Entering the McKinsey Mind

strategic consulting public sector reviews social research

My current read

I picked up The McKinsey Mind at an airport and devoured it one sitting.  Business books are pretty easy to read with a formula that enables them to repeat the same couple of points in at least a dozen ways with liberal use of dot points and text boxes in case you missed them in the text.  Since I read it quickly I’m glad it was repetitive because its messages were thought-provoking.

McKinsey, as I have learned only recently is a super efficient super influential consulting firm with a foundation in corporate work but also very powerful with governments and foundations.  The book was “how to” manual to give strategic business advice like a McKinsey consultant.

What I found the most enlightening was that their “method” starts with clarifying the central problem that they need to solve.  Nothing new about that.  I have been raised in a tradition of using scientific research methods to solve practical problems. Applied researchers start with a research question and hypotheses, just like a McKinsey consultant.  But as I tried to apply a McKinsey mind to the projects that Social Dimensions has done, I realised that our clients rarely come to us with a specific problem.

Business hires consultants to do a specific job: answer a specific question or solve a problem. The public sector commissions the reviews that Social Dimensions does so frequently without such a single-minded focus.

The typical Australian government funded review asks for a description of the whole program. Terms of reference ask if program implementation is effective, efficient and appropriate. It doesn’t rule out a problem solving approach that McKinsey uses but problem solving is tacked on the end, once the problems have been identified in an exhaustive way.  A good consultant or project leader or even blind Freddy might be able to see what the main problem with project. However, instead of commissioning reviews which focus on that problem, the consultant needs to review all aspects of the program instead of focusing on the areas of weakness or need.

If the book is to be believed, the McKinsey consultant quickly gets to the heart of the matter – poor understanding of the target population, lack of managerial support for staff, lack of skills, uncertainity about scaling up or attracting more clients – and then spend most of their time “testing” different solutions.  Social sector reviews need to tick all of the boxes. Reports for governments contain a great deal of information that no one needs because most of the content of the report is about parts of the program which are functioning well.  Recommendations are often not grounded in a detailed analysis about how to address their central problems.

I am taking it on as a personal challenge to make comprehensive reviews more pointed while still meeting the universal terms of reference.  After all, the attraction of being a consultant is to use experience and analytical skills to solve problems, not to describe programs.



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