Frameworks: Distill your thoughts until they are 80proof

By | January 21, 2014

Consultants are structured thinkers. They may not have as intuitive a grasp on the topic as the client – after all, the client has been living in this field their entire life – but consultants excel at piecing together bits and pieces of data until it starts forming an outline of a story. Clients are often surprised to see how comprehensive and seemingly authoritative the end results can be. “Only a few weeks or months ago, this set of young tykes did not know a lot. Now, they are giving us (pretty credible) advice.”

Frameworks give you freedom. When you have the outline of something – presentation, argument, journey – it liberates your mind to focus on the details without the fear that you will wander too far off the path. You know the boundaries. Consultants don’t necessarily know the answer, but they often know where to look. Some call it best practices, some call it common sense, some call it emotional intelligence.

The only way to make sense of a glut of data is to use a mental model to organize your thoughts and observations. Without some way to organize your ideas, your PowerPoint will be read like a bullet-ed list of factoids. Trivia Pursuit. Where the client has to guess and extrapolate what in the world you are trying to say.  Painful.

Keep it simple. It does not have to be complicated or even unique. Find a theme, graphic, or set of words which epitomizes the main areas. Then use this to drive home the on-going messages. Religiously add observations and recommendations on the skeleton to see if it holds up. You may have to fiddle with the framework – make it broader, reword it, or even abandon it – but the exercise will be cathartic and good.

Two very simple frameworks repeated by all MBAs ad nausea are the 3Cs and 4Ps. Although these should never be repeated in a consulting case interview or for that matter in a professional setting (it seems too sophomoric), these are “bread and butter” way to think about strategy and marketing.

3Cs and 4Ps

3Cs: In a competitive situation, you should address what you (Company) are good at, what the Customer wants, and how to differentiate vs. your Competitors.

4Ps: Fundamentally, marketing is about Promoting and distributing (Place) a Product to customers at a market-clearing Price.

Mutually Exclusive, Collectively Exhaustive (MECE).  This is a core consulting concept that cannot be understated. As mentioned in The McKinsey Way, the idea is to bucket things so that each is different with no double counting (ME), while also including everything need to cover the breadth of the issue (CE). As you might imagine, this is not easy to do. No duplicates, yet covers everything.

An “oldie goldie” example from consulting. Many projects can be put into one (or a combination) of these areas. Strategy, people, process, technology. These are MECE since they are all uniquely different, yet cover the world of management consulting.

MECE

Clients are notoriously bad at this. Face it. Clients often know the answers. They often have trouble putting words around it, backing it up with data, and simplifying the complex into a comprehensive narrative. Simply put, they cannot tell a story.

Like a trunk of a tree, look for the thick branches that support all the smaller limbs, leaves, flowers and fruit. Call it a framework, paradigm, skeleton, straw-man, storyboard, or template. It will keep you out of trouble and often help you find your way. Group your ideas and continually distill your thinking until it is 80 proof. Use MECE to tell a clean story that makes sense to executives and makes your client look great.

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