How to Learn Like a Management Consultant was originally published on Firsthand.
In management consulting, you’re expected to quickly get up to speed with a client’s market position, competitive advantages, financial standing, and overall business model. Clients pay top dollar for consultants, expecting them to offer meaningful insights and actionable plans. Therefore, to become an impactful consultant, it’s important to have a framework for learning and absorbing new information efficiently.
Below is a four-step learning method widely used by consultants that anyone, in any industry at any level, can use to learn something new.
Step 1: Keep it simple
According to Albert Einstein, that there are five ascending levels of intelligence: smart, intelligent, brilliant, genius, and simple. Intelligent transcends smart, and simple transcends genius. However, breaking down ideas into their simplest forms requires an in-depth understanding of the subject matter. And one way to validate your understanding is by being able to explain the subject matter in simple words to a child.
Often, we hide our lack of understanding or knowledge about subjects by using industry jargon or talking in the abstract. Incidentally, management consultants have been accused of using buzzwords on numerous occasions. The secret to making sure that we truly understand something is by breaking the idea into simple words that even a child could understand. Doing so requires stripping out the complexity in the pursuit of simplicity and deeper-level understanding.
As the physicist and Noble laureate Richard Feynman would say, “There is a difference between knowing the name of something and knowing something.” So, strive to absorb ideas with the purpose of truly knowing, and if you’re able to explain them back to a child in simple words, you know you’ve succeeded.
Step 2: Challenge the status-quo
In addition to keeping it simple, it’s important develop a keen urge to challenge conventional wisdom. Remember when you were a child and asked adults all sorts of questions like: Why do rainbows have only seven colors? Why does ice melt? Why does the moon change shape but the sun doesn’t? Unfortunately, due to an education system that too often rewards memorizing instead of understanding information, as we get older we tend to develop a fixed mindset and our understanding of ideas becomes definitional in nature. Fortunately, we can overcome this pattern by becoming inquisitive (again) and not accepting definitional ideas at their face value.
For example, we’re taught in introductory economics about the demand-and-supply relationship—an uptick in the price of a product tends to drive the demand for the product down. Neoclassical economist Alfred Marshall published the demand-and-supply relationship in the late 1800s. Since then, the idea has been ubiquitously accepted in the academia. That said, can you think of real-world practical examples where in order to increase the demand of a product or service, you must increase the price? (Hint: they do exist!)
Step 3: Identify knowledge gaps—and fill them
Ideas, especially the complex ones, tend to be multidisciplinary in nature. To understand them, you must be able to connect the dots using information from multiple disciplines. For example, why did the stock market perform so spectacularly during pandemic in 2020 while the economic growth vis-à-vis employment rate experienced a precipitous decline? Answering the question requires understanding of not only finance but also economics and psychology.
However, people, in general, are not adept at multiple disciplines. Therefore, in your pursuit of breaking down ideas into their simplest forms, when you encounter something you don’t understand, try not to be nonchalant about it; instead, consider it a gap in your knowledge and do your best to diligently fill it.
Depending upon the depth of your knowledge gap, you might consider researching the topic thoroughly over the internet, enrolling in an online course, or perhaps conducting informational interviews with people in your network who have the specific subject-matter expertise. As Richard Feynman would say, “You must not fool yourself, and you are the easiest person to fool.”
Step 4: Create a story
Breaking down an idea into its simplest form is like putting pieces of a puzzle together. Once all the pieces are connected, only then do you get to experience the elegance of the completed puzzle. Creating a story using newly-discovered-knowledge offers a similar experience.
It’s important to think about the story like a journey—which starts with the current state of your audience and ends with the desired state—by using a narrative that overcomes challenges, offers insight, and enriches the intellectual curiosity of your audience. Therefore, once you’ve poked holes in the idea thoroughly by challenging the status-quo and filled in the missing knowledge gaps, as needed, memorializing the idea by building a narrative for your audience in the form of a story allows you to reinforce your comprehension, as well as demonstrate your cognitive prowess.
Recipient of the Presidential Award from The White House, Vibhu Sinha is an intrapreneurial and bottom-line driven senior management professional with experience in leadership roles across banking and capital markets, advising institutional clients on corporate strategy, idea generation and pitching, financial planning and analysis, M&A, investor relations, and ESG. Vibhu developed his acumen in Behavioral Psychology at Harvard University as part of the master’s degree program. He also earned an M.B.A. from UCLA Anderson.