Putting a Stake in the Ground

March 22, 2010

Sometimes you just have to take a position to move things forward. I see many teams and organizations get paralyzed by indecision, conscious stalling and/or lack of clarity.

I am certainly the king of “it depends” and “context matters” and am a serial deferrer to buy time for more data to come in. I also would stipulate that sometimes, waiting is the most effective strategy. But sometimes, you have to force the issue.

Let’s first discuss how we can force the issue and then get into when and why.

Universal Answer- How

In almost all of these cases, the “answer” is proposing a straw model(s) for people to debate. The point is to put something reasonable in print for people to respond to. In can be high-level and conceptual, or very detailed and well thought out. Whatever works for the context you are in. The point is to commit it to a form that people can understand and meaningfully debate.

You are doing several things in this process.

1 – Summarizing what you believe to be “the current understanding”. This requires synthesis and thought on your part.

2 – Framing clear discussion points for stakeholders. Whether in the form of a proposal, documented assumptions, alternate scenarios etc., you are allowing others to get the “digested” thinking. This advances discussion more quickly.

3 – Controlling the agenda. Remember that he/she who commits thoughts to print first frames the discussion.

4 – Increasing communication efficiency – The discussion will much more quickly move to clarification and debate when people understand what you are saying. No need to waste time on multiple rounds of clarification if you are clear.

You can position the straw model as your thinking, or distance yourself from it as appropriate. (You still need to e politically astute). Either way, you are driving discussion and action.

The key is often to embed a failsafe trigger that will “go off” if someone doesn’t respond. From a negotiations standpoint the idea is to create a sense of urgency. So document your idea/position and publish it. Could be an email to group, a power point proposal or clear position on white board in a meeting.

Now let’s explore a few times when forcing the issue makes sense. What follows is an unscientific list of situations that I see a need for “stakes in the ground”.

When to apply 

You are on a timeline

In this situation, you often have no other choice. Whether the issue is major or minor, there isn’t time to waste. This is particularly true for consultants. We are always “on the clock”, with time equaling either billable hours or engagement profitability. For better or for worse, clients also know you will be gone by a certain date. Often the issue is as much attention from relevant stakeholders as it is resistance. You are competing for their attention and mental bandwidth.

Example – A team of mine recently did a nice job of managing a client situation by writing a very detailed list of assumptions and actions they were going to take in conducting quantitative analysis of a large and complicated data set based on those assumptions with a due date. They also pointed out the cost if their assumptions were wrong and a timeline for responding.

The result was important (and timely) clarifications, as well as enhanced team credibility due to the detail and rigor of their efforts. Any less effort and we all would have been spinning our wheels for weeks more. They had been struggling to get clarity and finally realized that pe

You want to expose potential disconnects/create a shared understanding

What does this even mean? Here, you think that everyone is not on the same page and the point is to take a position to reveal others’ understanding of the issue. This can be particularly important in cross-functional or cross-organizational discussions.

 One example is that people may not mean the same thing even when they are using the same terms. “Terms of Art” is a phrase used to describe the actual definition of a technical or functionally specific term. For example, organizations often differ from classical functional boundaries. What does “supply chain” mean at your firm? What’s in “operations”? It’s crucial that you reach common operational definitions for these terms to ensure common understanding.

Other examples include:

  • Surfacing assumptions that are so deep, no one even thought to discuss them.
  • Highlighting areas believed to be commonly agreed, but more detail or specificity reveals that the devil is in the details and maybe there wasn’t as much agreement as thought.

You need to make people publicly take a position

This one is more political. Often people are trying to avoid taking a position on politically difficult topics. If you can maneuver them into a position where they have to be specific in their objections, then you can document their issues and potentially push them into a corner if you can address all their objections. You then expose their motivations if they continue to resist/object when their concerns have been addressed.

As always, I struggle with being MECE, but these are the big ones I can think of off the top of my head. Let me know if you can think of others.

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Creative and Critical Thinking at B-Schools

January 13, 2010

Here’s an interesting piece from the NYT’s regarding some innovations in b-school curriculum. (Thanks to Kyle for the link). 

http://www.nytimes.com/2010/01/10/business/10mba.html

I’m encouraged by what many schools (particularly Rotman and Stanford) are doing to encourage both divergent and integrative thinking. I often feel our curriculum gets very functionally anchored and students struggle to pull broader concepts together as they move through school when most subject matter has been relatively functionally specific.

I feel that there aren’t “marketing” problems or “finance” problems. There are business problems that require diverse expertise and perspectives to arrive at the best solutions. Our CSOM Enterprise programs help us deliver situations that force students to do this. It’s interesting to see how some other schools are adressing the same issues.


The Importance of Wonder

November 6, 2009

One of my key criteria when evaluating a potential hire is “how curious are they?” Particularly in consulting, you have to want to solve problems. In my mind, you need to be curious and driven to get to answers to be a effective problem solver.

I think this column by Olivia Judson in the New York Times does a nice job of hitting on a piece of this: http://judson.blogs.nytimes.com/2009/11/03/license-to-wonder/ 

Her comments about wonder and imagination are worth considering. She lays out the case for imagination as critical to scientific inquiry. Progress isn’t a linear slog through gradual increase in the body of knowledge (“facts upon facts”). It’s lumpier progress, sometimes gradual and predictable at other times led by leaps of intuition that overturn the common understanding.

In my program, I often get feedback that I’m “too structured” or that I demand a lot from my students. Often, my point to students is about what Judson discusses. You need to have enough structure to get to good questions, but then be willing to let your mind wander and imagine possibilities. The challenge is often knowing when to turn the wandering back into concrete action steps and specific analysis and recommendations.  This takes time, thought and a lot of work. You don’t get anything right on the first try. It takes lots of iteration and feedback.

In her example, Rosalind Franklin didn’t make the critical connections about DNA’s structure because she was too rigid and linear in her thinking. Watson and Crick were more open to “playing” with ideas. Having said that, they were also driven problem solvers. Had they kept playing they wouldn’t have solved anything. Their play led to useful and increasingly accurate representations of the mystery they were trying to solve (the structure of DNA).

Business problems are often the same. There’s a time for wonder and imagination, but for it to turn out a useful product there also needs to be a time for tangible, concrete work product.

I guess experience is knowing when the balance is “just right”.


Case Interviewing

September 19, 2009

A major stressor for a bunch of my students at this time of year is case interviewing. Many of the top recruiters of both UG and MBA students use some form of problem solving interview to gauge candidates’ analytical skills as well as their grace under pressure. I’ll lay out a few of the major themes I review with people as they prepare to go through this process.

What are firms looking for?

  1. Analytical abilities – How clearly can you develop an analytical framework, dissect a problem, create clear alternatives and effectively communicate a recommendation?
  2. Poise – How well do you handle stress and intense questioning? Do you get lost in a sea of data or do you understand what’s important? Do you stand your ground when appropriate or cave under pressure? Do you hard headedly stick to ill conceived positions? How comfortable are you in your own skin?
  3. Fit – Are you one of us? Do you think like we do? Am I comfortable with you in front of my clients on day one?

Each of these is important and falling down on any one is a killer. Keep in mind that you can do really well on all and not get an offer based on how competitive the field is for these roles.

How do I handle the case?

1. Frame the problem

You are typically asked a question or presented and introductory slide or two with data. Make sure you understand the question and then take a few minutes to collect your thoughts and commit them to paper in a logic tree.

Success (failure is the inverse of these):

  • You clearly repeat the question and understand any clarifications the interviewer offers
  • You lay out a reasonable approach

Traps:

  • DO NOT assume too much. I see candidates try to be too clever and jump to conclusions. This is death in a case. You will waste time, spin wheels and not be demonstrating any of traits 1-3 above.

2. Dig for details

Once you’ve laid out a framework you start asking good questions. This is a narrowing process to eliminate potential problems of avenues that don’t apply. You are trying to show your breadth and depth of knowledge as well as your ability to synthesize in real time.

This is where you are showing your analytical skills. How well do you handle challenges? How well do you respond when what you thought might be the answer has no data and so (obviously) isn’t a useful path?

Also important is how curious and intuitive are you? Stated differently, do you demonstrate an aptitude for being a driving problem solver? Too many people are trying to be formulaic in digging. I call it “wielding frameworks.” Don’t tell me you’ll do a Porter’s 5 Forces. Do it. When I pose you an interesting conundrum, be curious and dig until you’re satisfied you’ve reached the bottom of the information well.

Also, think about what you’re saying here. Many people simply talk too much without good information. You can put waayyy too much out there for your interviewer (or inquisitor) to jump on. Share pertinent information or insights. You definitely want to share your thinking. Just be careful what and when you share it.

More business students than you might think have gotten great grades, but aren’t “savvy”. They can lose sight of what matters in unstructured problems. Solving an undefined case is much harder than getting to the crux of a pricing case when you’re in a pricing class and the case relates to this week’s reading. In that situation, you already have the problem domain narrowed way down. Here you have to figure out the problem

Success:

  • Asking good questions that are on point
  • Taking direction and guidance from interviewer. Most are trying to assist you. Don’t treat them as adversaries.
  • Demonstrating curiosity
  • Demonstrating good business acumen/intuition/savviness

Traps:

  • Not listening to guidance
  • Talking too much in advance of intuition and/or data
  • Failing to follow through on useful paths (this is where “curiosity” matters)

3. Develop the math/reach insight

There is typically a key insight in the case. It might be quantitative – I’ve given you numbers and you reach a financial conclusion (ex: Product line A isn’t profitable) It might be qualitative – based on asking good questions it turns out that you learn a new competitor has entered the market. Either way, you reach an insight that can then drive you to conclusions about sensible recommendations going forward.

It is critically important that you demonstrate comfort with number for those firms that care. Assume McKinsey, Bain, Boston Consulting and Deloitte all care a lot. Do you get what direction the numbers are moving and at what scale? Also – don’t make it harder than it has to be. My emphasis is on understanding. Don’t worry about the 3rd decimal point here. If someone says 190,000, do the math with 200,000. It’s easier and you’ll still get to the right conclusion. Keep it as simple as you can.

Success:

  • Obviously, getting the “right” answer matters. But it’s not the only thing.
  • Understanding the insight you’ve reached. Again this sounds obvious, but many candidates don’t understand what they’ve just learned.
  • Demonstrating comfort with the scale and direction of numbers.

Traps:

  • Thinking you are done. You’re NOT! This is only partial credit. You have to move on to step 4.
  • Blowing the math. People get wrapped up in the math and can fluster.

4. Make recommendations

Take time to think through what to say. It’s an opportunity to regroup and spend 60 seconds jotting down your ideas. You are trying to show the comprehensiveness of your thinking on solutions to the problem as well as the implications of the solutions.

As an example, I use a case that is about profitability. One of the potential recommendations a candidate could make amounts to “eliminate this customer segment because we lose money on them”. Perfectly good recommendation if qualified by some statement like “understanding that I’d want to know more about our fixed vs. variable costs (and then why)”. In essence, do you understand that the financial accounting for profit might be different than the managerial accounting of it? Unqualified you leave the impression you don’t understand the cost accounting implications of what you’ve said and I will proceed to dig until it hurts. On the other hand if you don’t even mention cutting this segment you are missing an obvious potential solution.

The idea is to frame all the available actions that could be promising, walk the interviewer through them and the implications of each.

Success:

  • Getting the bulk of the potential recommendations
  • Responding well to challenges of your logic

Traps:

  • Missing major potential solutions
  • Not understanding the likely implications of your recommendations
  • Thinking your done at “insight”
  • Being shallow

Closing thoughts

  • Practice. A lot.

Successful candidates have typically done 10+ practice cases and I have some students who’ve done 25+. Some people may be clever enough to just stand and deliver w/o this practice. I wouldn’t count on you being one of them. In many case it takes a 3.8 GPA and very high standardized test scores to be considered for a 1st round interview.

A Bain consultant recently told me (paraphrased) that “everyone we interview is super smart. It’s more about how they handle our process and culture. Then it’s how they stack up against other candidates what are all awesome as well.”

Practice can take many forms. Get in the habit of asking your self “why?” a lot. Read the WSJ with a clinical eye and try to understand what’s going on behind a particular story. Find a few friends and grill each other on mini cases etc.

  • Relax and have fun – If you don’t find this at least a little fun, you are probably not well suited to the industry.
  • This discipline is directly applicable to ANY problem solving situation. The same skills apply to work place, classroom and any other environment that requires organizing your thinking to solve a problem.
  • Find contacts at the firm who’ll practice a case with you. They all have slightly different styles. Most alums want to help you. Let them.
  • Resources: The best selling case prep book is Case in Point. It’s a great resource to start with.  Don’t get too wrapped up in the frameworks and drilling on them independently. Practice matters far more past a basic understanding of the method.

Good luck. Let me know what I’ve missed.

Related Post: Case Interviewing Feedback


I’ve seen this before…

June 27, 2009

Why are some people so good at “seeing” things and how did they get good? In my opinion, “experience” is really just the development of a personal set of cognitive heuristics for dealing with what’s in front of you. In basic terms, you develop a sense of “I’ve seen this before and I have a pretty good idea of how it goes…”

This idea off pattern recognition, evolution, ecosystems and systems thinking has always fascinated me. Back when I was still in school, I can remember the effect the reading Peter Senge’s The Fifth Discipline and James Moore’s The Death of Competition had on my thinking about business and relationships: the interconnectedness of it all. Some of their thinking is dated and gets a little abstract, but the core ideas, that there are a limited number of truly distinct patterns of interaction out there is a useful one.

This was brought to mind this week as I’m reading Your Inner Fish by Neil Shubin (on my favorite new toy – Amazon Kindle DX!). He is a paleontologist describing the evolution of human physiology. Great book, but the relevant point that sparked this post was a series of quotes he made regarding his learning process as a field worker locating and identifying potential fossils.

He starts by describing his essential blindness compared to experienced colleagues. The following are a few quotes that lay out his progression in awareness and thinking:

“Finally, one day, I saw my first piece of tooth glistening in the desert sun. It was sitting in some sandstone rubble, but there it was, plain as day. The enamel had a sheen that no other rock had; it was like nothing I had ever seen before. Well, not exactly – I was looking at things like it every day. The difference was this time I finally saw it, saw the distinction between rock & bone. … All of a sudden, the desert floor exploded with bone…as if I were wearing a special new pair of glasses and a spotlight was shining on all the different pieces of bone.”

“ Over time, I began to learn the visual cues for other kinds of bones: long bones, jaw bones and skull parts. Once you see these things, you never lose the ability to find them.”

“Twenty years later, I know that I must go through a similar experience every time I look for fossils someplace new…I’ll struggle for the first few days…The difference is that now I have some confidence that a search image will kick in.”

“One of the joys of science is that, on occasion, we see a pattern that reveals the order in what initially seems chaotic. A jumble becomes part of a simple plan, and you feel you are seeing right through something to find its essence.”

This lays out beautifully the progression you see in people’s lives and careers, IF they are paying attention.

The point is that as you get “better” (more observant, more experienced, etc.) you are developing mental heuristics. Your mind is being trained to think in new ways and short cut many steps based on experience, building new pathways in the brain. Malcolm Gladwell coins this “thin-slicing” in Blink.

I see two ways you need to develop and apply this pattern recognition concept. The first is simply getting better at it within a domain. This is essentially what everything above is really about. Develop deep knowledge and you can then get very good at a subset of things.

The second is to me what separates really excellent and creative thinkers and problem solvers from those who aren’t. Can you abstract and generalize patterns and apply them to new venues? Are you good at analogy?

Most problems are not new and many apparently unrelated problems are very often quite similar. This is what Senge gets at in the Fifth Discipline. There are a limited number of system archetypes and components that describe most systems, whether they be human, animal or natural.  

Effective general managers and consultants need both abilities. I have seen people promoted too quickly without broad experience struggle in that they are “learning on the job” at too high a level. Understanding all the moving parts of a $20MM business is easier to learn, but is much more like running a $1BB business than is going from running a $1BB function in a company to running a similar size/budget business. The business owner has more complex networks they are navigating.

Having said that, you will never have all the experience you need. So how do you manage learning curves? Well, being good at analogy and applying prior learning in other areas to a new problem is very effective. If you can’t you’ll struggle…a lot. (Curiosity, drive etc. all help a lot too!)

In my coursework, I try to teach people generic skills around problem solving  that are broadly applicable so they can be flexible in their thinking as we all have different cognitive styles. In part, this is to force people to apply themselves to answering questions themselves. If I tell you something you may or may not remember it, but even if you do you aren’t likely to understand it. If you go figure it out on your own, however, you’re likely to “never lose the ability to see” what you’ve learned as Shubin points out.

So, what’s the “so what?”

1)     Developing experience and expertise is about developing a sense of pattern recognition. This allows you to “see” things more clearly and with less work over time.

2)     You have to struggle through the hard work of developing this ability. It comes from doing. A guide can tell you what to look for and mentor you along the way, but the insight has to be yours or you won’t really own it.

3)     Being able to extend your insights into analogous environments is very powerful. Particularly if you want to be a general manager.


Problem Solving 101

June 16, 2009

Much of my teaching is focused on how to effectively define a problem, how to go about solving it using discipline and various techniques and then how to frame to recommendations so that others will take action. I have written on this in the past as well.

Too many books I see on the problem solving side take an overly complicated approach, particularly for readers trying to go from “not so good” to “pretty good/good”. The typical tome is much more of an expert practitioners guide and makes things more complicated than they need to be.

I really appreciate Problem Solving 101: A Simple Book for Smart People because it doesn’t fall into this trap. It takes a light-hearted and practical approach to demonstrating a simple but powerful set of basic tools.

Ken Watanabe worked for McKinsey, a leading strategy consulting firm. He distills the basic components of theirs (and everyone else’s) basic problem solving structure into problem definition, analysis structure and solution definition. He does this using a few simple (but not simple-minded) examples that were originally developed for 6th graders. It’s a very quick read (digestible in a short plane flight) , useful and worth a read whatever level of skill you believe yourself to be.


Structure is Important (Duh!)

February 14, 2009

One of my students just observed (paraphrased) that “sometimes you just need to remember the basics”. The comment came after a class in which we had speakers from McKinsey & Co. present and discuss their approach to structured problem solving.

 

I have this session annually and it mirrors much of the course content we present in the enterprise, but I still always take something new away from the talk. The simplicity of the basic approach is valuable, but also easy to ignore because it seems so obvious. From a teaching perspective I always need to remember that just because we talked about it awhile ago, doesn’t mean people remember it if you haven’t been re-enforcing a concept or tool.

 

The high level outline of the method is to 1) define the problem, 2) structure the problem, 3) prioritize issues, 4) conduct analysis, 5) synthesize findings and 6) develop recommendations. Every firm has their version of these steps. I teach similar steps in my class. It’s not rocket science.

 

Despite this I remain amazed at the extent to which we don’t take all the steps we know we should, finding rationalizations to avoid them “we don’t have time”, “we already know the question” etc.

 

So how do we avoid the pitfalls of lazy, sloppy or incoherent thinking? Here are a few steps that should help.

 

First principle: Bring your client & team along for the ride. They have to have a tangible role in each of these steps if you want the highest probability of a useful outcome.

 

1.      Write the problem or question down. This seems so obvious, but how often do you really commit it to print and get agreement from everyone on what it is.

2.      Determine who the client or audience is and what their interests are.

3.      Work out a clear framework for solving problem or answering the question. I have an earlier post on issue trees you can reference.

4.      Build a plan. Everyone needs to know what they’re working on. Not everything is equally important, so be prioritizing or de-prioritizing as you go based on your judgment.

5.      Then of course, you have to actually do the research.

6.      Develop recommendations that can actually be accepted and used by your client. There are some subtleties in this step.

·        A recommendation your client hasn’t had a part in building reduce the likelihood of success. ”Success” here is defined as they actually do something. Merely liking your work doesn’t meet this standard. The client has to “own” it enough to implement it.

·        Be practical about what is achievable. Don’t tell them about “best practices” they need to implement that they realistically can’t.

·        Don’t just tell them “what”, tell the “how”. A plan with nice ideas, but no implementation insight is mostly useless.

 

Each can be handled at varying degrees of detail. A six month process improvement project targeting $7 million in savings requires more thought and planning than a one week quick assessment you might summarize the thinking for on a napkin. Use your judgment.

 

Following good process through the project greatly increases the probability of success. It also reduces stress and increases client satisfaction because they can see where you are.