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How To Speak McKinsey: 5 Things Your Consultants Are Saying That You've Always Wanted to Understand

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Published:
December 14, 2020
Reading Time:
10 minutes
Lynn Hunt
Lynn's diverse perspectives on business stem from her extensive experience as a management consultant - her role as a beloved wife, mother and grandmother adds further depth to her insights.

If you think your freelance management consultant is speaking gobbledygook, you're probably right. While there is something to be said for a common vocabulary or jargon for a profession, consultants should not use it to impress you or obfuscate issues (see, I can also use an important-sounding word, instead of a simple "confuse" or "complicate"!)

As for any profession, consulting has its technical terminology. It allows consultants to communicate clearly with each other and apply the same tools and techniques consistently.

Freelance management consultants, especially those working in the online consulting marketplace, may be tempted to use some terminologies to show their competitiveness with their peers in larger consulting firms.

However, when you are the client, you would probably prefer some simple explanation of what they are on about.

So, let's have a light-hearted look at some consult-ese - complicated ways of saying simple things – together with a more serious explanation of two terms that might be useful to you: MECE and the Pyramid Principle. While being part of the jargon, these are important tools for thinking and communication used by consultants and business people alike.

Getting Out of Trouble, Consultant-Style

Generally, the primary reason businesses bring in consultants is to correctly identify the underlying issues so that any intervention will have the desired result. Top freelance consultants will have a disciplined approach to this task, working according to a model or clearly defined processes.

Sometimes they get it wrong. When they do, a few might say, "We haven't worked out yet what the problem is" or "We've made a big mistake here."

Others have some wonderful phrases to make them look as if they are in control of the situation:

  • Directionally correct: This is shorthand for saying that although the overall conclusion may be right, some analysis is incorrect. Directionally correct is usually accompanied by the request not to get too caught up in the details.
  • The right road, but the wrong direction: This is a cover for flawed analysis of information.
  • We now have a better idea of the questions to ask: This is beyond a flawed analysis. The outcome is so wrong that the work clearly will have to be redone from the start. The consultant hopes you will get some value from the second try.

My favorite is when you ask a question that the consultant hasn't answered yet or hasn't even thought about. The response? We've left that open, or We'll circle back to that.

"I didn't have time to write a short letter, so I wrote a long one instead." - Mark Twain

Getting Into the Weeds and Boiling the Ocean: MECE vs. Drilling Down

Some freelance management consultants will ask whether they have considered all the issues. Why, then, would others say something like, "Have you checked your analysis for MECE-ness?" or "We're boiling the ocean here."

MECE is usually pronounced mee-see and is an acronym for Mutually Exclusive, Collectively Exhaustive. It is a foundational idea in consulting thinking and problem-solving, first designed by Barbara Minto. She was the first female MBA hired by McKinsey in the 1960s and 70s.

Mutually exclusive refers to ideas that are distinctly different, separate, and not overlapping. Collectively exhaustive means that the ideas cover all the possible options. The consultant can use the technique to gather a large amount of information, make sure that everything is covered, and then simplify it into separate and distinct ideas. It combines analytical thinking (breaking everything down into parts) and synthesis (summarizing the detail into higher-level concepts).

A simple example is grouping a grocery shopping list into categories like baked goods, fruit, frozen foods, proteins, including all items in the groups and having no ambiguity. In this example, you might wonder where frozen fish would fit – frozen foods or proteins? If you are wondering, it is a good indicator that the groupings need to be thought through more clearly.

The skill in using this technique is to ensure that it simplifies and clarifies rather than complicating information. It pushes consultants to think clearly about how they communicate with clients. MECE is also a robust methodology for executive summaries.

Drilling down or getting into the weeds is the terminology for the opposite approach – getting beyond the high-level summary to the details. The consultant who perhaps thinks that the word detail is too simple can ask for more granularity!

And of course, there's a warning about getting too focused on the analysis of detail: Don't boil the ocean.

Of Change and Opportunity

Change is fundamental to consulting. It's no wonder, then, that there is change jargon a-plenty:

  • We hear about transformation, smooth or bumpy transition, and Swiss cheese future states (this is about making changes stick or be sustainable).
  • Sea change applies to any profound or notable shift or transformation, sometimes also called a paradigm shift. An example might be: "There's been a sea change in online shopping since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic." The term was first used by Shakespeare in The Tempest, describing the change to the body of someone who drowned at sea.
  • Change management is a service that consultants sell, and change models and change management plans will accompany it.
  • Key to success will be getting client commitment, having them onboard, having their buy-in, or gaining traction.
freelance management consultants, How To Speak McKinsey: 5 Things Your Consultants Are Saying That You’ve Always Wanted to Understand

Opportunities are described in several ways:

Quick wins or low-hanging fruit are things that can be done easily and quickly to add value for the client. Some of the more cynical may say these terms refer to the things that can quickly justify the consultants' fees!

White space, greenfield, or blue ocean: These terms refer to opportunities to generate revenue where the company is not currently doing so – for example, introducing a new product, introducing an existing product in a new market, or entering an entirely new market.

While these concepts may sound exciting and may come somewhat glibly from consultants, you as a business person may need to exercise discipline and restraint and ask some questions:

  • Why hasn't this been done before?
  • Have others tried it? What made them stop?
  • If this seems like such an obvious business opportunity, why hasn't it been obvious to other smart people? What do they know that we don't?

As one writer put it, "The white space might just be fool's gold."

Very often, the better route to follow is to stick to your core products or purpose and to understand your core competencies – i.e., those areas where your company performs well in relation to competitors or similar companies.

The Pyramid Principle

The Pyramid Principle is another of the thinking and communication frameworks developed by Barbara Minto at McKinsey in the 1970s. Consultants have probably used this principle when they have made presentations to you. (And, incidentally, it may be a technique you will want to use, as it is so effective.)

In essence, the Pyramid Principle says the best way of getting your point across clearly and persuasively is by structuring your thoughts, your presentations, and even your reports in the following order:

  1. First, give your conclusion or your answer to the problem
  2. Support this with your main arguments
  3. Then give the data that supports each argument.

The rationale for this approach is that it immediately engages the attention of the listener. The presenter can quickly judge whether the audience is in agreement. If there are queries or objections, the supporting arguments and details are available.

Some may think that this approach can be abrasive or removes the possibility of building up an argument to its punchline. These are valid concerns. However, it follows the principles of the big picture and top-down thinking usually adopted by C-Suite executives and ensures that, especially when time is limited, attention can be given to the essential elements, with details being supplied only if necessary.

I couldn't resist the temptation to add yet another piece of consult-ese: C-Suite executives. These are the highest-ranking executives in the organization, generally with the word Chief as part of their titles – so Chief Executive Officer (CEO), Chief Financial Officer (CFO), Chief Technical Officer (CTO), and so on. I wonder how we understood this concept for so many years without the fancy new description?

Why Use a Complicated Word When Something Simple is Available?

When I hear and read some terminology used by consultants, I am reminded of Mark Twain's classic comment: "I didn't have time to write a short letter, so I wrote a long one instead."

Clarity and brevity require mental discipline. In my view, it's the consultant's role to make sure that his/her communication is understood. It's not the role of the client to have to figure it out.

In this age of the online consulting marketplace and remote meetings, freelance management consultants might want to reconsider terms and phrases and ask whether there is a more straightforward (and, dare I say, more honest) way of communicating with clients.