!

  • In the article, what part is news and what part is the interpretation of the news?
  • Why are people saying this?
  • What is actually being said here?

And over time, as you start reading more of these articles and pose the right questions as you read them, your critical reasoning skill will develop.

In What Firmsconsulting is Reading most of the time I give you a one line question/comment. Some of them are a bit snarky. As you probably know I can’t hide my feelings sometimes. Yet, I try. I am careful to do so. I usually try not to disclose a personal view. I generally don’t say, “I am mentioning this article because I think this nation or this person did the right or wrong thing“. I usually come from the basis that the article may or may not reflect my viewpoint but I want you to pick up the following item.

And I choose controversial pieces. I don’t shy away from it because you have to be able to critically evaluate things. I put out stuff about the poverty debate in the United States, immigration, the issues in Ukraine and so on. And I pick words very carefully to not show bias because our job is not to be biased.

You will also notice I always recommend you read the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal (liberal and conservative viewpoints). They attack problems from completely different sides. If you only read the New York Times or Wall Street Journal you will struggle to form an informed opinion about issues.

There is another reason I rarely read HBR. A lot of the things they publish are actually fairly obvious. Some of the things are interesting. I do like some of the new pieces they put out where they talk to CEOs about the experiences they had. However, a lot of the other things are basically an analysis which is very easy to do and a few interesting insights. And rarely are HBR articles mind-blowing.

Overall, reading the finished product in the HBR article or McKinsey Quarterly article is useful. However, it is not teaching you how to think in a logical and critical way.

And that’s a fact. So I am not saying don’t read the HBR or McKinsey Quarterly. Definitely read them. Yet, don’t be so thrilled with yourself if you can only repeat what’s there.

It’s more important to develop the skills to produce the quality of thinking HBR publish. Even though you will not get there immediately, it is better to slowly get to a point where you can structure a study to test a hypothesis and come up with a finding that you can write-up at the HBR level.

When you are reading remember to choose your objective: do you want to be able to recite the HBR article or have the ability to come up with your own insights, the kind of ability a consulting partner has? The reading regimen to achieve each of these two goals is very different. You have got to be very strategic in what you read and how you read if your goal is to develop a solid critical thinking ability.

Be critical. Turn the story around in your head in different ways. Do not simply take the facts you want to take, because you may be closing your mind to something that will truly change your viewpoint.

QUESTION(S) OF THE DAY: Why do you think business judgement matters more than analytic ability when developing insights? Please share in the comments.

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Image from Trey Ratcliff under cc.


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7 responses to HBR vs. News in the Battle to Improve Reasoning

  1. Hi Michael,
    As a student from Mexico city, I can barely afford the New york times (on a discount for LATAM readers) and some other publication (WSJ or HBR). Given the my restraint I would like to know your opinion about if Mckinsey Quarterly (free) can substitute for HBR so I can give it a go to WSJ or if HBR is a better option

    Thanks for the invaluable material you put up.

    Jose Ma

  2. Hello Luk,

    You may very well be the first person who considers the readers of the NY Times and WSJ lazy masses.


  3. Cannot agree on this piecie, as it was said by Roosevelt:
    “Great minds discuss ideas; average minds discuss events; small minds discuss people.”
    Reading news makes you analyze and form opinion on events and people, as those publication are designed for lazy masses who are interested only in what’s currently going on. News is noise, by reading it you’re just passively reacting to the latest developments in the world.
    Today, after hundreds of thousands articles about Iraq no one is interested in it, but only from the perspective the whole issue could be analyzed calmly and objectively.

  4. Hi Titus,

    The only other international publication that I think matches the quality of WSJ and NYT is the Financial Times and its pink pages.

    I would not read The Economist etc. They lack depth and insight.


  5. Hi Michael,

    Thank you very much for the insights you develop in the article. As a reader of both NYT and HBR style articles, I find it very valuable to understand the potential use we can get out of reading news and business “litterature”. From a different perspective, news can sometimes lack a certain reasoning. It is more like information, which if processed should allow you to develop worthy ideas in time. I therefore like the focus you put on the processing of news and critical perspective at the end of the article. That can sometimes be forgotten.

    WSJ and NYT are both american style news. I’m not sure how relevant the writing stlye and content is for europeans. Would you have other journals complementing those? Thanks a lot.


  6. Thanks Femi.

    I really your medical stories and they get to the point and also introduce other relevant information.

    Business judgement is the unique body of information AND the unique way you analyze issues. For example, if we gave two people the same data, they would arrive at different insights since their business judgement is different.

    It is not enough to be logical and analytic. If you lack business judgement, you will struggle. This is something Kevin teaches extensively in Season 2 of The Consulting Offer.

    Being logical was a major advantage 10 years ago. It is now a commodity as a thinking tool. You certainly need it, but it is not enough to dazzle partners in the final round.

    Thanks again.


  7. Hi Michael,

    It’s probably risky to have the first go at today’s question but I’ll try. 🙂 Just kidding!

    Analytical ability vs. Business judgment? I want to assume by business judgment, you meant an “ability to connect the dots and put seemingly unrelated issues together.” If this is your definition of business judgment, then it is certainly more important than an ability to analyze issues. Analysis merely refers to an ability to ferret out an issue to its basic, probably indivisible, elements. A breaking down, if you will. And it is no doubt a very important skill. However, you might be stuck in putting the pieces together. Not that you will not be able to put the pieces together, you may actually put them together wrongly! Let me share a story that came to mind as I read the question you posed. And please pardon me for always sharing from my previous life.

    I was a medical student then. We had a patient, a paraplegic patient (weakness of both hands and both legs). The patient was brought in on a wheelchair. I remember this story very well because I built a personal bond with the patient and he shared some of his personal stories with me. The patient was being managed by a team of 3 urologists because that team was the surgical team on call when the patient was admitted. (Anyone who trained in a Western country and reading this may find “urologists admitting a paraplegic” to be awkward. Just suffice to say that in developing countries, resources are utilized differently in order to adjust for the low physician to population ratio). One of these urologists is a Johns Hopkins trained professor of urology. A septuagenarian. The other two were young surgery fellows, probably in their 40s and insanely brilliant. The young urologists had an esoteric diagnosis of this patient’s condition. I really can’t remember the diagnosis now but it was highfalutin and we commenced management based on it. Mind you, the professor was away from duty at this time.

    On his first day of return to duty, the professor had a ward round. Since the patient was new to the professor, the case was presented afresh. After listening carefully, this old professor asked series of questions. The two urologists and senior residents provided the answers. At the end, he said something like, “I can stake my certificate here, this man has TB of the Spine!” He suggested that the team requests for the tuberculin skin test (a very simple test) and pronto! the test returned “positive!” We started to manage the patient as a TB patient and after a few weeks, probably months, the patient started to walk! Eventually, patient was discharged home, with full limb functions regained.

    I believe the difference here is depth of judgment. While reading the article, this story came to my mind and I asked myself, what the professor’s advantage was. Clearly, he was able to put the pieces back together, faster than those two brilliant brains could. That was more important to the patient than all the analysis we had done prior, including the “academic diagnosis.” In fact, without that ability to put it all together, we were not helpful to the patient and the results were proof.

    The two fellows are nonetheless very brilliant specialists but the old professor had the benefit of having interacted with more research in the field of surgical management. He had the benefit of having interacted at more scientific conferences. He had the benefit of having written more scientific papers. He had the benefit of having seen thousands of patients. These multiple exposures and experiences gathered over years allow him to connect seemingly unrelated issues to arrive at a fail-safe diagnosis. I guess we can replace the scientific conferences, research articles, volume of experience etc. from which this professor has benefited with NYT, WSJ and other scholarly activities that partners engage to build solid judgment over years. In essence, what you are saying is that by reading NYT, WSJ etc. and analyzing the issues critically, we might be able to improve on the odds of developing water-tight business judgment.

    I hope other readers will be able to relate to this story.

    Please pardon the long letter.


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