This post is based on a question I answered on Quora. The original question was: “Do Management consultants have any good hacks for collecting, absorbing and articulating information?

Here goes my reply:

First of all: There are few “hacks” in the meaning of “shortcut”. Being a good management consultant ain’t easy. Every time you think you got it all down, you discover the next level of things to learn and master. I’m 10 years in, and this still happens regularly.

On collecting information:

  • Before capturing/interviewing/collecting, you need to think all the way through to the result and the presentation of the result.

    • What is the question/hypothesis we want an answer for?
    • What information can conclusively answer this?
    • How is the information to be displayed?
    • Who has the information?
    • What specifically do I have to ask for? In which format/structure/level of detail/ etc. do I need the data?
    • How can I streamline the collection in a way that enables me to use/analyze the data without additional steps (e.g. create a template to be filled out)
  • During interviewing and data collection/screening: Make sure that every question that pops up in your head does get answered. Especially the seemingly small and irrelevant ones. For example: “huh, I am wondering if these figures include data from the subsidiaries?” “What does PMI stand for in this chart?” “Are the two John Millers in the org chart actually the same person, or two people?” “Is this with or without sales tax?” and so on, and so forth.

 

On absorbing information:

  • Deep dives/ “going down the rabbit hole” have the inherent danger of wasting time and going off course. Make sure you regularly check if what you are doing right now is…
    • getting you closer to answering your initial questions
    • The most efficient way of doing things right now (e.g.: Before you spend a day re-formatting a table, is it possible to get the data you need from a different source? Can the same goal be obtained with a cheaper (time/effort) approach?
    • (In the initial phase) within the 20% of effort for 80% of the results
  • Do sanity checks, and do them often. E.g.: I have 10 million of sales, and 5 salesmen. Is it plausible that every one of them generates 2m sales per year? Is this on par with the industry?
  • Talk about your findings within the team. Think out loud. This is especially important when you are trying to understand complex mechanics/ business models/ details of the market or the business of your client. Talking about it means that you have to be precise about your understanding and your logic. This is a great tool to reveal gaps in your own understanding or your arguments, before your client finds them.

On articulating information:

  • Always be structured. Always. When talking, don’t feel the pressure to answer quickly/without necessary thought. Take a few seconds.
  • It’s okay to defer an answer if necessary. If you are not feeling confident with the answer you can give right now, say that you’ll have to look into the numbers and will get back to the client right this afternoon, etc.. being quick is seldom as important as being correct.
  • Make sure how you articulate/display information fits…
    • The recipient (talking to the board vs. talking to the mechanic on the shop floor, core team member vs. person who hears about your project for the first time)
    • The core of the information itself (e.g. don’t show a sheet of numbers when in fact you want to say that sales have declined steadily of the last 5 years)
    • The time that you have to communicate it – nothing worse than having to endure a 30-minutes, 30-slides desaster…