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What Makes Strategy Consulting Training Effective

What Makes Strategy Consulting Training Effective

Developing a new strategy consulting training program for the boutique firm.

This series of articles teaches how consultants can apply best practices from the top management consulting firms to any consulting business. 

In part 1 of this series we dived into how I was head-hunted to turnaround a boutique consulting firm. 

Part 2 provided an overview of the consulting business I inherited. 

In part 3 we looked at the challenges of turning around a consulting boutique firm while dealing with a hostile management team. 

Part 4  focused on a surgical approach to rebuild skills and motivation within the consulting firm.

In part 5, this article, we focus on developing an effective strategy consulting training program which makes consultants perform better versus simply feeling better about their skills.

For confidentiality reasons, we have modified some of the details in these articles. 

Technical skills are not the most important part of strategy consulting training programs

Consultants in boutique consulting firms and executives in corporate are obsessed with learning technical skills taught at McKinsey and BCG. They tend to universally disregard other strategy consulting capabilities required to be an outstanding management consultant. Let me explain why strategy consulting training limited to only technical skills is insufficient.

Imagine you have a 13 year-old son and you want to teach him good money management skills. So you decide to embark on a 3-year training program. During those 3 years you make him download QuickBooks and set it up. Each week you hand over the bills, receipts, statements and pay stubs.

It’s his job to enter everything and make sure everything is updated for tax season.

Your son eventually becomes a QuickBooks wizard. He can print all types of analyses and pie charts to figure out you are spending more on Heineken per week than food. Not good for your husband, but an interesting analysis.

Comforted by your son’s money management proficiency, as demonstrated by his thorough knowledge of QuickBooks, you decide to leave him alone for the weekend and fly off with your husband for a get away. Your son’s great skills actually saved you money you could spend on a vacation.

Upon your return you arrive to a home that has clearly been the site of the most epic teenage party you have ever seen. Breakage and alcohol bills add up to a massive cost. Clearly your son does not understand money management.

Do you see the analogy?

Just because your son understands the technical elements of cataloging finances does not meant he understands the trade-offs required when making financial decisions. He is not there when you and your husband must debate and decide whether or not to go on a vacation, buy a car, pay for medical treatment or put aside money in his college fund.

All your son has seen is the final decision. Yet it is engaging in the process of making the trade-off decision that will lead to understanding the importance of managing money.

There are two important points to grasp here.

The first point is crucial so please make sure you understand it. A good consulting partner will teach a consultant how to make a judgment call when the consultant is alone or does not have time to ask for help. And this happens daily.

Like in the example above, teaching consultants only technical skills relevant to strategy consulting is insufficient. It means a senior person must always be around to make judgment calls. It also means teams can never split out and work independently.

You have to train consultants in such a way that when they are alone, you can be sure that they will be motivated by the same principles as you to make the right decisions or at least similar decisions

Now, linked to this and equally important, you cannot create a one thousand page guideline for every single action or scenario the consultants will face.

Well, maybe you can but it is unlikely consultants are going to read or remember so much and even if they did it is really impractical.

So what do you do?

You need to create a set of principles for them to follow. Thereafter, when faced with a decision and you are not there to guide them, they will use the principles to make a decision.

Imagine the flexibility and trust this builds? Everyone is working off the same principles.

So where do the principles come from? Well, the principles are really the description of the values of the consulting firm. By ensuring everyone understands the principles and can use them to make decisions, as a consulting partner, you know that no matter where in the world consultants are, and no matter what they face, they are equipped to make a decision that fits the values of the consulting firm.

The decisions may differ, but they never compromise the principles of the firm.

This is very powerful because it means control mechanisms and structures so common in corporate environments and which waste billions of dollars are no longer needed. Rather than having a command and control structure to ensure the consultants did the right thing, we invest enormous resources to ensure their DNA is wired to our value system.

In simple terms, we want to make sure the strategy consulting technical skills are used for the right reasons. You would not give a person a powerful weapon unless you were sure they would use it wisely. And strategy consulting technical skills are a powerful weapon.

Strategy consulting technical skills do not teach consultants to understand the trade-offs in decisions. That comes with experience and being taught to be aware of the trade-offs and how to handle them.

Too much strategy consulting training is about running an NPV analysis and comparing the numbers. The trade-offs go much deeper. What about changing legislation, threats of war, deflation, inflation, or the ability to find managers to run the new division? All are critical and no equation can accurately estimate the impact.

This requires judgment.

Designing a strategy consulting training program

The strategy consulting training program I designed when I was a partner at the Firm was very similar to the program I developed at the boutique consulting firm. So that original training program is worth explaining here.

When I was promoted to principal at the Firm I was asked to redesign our strategy consulting training program for a hub office. Remember, this was before I became Director, which is the same as senior consulting partner. A principal is a non-equity partner of the firm. The term principal sounds impressive but you are still the junior partner among some very eminent and influential directors.

So you are in a pretty tough spot. Some of these directors invented concepts in strategy currently taught at the major MBA programs worldwide. How in the world can a relatively junior consulting partner change the strategy consulting training program without ruffling too many feathers?

Thankfully, as a strategy partner I knew that the key part of a problem was framing it correctly. If the objective function was incorrectly defined, the problem could not be solved.

So this is how I thought about the problem.

I reasoned the analytics part of the strategy consulting training program we had at the time was very good and probably needed no adjustments. Even if the analytics part needed adjustments I was not sure the effort was worth it since the firm was already making improvements. There was no point duplicating the process by focusing my limited training budget on searching for new analytic techniques. We develop those on studies for clients.

I also knew it took the brightest consultants about 3 studies to grasp strategy at a basic level. That is about 24 weeks where they are working around 15 hour days. There was no way a 4 days training program could possibly hope to teach consultants anything useful about the analyses in such a short space of time.

So I ignored the analytics in the training. I just left it out since it could not be done and the training should be done on studies anyway.

Now I focused on other aspects of the strategy consulting training program.

All training programs we had followed in the last few years adhered to a similar process with some very minor modifications.I had attended similar programs as a younger consultant. I hated them with a passion and would find every excuse to leave.

They consisted of talks by directors about the work, clients and impact. They always consisted of case studies where an issue was presented and teams would breakout over a few days to solve parts of the case. Either one case was used over the few days or different cases were used to teach different skills. The objective seemed to be to get management consultants familiar with the basic terms and analytic tools.

Our current strategy consulting training seemed to be introducing new consultants to a little of many different things. They were being exposed to the culture, language and analytic tools. It was overwhelmingly technically oriented with values thrown in because, you know, we are x and we always talk about values.

We seemed to want to emphasize everything in the training and therefore emphasized nothing.

So this is what I did to change the program.

First, I used the same reasoning as in the example with 13-year old above, but using a military example. Before we train these cadets (management consultants) to fire some nukes (apply analytic tools) lets drill them in the guidelines for combat (values).

The implications of this are quite spectacular. I am basically saying strategy consulting training does not work well and does not add much value if it is too focused on technical skills.

I am also saying what we all suspected. Lets stop pretending the training gave the consultants sufficient analytical problem solving skill. We, the partners, should focus on better managing studies so the consultants can be trained on studies.

This is one reason consulting studies at McKinsey and BCG are so top-heavy. The training takes place on the study and there needs to be sufficient guiding partners for the studies.

Due to this there needs to be enormous oversight to ensure there are opportunities to learn and the work is of a higher order. So this decision changed the way we structured engagement teams.

I focused the training on values.

Training values

How did I train the consultants about values?

First, I designed the entire strategy consulting training program to focus on the trade-offs management consultants needed to make. And I did not worry as much about the actual analytical problem solving tools they would need to deploy. The analytic tools were going to be taught on consulting studies anyway.

I was interested in how the consultants reasoned the trade-offs knowing full well that once they asked the right questions they would learn how to structure the analyses from the questions.

Second, I sought to humanize the studies. To me, this is a massive failure of case studies and MBA training. Students and younger consultants struggle to relate to amorphous, inorganic corporate enterprises. Steven Spielberg once said that if you want the audience to feel sympathy for an alien you must give it the loose features of a human (e.g. limbs, face, eyes or nose).

This is what I attempted to do

Developing strategy consulting training for infrastructure consultants

Now I will shift to the actual strategy consulting training we developed for the infrastructure consultants at the boutique consulting firm.

It was pretty much the same as outlined above. I found a few major infrastructure studies we were planning to do and spent a lot of time searching for videos about the towns, people and communities that would be impacted.

Thankfully, the Internet had made enormous strides by this point so it was easy to do. I always looked for videos about young female children. People tend to feel more sympathy for females versus males and for children versus adults.

For the proposed consulting study where I found the best material online about the communities, I would use that consulting study as the primary case study for the strategy consulting training program.

During the first 30 minutes of the strategy consulting training we did not discuss anything about the client. Nothing at all. That surprised most consultants. They were not sure if they were in the right room. They probably stayed around for the first 30 minutes due to curiosity, and the charming photos and videos of the little girl and her town.

The first session

The first session is important. During those first 30 minutes I relied heavily on social media to get consultants to like the child, Clara. We would see clips of her birthday, photos of her life and her family. We would cut to local news clips of the town, its key establishments, interviews with the school, etc.

Facebook has made this so easy these days.

The trick is that they must know the child, like her and feel she is part of their lives. They must feel the pain when you present the trade-off.

Then after 30 minutes we switched to the problem.

In this particular study, a major Middle Eastern ports company that owns the port next to town wants to decide if they should upgrade the port or shut it down.

We kept this tight and short so they saw the link between the child and the problem. Then we quickly shifted to the trade-off.

The company can only upgrade this port near the child or another in Dubai. They cannot do both and if they go with the Dubai option, the port near the child would be shut down.

Next we shifted rapidly to the implications. Again, social media and news clips helped here.

90% of adults in Clara’s town work for the port and the town would be decimated if the port closed.

Then we focused on the impact on Clara.

This would mean her family’s income would be depressed. She would likely have to move. Her family may have to temporarily split up due to work. Her family’ income may never recover. This may impact her family savings and ability to pay for schooling. It could change her life.

Then we made the trade-off personally explicit.

Remember, somewhere in Dubai there is another “Clara” whose family will benefit enormously from the additional work, income, stability and it will undoubtedly change her life too.

Whom do we indirectly help, Clara in the US or “Clara” in Dubai?

A different values-based discussion

I still have the presentations I used. Clara with her big blue eyes, curly hair, fat cheeks and running around chasing her cat. Clara blowing out candles, winning her first brownie badge and her first day of school. She must be a teenager now.

Thank you Mark Zuckerberg.

You will be surprised at how attentive, careful and thoughtful the discussion now becomes. We are no longer talking about faceless corporations and worthless buzzwords and acronyms. We are going deeper and explaining the impact of our decision on someone the consultants have come to know and like.

We are getting the consultants to understand a few things many consultants never truly grasp:

1) Every single strategy consulting study is a discussion about trade-offs and in every trade-off someone must lose in the short-term. How do you make sure the right person loses? What if the person you really like must lose?

2) You cannot avoid short-term losses. So take what we do seriously because somewhere a “Clara” is going to suffer.

Sometimes, a smarty-pants will try to explain that not all strategy consulting studies are a trade-off with collateral damage. But if you think about this carefully, they all are.

What about helping a cereal company take market share? How can that have such a stark trade-off?

Of course it can. If your client gets customers x to buy 3 more boxes of its cereal than a competitor will less 3 less boxes of cereal. Those numbers start to means something when you add them up. Lost share means less production, procurement, promotions, etc. Less work means less revenue for suppliers and retrenchments. In extreme cases its means shutting or consolidating factories.

So your client expands it’s production but the “Clara” impacted by the factory which is being shut down or slowed down is not so lucky.

The rest of the discussion becomes one of making the implicit or explicit trade-offs.

It is an explicit trade-off if the study is one to compare both sites. It is an implicit trade-off if the study is merely to look at the economics of the USA site independent of the Dubai site.

Especially in the study where we merely look at the economics of the USA site we want the team to understand there is an explicit impact.

The value here is that after initiating the session in this way the consultants tend to be more careful when considering the impact of their decisions. They also care much more and we have deeper discussions about the analyses we can use and their limitations.

At the end of the day, we need to what is best for the client. Yet, we should never forget that lives will be impacted and that is why, as an aside, you never ever have fancy dinners in a town where a major operations decision is being made. The waitress may very well be the daughter of a employee losing his/her job due to a plant you decided to shut down.

Stories of consultants spending money on wine and celebrating do not play well in this environment.

So I find that by starting with the values part we end up having a much more meaningful discussion on the analytics which they want to do, versus us forcing a superficial discussion on them.

I suppose the only negative to this is that to keep the shock factor I needed to use a different child and background story in each training session because people soon started circulating them. I had to get far more creative in showing trade-offs.

However, the lesson seemed to stick and consultants now understood why we are so incredibly tough on the standards. This is not about just making company X another Y million dollars. This was about saving the right “Clara” and, by default, deciding whom we will not save in the short term.

To be continued …

QUESTION(S) OF THE DAY: If consulting is reason without emotion, why are we deliberately injecting emotion into the discussion? Please share in the comments.

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Image from Jon Herbert under cc.


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