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A young BCG associate, lets call him Bill, recently faced tough questions after his first engagement turned out to be, in his words, an utter disaster.

If you are a younger consultant in Bill’s situation, you may ask yourself similar questions:

  • What happens when your first engagement is not just bad, but is a disaster?
  • What went through partner’s head when you performed poorly? 
  • Do you have a future?
  • Should you consider leaving?

When this happens you will also want to know if this was an anomaly or if management consulting is just not for you.

Management consultants must have 5 attributes to be successful

Management consultants must have 5 attributes to be successful. You can learn all of them over time, but you must be aware of them from day 1 with the firm:

Will – do you have the burning desire to be a successful management consultant?

Capacity – do you have the time and space to be successful?

Capability – do you have the skills to be successful?

Emotional Intelligence – can you read the personal dynamics at play?

Political awareness – do you understand the rationale and motivations for client decisions?

The filter to understand the reasons for failure and the gravity of the situation

Now if you are in Bill’s situation, you can use the following filter to understand the reasons for your failure and the gravity of the situation. It is important you are honest with yourself. Fudging the answers to avoid blame merely means you are hiding a problem which could reappear in the future when there may be even more at stake.

This is the way I would have analyzed Bill’s mistakes when I was a partner:

Did you breach the firm’s values?

Irrespective of the reason, if you knowingly breached the firms values almost nothing can save you. You will be managed out or asked to leave.

The leading firms, which includes BCG, do not tolerate any conflict with their values.

Did you try your very best to succeed and put in as much time and effort as you had?

If you did not try your best it is possible you may not have the drive or ambition to be successful in consulting.

It is better to learn this at the start of your consulting career and leave earlier and not suffer tremendous burnout and dissatisfaction later.

Many hugely successful people are unwilling to dedicate 15 to 18 hours a day to their job or tolerate excessive travel and time away from their families. There is nothing wrong with this. It just means management consulting may not be for you.

Did you do poorly due to circumstances totally outside your control?

Maybe the client gave you the incorrect data and lied about it. Despite your efforts to verify the information, the client simply changed the information. This would be outside your control.

If this indeed happened and there was no possible way to know otherwise, then it is quite likely the only acceptable excuse for poor performance. Even so, did you sanity check the data and compare it to the rest of the information? Did it balance?

Did you do poorly due to circumstance outside your control but which could have been managed by yourself if you were more careful?

If the client gave you the incorrect data and this created a problem because you were not persistent in verifying the information, this would be a problem which could have been avoided with greater care from your side.

This kind of negligence is also not a good sign in management consulting. Consultants are expected to dig and verify information.

Lack of diligence and persistence is another sign this career path may not be for you.

Did you not have the skills to do the work?

An example of this would be the need to conduct a financial analysis which you did not understand.

Not having the skills is not a problem. It is how you respond that matters. Did you ask a skilled consultant to review your work?

Did you ask for help?

Not having the tools or guidance to complete an analysis correctly is almost never an excuse. If there was a problem and you did not ask for help, then you are at fault.

If there was a problem, you asked the engagement manager for help and were ignored, then both you and the engagement manager are at fault. You are at fault for not understanding the gravity of the situation and demanding more help. The manager is at fault for ignoring your pleas.

Remember that premium firms expect consultants to speak out and challenge more senior colleagues if it will help the client and the firm. Therefore, allowing the engagement manager to ignore your pleas for help is not excusable.

If you asked for help, you received help and your performance was still poor, what was the reason for this?

Unfortunately this could imply a lack of will and possibly competency issues. It may also show you don’t know when you are failing. Neither is good for you.

Did you receive any signals from the associate or engagement manager that things were not up to standard?

If you received no signals then you may have an excuse. This assumes your work was properly checked and vetted.

However, if you ignored warnings then that is totally a different matter.

Summary

Generally, the checks and balances above means there are very few reasons why an engagement will fail. Irrespective of the problem, either you will ask for help and receive it or your engagement manager will need to step in to give more help. In both cases, the problem will be fixed.

Logically, the only valid excuse for poor performance is if the circumstance was totally outside your control and you were not aware of it, or you were aware of it and asked for someone more capable to check work about which you were unsure and they approved it.

Assuming this is your first consulting engagement, unless you did something which was blatantly wrong, demonstrated consistent and repeated incompetence or did not uphold the firm’s values, you will be given a second chance to prove yourself.

The key thing here is that you understand why it occurred. If the problem occurred due to your own negligence then maybe management consulting is not for you. The standards are high and there is little room for failure.

The bottom-line is that your consulting career is only over if you lack the will, capacity and capability to succeed while adhering to firm values. In all other cases, you will be very successful.

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I have spent a long time examining my own career path from associate to principal. Mainly because there was always a fair degree of luck involved. It is not as if I was a break-out superstar and knew I would become a partner. I was good, but there were other better associates who did not become partners.

So, I must have done a few things differently to compensate for this perceived disadvantage I possessed.

I eventually realized that I succeeded not only because I was analytical, could communicate well, develop great storyboards, was great at math etc. Let’s not be mistaken, I needed those skills. Yet, they were not enough if you did not know how to use them. Everyone had those skills when they entered BCG, McKinsey et al and these were not enough to distinguish oneself.

Even today, many outstanding candidates are managed out every month and most are surprised when it happens since almost all have the skills listed above, and in great abundance. I know because we receive several emails a week from distressed management consultants seeking guidance.

I succeeded because a partner took me under his wing and personally mentored me when I was just an associate. In other words, this partner guided my analytical development by showing me how to deploy those critical reasoning skills.

That single act made the greatest difference to my career.

You may think the mentoring did not matter at the time since I was already working as a management consultant. Yet it did. Without the mentoring, I would probably have stayed 1 or 2 years, quite possibly have been promoted but most likely never have made partner. But, I wanted to be a partner, and that was a completely different objective from simply getting an offer or getting promoted to manager.

In other words, you can prepare to just get an offer or you can prepare to rise to partnership level.

I recall two events demonstrating the importance of such mentoring.

Event One

As a young associate leading the business case analyses for a transfer pricing study, I was completely struggling to sketch out the boundaries of my analyses, understand the company’s business model and convert this to an excel model to estimate the impact of the various options we were recommending to the client.

At the time, I did not have any business training and struggled to understand many of the concepts I now take for granted. The client’s business was difficult to understand and transfer pricing is actually very difficult for anyone to understand, irrespective of their background.

I had to determine the prices one division, the releasing division, should charge the next division, the receiving division of the same company, which takes over the semi-finished product as it wove its way through the company towards completion.

Should a division generate a profit? Should a division charge at cost-price? Should a division link their prices to efficiency gains?

It was even harder to do since there was no competition in the market, whose numbers we would typically use to benchmark comparable processes and products.

I received a telephone call from the strategy partner leading the engagement at 8pm on Friday, the first week of the study, asking for feedback on the engagement. It was not going well and I stated as much.

I believe in telling the truth no matter how much pain it would cause.

After realizing I would be in the office the next day, a Saturday, he offered to come in to provide some guidance. I fully expected a 30 minute chat followed by a depressing summer day working by myself and eating vending machine tender.

He came in at 9am EST, brought breakfast consisting of coffee with chocolate croissants, and simply cranked up his laptop and started building the skeleton of the model as if he did this every day. More than that, he took over a whiteboard and taught me how to build the links between different modules of an excel model, using A4 sheets of paper, to depict each module like an income statement, and whiteboard marker to draw connections to depict the relationship between each module – a technique I still use today to teach young consultants.

It was interesting how the learning process became so enjoyable watching a senior partner explain finance, and throw in interesting anecdotes and ideas to explain complex concepts in ridiculously simple ways. Brealey & Myers may know finance, but teaching it is quite different.

Much to my surprise, he stayed through lunch, during which he insisted we order pizza from a hole-in-the-wall which made thin-crust gourmet pizza with only fresh toppings. I was told that the owner, a real Italian mama, will not serve you if she does not like you. Over lunch we talked about how he had learned the technique to visually depict excel models on a white board. He told me the story of a London-based partner who taught him that technique when he was an associate – about 20 years ago.

Since I knew he had dinner plans, I fully expected him to stay until 6pm. Yet, just before the skeleton for the balance sheet module was to be constructed, he calmly whipped out his phone and cancelled his dinner. It seemed like the most natural thing to him.

He did not even make me feel guilty about it. His commitment was unusual and not every consulting partner would do this. In fact, most would not. But he did. And that is what counts. I learned the correct values of helping younger consultants and the importance of critical reasoning. The latter must be important if a partner is spending his Saturday teaching me how to analyze a company’s issues and determine if an analysis was needed. I mirrored this behavior when I was elected a firm principal.

Event Two

In a role-reversal, and a few eventful years later, I was now the principal leading a team through a challenging engagement to redesign the operating model for a client. We were trying to determine how a US$10B emerging markets company should change its operating model as its growth rates dramatically slowed down. Many parts of the business set up to enable that growth, such as a large M&A team and forays into non-core activities, were now redundant.

About 5 weeks into the study, an engagement manager on the team came up to me on a Tuesday morning, I remember this clearly, even the clothing he wore when he entered the room, and explained that the labor cost numbers had been incorrectly calculated and the documents sent to the EVP Operations, for board circulation, were flawed.

Since the labor costs were incorrect, the fixed and a large part of the variable costs had been underestimated and both the cash flow and return-on-invested-capital projections were far too rosy. In other words, the proposed initiatives did not meet the hurdle-rate for the client.

You can only imagine the embarrassment and, possibly, anger if the board of directors debate a major investment over a long-weekend only to be told the numbers were flawed, their recommendations were no longer valid and they would need to meet again to discuss the same issue.

It was a striking mistake for a very important client on a critical engagement. Several senior partners were displeased with the mistake and the impact this would have with a client who was already slightly skeptical about the value we could bring – the client openly questioned our domain knowledge. I particularly recall my mentor, a senior partner, was probably for the first time upset with me that I would let this happen on a study.

The first thing I did was to inform the senior partner leading the study and literally race across the city to inform the client in person. I have learned it is important to pay clients due respect at all times, especially when a mistake is made.

I then hunkered down with the team for the next 2 days to double-check all the numbers and update the board pack. Never once did I fault the team or create an atmosphere of gloom, although there would be a time and place to do a review, it was not now, and there is never a time and place to hinder morale while you need to meet a deadline.

When the senior partner and client separately asked me who was responsible, all I said was I am accountable so it was my fault. My team never forgot that. I did have a long discussion with the manager about fixing the problem, but I was clear that it was mainly my fault for not allocating sufficient time to check the results.

The team’s loyalty to me increased after the incident and word quickly spread around the office, creating even more loyalty. I took all the blame because it was my fault for not checking the numbers carefully, even when I could have easily shifted it to the manager.

Make no mistake, we had several sessions thereafter to discuss the analyses gaps and mistakes. As younger consultants, the team needed to demonstrate proficiency in this area. That said, that is not the main lesson from this story.

I learned to take responsibility for my actions because many years earlier a partner did the same thing when I made a mistake on the revenue analyses I was leading, which the partner forgot to check.

Values are passed from partner to potential partner. Those who live those values become partners. Don’t get me wrong. You need to be very good at generating insights from data. That, however, will only weed you out from the rest. To propel yourself to the next level, and ultimately partnership, you need to layer on much more skills.

We want to expose our clients to those analytical and values based teaching-moments.

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In light of major scandals driven by ex-McKinsey employees (e.g. Jeff Skilling, Rajat Gupta and Anil Kumar) and consequent sharper focus on ethics by top consulting firms, lets continue our discussion about ethics and delve deeper into how to think about ethics, and what shapes ethics.

Ethics is required when the law is not written, not enforced or wrong

To think about ethics, let’s picture a bar chart running vertically. The entire bar represents all the actions you could undertake in your country. It is obviously a hypothetical bar since we could not list every action we could take. Yet, we know we can do countless things.

The bar chart goes from one all the way to the one billion things you could do. The bar is split into two parts. Twenty percent of the bar is dark blue and eighty percent of the bar is white.

Everything that is dark blue depicts every action you can undertake in your country that is covered by the legal system. Therefore, for the dark blue part there is a law that determines if what you are doing is legal or illegal.

Everything in the white section depicts actions not covered by laws in your country.

When we talk about ethics we are most of the time talking about the actions within the white space, where the laws have not been written to cover your actions. If there was a law telling you how to behave in a situation, would it be an ethical debate given the law instructed you what to do? In most cases it will not be.

However, the world is not perfect.

There are times when the law is wrong. For example, when black people were not allowed to attend universities in South Africa or parts of United States. There are laws like that, unjust laws, right now in parts of the world. Therefore, in situations where the law is wrong, ethics should dictate your actions.

That is one example where ethics does not just apply to the white space but also applies to the blue space.

There are other situations where ethics applies to the blue space as well.

Think of countries that have exceptional constitutions. Their constitutions are so amazing that other legal systems around the world quote from these country’s constitutions and higher court opinions. For example, South Africa’s constitutional court rulings are highly referenced internationally.

However, there are parts of that country that are lawless. Clearly the law is not enough if there is no enforcement. If there is no enforcement people will misbehave unless they are ethically bound to behave themselves. Therefore, there are two situations where we need to apply ethics to actions governed by law, when the laws are wrong and when the laws are not enforced.

To summarize, ethics is required when the law is not written, not enforced or wrong.

The application of ethical principles is inversely proportional to the correctness of the law, the reach of the law and the enforcement of the law. If there are no laws, or the law is weak, or the law is wrong, or the law cannot be enforced, you are reliant on your personal judgment to make decisions.

The question is, how good is your judgment.

If ethics is about judgment, what drives our judgement?

We established that ethics is about judgment. Now I will give you 4 situations and I will show you what drives our judgment.

Imagine it is 1940 and you are a brilliant engineering student in Germany – blue eyes, blond hair, handsome but a bit naive. All you know is what is told to you, and you just happened to be a member of the armed forces. You are sitting at a hip Berlin bar. You are in a situation where everyone thinks it is just fine to persecute the Jewish and Slavic nations. Not only is this the kind of group you belong to, it is also aligned with the law in your country.

Let’s take another situation. Let’s assume it is 1910 in Canada. You are going out with your buddies, upstanding gentlemen who don’t agree that women should have the right to vote. That is all you see in the press. That is what people talk about. That is accepted.

How do you break away from that, when it is the only thing you know to be right?

Some of you will say, “Well, we actually know that’s wrong”. However, the reality is, to a large degree, we are defined by our circumstances. It is easy to apply a higher ethical standard in hindsight. We can prove this.

In the first two examples I have presented scenarios that today, in hindsight, we know to be wrong. In the next two examples I will give you things that we don’t necessarily know to be wrong today.

Think about eating animals. Human beings consume millions of tons, may be tens of millions of tons, of animal carcasses every year. It is completely acceptable to do this. It is acceptable to make jokes about it. In a hundred years people may look back at us and think we were animals for doing this.

We think it is acceptable because the network we belong to thinks it is acceptable. If you belonged to a social network whereby your friends thought it was horrible and distasteful to eat animals, you would probably not do it.

If your reaction to this was, it is not so bad so I am going to do it, then remember this is how unethical behavior becomes acceptable. We justify it based on what we see as being commonplace.

ethics quote

Let’s look at another example. Something that I notice every single time I am in a group of people – sexist comments. It is remarkable how much we tolerate sexist comments on television and in social settings. In fact social settings reinforce this behavior. Comments like “you are acting like a girl”, “you throw like a girl” or “only girls do that” are basically accepted discriminatory banter.

Just about every major comedy show in the United States has made some off-hand sexist comments. Some thrive on it and their ratings are directly proportional to this behavior.

One of the most popular shows in United States, “How I Met Your Mother”, actually has a scene whereby the main antagonist, Barney Stinson, talks about how he may have sold a woman into slavery. That show went on to have one of the highest ratings in prime time television for United States. It was a joke, obviously, but the fact is we find those things funny.

This happens right now. We think it is acceptable to belittle half of the human race. So why do we do that?

We do it because everyone else is doing it.

The social group you belong to shapes your ethics

In conclusion, the social group you belong to (your friends, the people from whom you seek acceptance, the people you spend time trying to impress, the people with whom you socialize, engage with, build relationships with etc.) shapes your values, or lack thereof.

The social network you choose to belong to will determine how ethical or unethical you choose to be, want to be or even could be.

So ask yourself: “How do the groups I choose to belong to shape my career and my life?”. If you are not happy with an answer to this question, make the necessary changes.

QUESTION(S) OF THE DAY: Which behaviours or beliefs currently acceptable in Western culture will, in your opinion, not be socially acceptable 100 years from now? Please let us know in the comments.

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Image from Trey Ratcliff under cc.

Image from Brett Jordan under cc.

Storyboard matters in studies because useful insights mean very little unless they can be woven into a compelling story. Critical insights which are not presented as a story, generally fail to get any traction at a client. In fact, that is one reason strategy studies collect dust on a client’s desk: they did not present a clear message.

When I was a corporate strategy partner, I pretty much drove teams a little crazy to constantly refine the story. I still do that. If you are following the US Retail Banking Study you would have seen us push for a crisp and compelling story. We do the same on the current power sector study. We just push and push for the best story out of the data. A great storyboard will get the client to act.

And that is what you want at the end of the day.

Where a storyboard fits in a strategy study

Boiled down to the basics, the strategy engagement structure can be explained as follows. First the key question team needs to answer in the engagement is determined. The key question has to be split into smaller questions in a logical format. This allows the team to develop a decision tree.

The decision tree has to meet two criteria. It has to be mutually exclusive and collectively exhaustive (MECE). There are two other criteria to be met and that is taught in our online strategy training program, though if you stick to the MECE rule that will be fine. Based on the decision tree, the hypotheses are developed.

The storyboard is the message engagement team delivers to the client, using the decision tree and hypotheses that has been developed, and it is based on the anticipated results of the study.

Next the team develops analyses to test each hypothesis. Based on the results of the analyses the hypotheses are proved or disproved and the storyboard is refined.

The diagram below shows a structure of a strategy study and a point at which the rough storyboard is developed. Although this diagram helps to understand how strategy engagements are conducted from the structural perspective, keep in mind that a strategy engagement is an iterative process and can be messy. In fact, it is usually messy.

Finally, the idea of using an objective function works in almost all types of strategy and operations engagements, but does not work in corporate strategy. In corporate strategy a very different approach is used because those engagements are different. That will be covered in a different article since corporate strategy studies are so rare.

storyboard in strategy study

What is a storyboard

To explain the management consulting storyboard concept, lets use an example from the animation industry. Before producing detailed animations and more, the animation team must first agree on the story.

The animation team gathers together in a room and takes blank pieces of A4 paper, they write out a short 10-word description of a scene on the top of the page and produce a rough 15-second pencil sketch to outline the animation which could go into this part of the movie.

In all, they can produce about 30 to 120 such A4 pages, stick them on a wall in sequence and everyone will be able to follow the story. This allows the animation team to debate the story and messaging without expensive animation work which would definitely change as the story changes.

To extend this analogy to a management consulting storyboard, the team needs to prepare a story of their message so that everyone in the team can understand their thinking and provide feedback. The management consulting storyboard is basically the headlines of the presentation which summarize the anticipated results from the work stream or from the entire strategy study.

Question from a reader about developing a storyboard

To dig deeper into the concept of developing a storyboard, I will answer a question we received from a reader, lets call him Henry.

Henry was avidly following the life blog on a study we did in the United States, where we were helping one of the largest Latin American banks to put together a strategy to enter the profitable, large and rapidly growing US financial services market. The study was focused around providing financing to low income entrepreneurs, either immigrants or US citizens.

We had been live blogging the study so everything we did you could follow it in real time and we spent a lot of time discussing what we were putting together. Fascinating work. It is definitely a new way to teach strategy consulting and tends to be very popular.

Henry wrote:

Michael, what you are doing is very interesting but one thing I don’t understand is how is it that you are able to come up with a storyboard for the client only in the beginning of your 3rd week of a 8 to 10 week strategy study?

This kind of seems to me as if you are giving a client a solution that you already have versus relying on the analysis to tell you what the answer will be. And isn’t that the criticism that consultants get that they don’t really develop new ideas for clients but put out what they already know? It does not make any sense to me so I am not sure how it can be right.

I can understand the reader’s confusion but he is wrong and I want to explain why he is wrong.

Piece of advice on how to communicate

First I want to point out one thing about this guy’s communication style. And, to be fair, many people have this style of communicating so it is worthwhile to address it here.

Henry is basically saying, “I don’t understand something. And because I don’t understand it, it must be wrong“. This is a really bad way to communicate.

It is extremely naïve or egotistical, or arrogant, you pick, to assume that if there is something you don’t understand then it must be wrong. For all you know, it may make perfect sense but you don’t have the necessary mindset or the necessary prerequisite knowledge to understand it.

If you don’t understand, it is better to say, “Look, I am sure it makes sense. I don’t actually get it so I will let you try it out and maybe I will get it later.” But don’t make it sound that if you don’t understand it then there is something wrong with the actual work.

It is just not appropriate. It sounds really bad to clients, superiors and colleagues when you do it. You sound like a 5 year old child.

How we could come up with a storyboard in such a short time

Besides that piece of advice on how to communicate, lets get into how we were able to write a storyboard in such a short time.

Note that anything that I will be able to teach you here will be at a high level. You can learn these concepts in depth as you go through our strategy training. How to develop a storyboard and other strategy capabilities is also taught in our book “Succeeding as a Management Consultant“.

Now lets address how we were able to come up with the storyboard so early.

Think about the logic here. We are not doing analysis just because we have to do it. We are doing analysis because we are trying to answer some questions.

If you just doing the analysis because this is the analysis you always do in a strategy study (e.g. market segmentation, cost effectiveness and revenue analysis), then yes, you have to wait for the analysis to be done to see what the analysis will tell you.

But this is not the way we do things at elite strategy firms. We do the analysis for a reason and that is the fundamental mind shift you have to make.

We start off with the objective function. What is the problem we are trying to solve for the client? We then break that objective function into the direct drivers of the problem. We then continue breaking down those drivers until we get what looks like a Christmas tree, that is actually a decision tree.

The objective function is the apex of the tree and the tree breaks out. We then prioritize the branches that are most important in the decision tree to help us figure out where to spend most of our time (refer to the exhibit below for an example).

decision tree_management consulting_storyboard

For each of those prioritized branches we then say, “Ok, what is the hypothesis to explain why this is the issue impacting the objective function?”.

Once we have the hypotheses, we can then say, “Hey, if this is the hypotheses, what tests do we need to do to prove or disprove the hypotheses?”.

Those tests then become the analyses.

We do the analysis which directly help us answer the hypotheses, which directly helps us determine if each of the prioritized branches should in fact be prioritized and, therefore, what drives the objective function.

So even before we finish the analysis, because we know why we doing the analysis, we can say, “Ok, if the analysis turns out to be this, what is the message we will give to the client?”.

For each analysis you probably will have one or two, at most 3, possible outcomes. Rather than writing a storyboard for each outcome, we write a storyboard for what we think is the most likely outcome. And then, if the analyses turn out to be a little bit different than we expected, obviously the storyboard will be revised.

But more or less we don’t turn out to be wrong. We turn out to be right most of the time because of the logic we apply and because we are attacking the problem from so many angles that this allows us to cross reference and cross check things.

And that is the crucial point here. We don’t just do analysis for the sake of doing it. And, therefore, we don’t have to wait to see what the analysis is telling us. The analysis is being done to check certain hypotheses that we developed at the start of the study. And the hypotheses are not random. They are built off the decision tree, which is also not random because the decision tree is actually brainstorming the issues which are driving the objective function.

And this is the important difference in which elite firms do analysis. We don’t just decide, “Ok, this is the checklist of analysis we need to do, lets do it”.

We say, “Hey, hold on a second, why are we doing the analysis? What purpose does it serve?”. In our mind we are developing the storyboard which states if these are the issues and this is the way the issues turn out in the analysis, then this is the recommendation we give to the client.

We can write that storyboard in the first, second or third week. And once we complete the analysis, we can go back and check if the storyboard we wrote out, based on what we thought the analysis will turn out to be, makes sense.

And if it does not, we will revise the storyboard. But I can tell you right now, 80-90% of the storyboard usually turns out to be correct. The more and more you think about it, even 95% of it could turn out to be correct.

By the 3rd week of the study, the storyboard is more or less there. Yes, few things will change. The data will definitely change. For example, we may know that certain segment of the market is unprofitable, but likely will not know why it is unprofitable or by how much it is unprofitable. But we more or less will be able to figure out it is unprofitable.

So that explains how we are able to come up with the storyboard so early. Because we are not doing analysis for the sake of doing it but because we have a reason for doing it, and the reason allows us to structure the storyboard.

QUESTION(S) OF THE DAY: What challenges will you face in applying this technique in a corporate or tier-2 firm? Please let us know in the comments.

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