Repost Which Explains Management Consulting Using Layman’s Terms

This is a repost from an answer I wrote a couple of years ago on Quora.

I usually fail miserably at explaining this for some reason.

Probably the most common definition out there is that management consultants are like doctors for companies (instead of doctors for people).

This analogy probably works for most cases. However, in the spirit of consulting analogies used by guru David Maister, there are probably sub-analogies. For example, there are some management consultants that are more specialized like brain surgeons. Brain surgeons work directly with patients, but possibly for shorter periods of time and using more specialized skills (and hence, brain surgeons charge higher rates). There may also be management consultants that operate more like pharmacists. In that regard, they may be more in the backoffice doing specialized work, interacting with patients less frequently.

Where the doctor analogy doesn’t always quite sit with me is that I usually think of going to the doctor either when something is wrong or for maintenance purposes. While it is true that a large bulk of consulting is about fixing company problems (e.g., unprofitable company, poor customer service, divisions not working together well, technology systems a mess), there are also management consultants that are more like life coaches or entrepreneurial partners that help with opportunities. These management consultants are not fixing things like doctors do. Instead they are helping companies build new capabilities (e.g., new line of business, new product) like a personal trainer helps a person develop more strength or cardio capacity.

What Best Practices Can Consultants Use to Develop Their Own Toolkit?

This post is based on a question I answered previously on Quora.

Here are some of the techniques I have used over the years in different consulting roles, such as working for a traditional consulting firm, boutique firm, or as an independent:

  • Research and keep a scrapboook of ideas – This can be a folder where you drop killer slides you’ve run into, killer figures, well done models, articles, etc. Your scrapbook may consist of a few islands in the electronic world, such as using programs like Pocket, OneNote, etc. and also the physical world, such as bookmarked pages in key books you have.
  • Share the ideas with others on a small scale – Consulting is based on an apprenticeship model, and part of the value you add as a consultant also applies to how you interact with colleagues. If you can filter out the best information and share nuggets of knowledge with your peers, this can help both parties to learn.
  • Use what you’ve learned to synthesize and create new ideas – Innovation can come from many directions. Sometimes you can apply a method used in one space into a totally new space. Sometimes streams of knowledge are separate and disjoint, and you may find a simpler more holistic way of combining the approaches. Or sometimes you can create models by creating a new relationship between the beholder and the model (e.g., such as creating a stakeholder value view instead of a shareholder value view).
  • Share the ideas on a larger scale – Writing about your ideas can help to flesh out your thinking. I have often created short presentations and then presented them in a setting like a business school class. I may then create an article about a key idea. In some cases, I have written blog posts or written a newsletter type memo to share with newer consultants or clients. I have also expanded presentations into thought leadership pieces (e.g., I’ve published three books).

In summary, I find that having a method to research, collect ideas, interact with the ideas, synthesize new creations, and share those creations is a meta process that works for me.

Will Hiring Happiness Consultants Ever Become a Trend in Big Companies?

This post is based on a question that I answered previously on Quora.

I’m not sure it will become a big thing at companies, but here are some observations that could feed its growth or at least support a niche market:

  • The business schools (particularly in the behavioral science areas) have increasingly added courses that incorporate the science of happiness, and the b-schools feed consulting companies and increasingly entrepreneurial endeavors. Here’s an example of an applied happiness course at the UCLA Anderson School of Management: If You Want to Be Happy for the Rest of Your Life, Optimize It with Scientific Design
  • Addressing areas like financial wellbeing, connections to overall wellbeing, and antecedents to both have started to spread into organizations whether in thought leadership or applied settings. If happiness efforts are tied into mainstream issues related to HR, marketing, or product design, then it might be able to ride on familiar value propositions where consulting engagements could be justified. For example, think about various “random acts of kindness” campaigns that some companies have run (some better, some worse).
  • There appears to be a growing generation of people who are concerned about excessive materialism and consumerism. Leveraging the science of happiness could potentially be a good ingredient to capitalize on. Innovators will figure out how to provide better customer experiences and products to these segments and take some share away from incumbents.

Should An Independent Consultant Focus on Their Expertise or Diversify and Branch Out?

This post is based on a question that I answered previously on Quora.

As an independent consultant it is generally better to focus on services aligned with your expertise. Otherwise, it will be harder to distinguish yourself in the marketplace.

However, as food for thought if you are going to add a new service, consider offering that service to an existing or past client. You may have a better foot in the door in terms of selling to them as they may at least trust you a bit more than the average consultant coming in cold. While you may have some issues with existing and past customers only seeing you as your “old self”, they may be more willing to take some risk with your new services. Then you can leverage this as a reference case when you approach new clients.

Nudging Democratized: A Guide to Applying Behavioral Science

Inside Nudging has been re-released as a special edition book published by The Decision Lab, entitled Nudging Democratized: A Guide to Applying Behavioral Science. Many thanks to my brilliant co-author, Andrew Lewis, for collaborating with me on this release. Also, special thanks to Sekoul Krastev and Dan Pilat at The Decision Lab for making the publication possible and keeping things moving on this project.

Podcast Interview on 401(k) Plans and Behavioral Finance Trends

Thanks to Rick Unser for having me recently on his 401(k) Fridays podcast. This interview is geared toward defined contribution plan sponsors and those closely related with this segment of the market (e.g., advisors, consultants, recordkeepers, investment only). I do draw from some insights and activity that is occurring in other areas of the financial services market (e.g., retirement income, wealth management). The podcast may be found at:

Apple Podcasts – https://apple.co/2EAsw5J
GooglePlay – http://bit.ly/2Hfsgfa
Stitcher – http://bit.ly/2Uj08eT

Additionally, some references that I allude to on the podcast which may be of interest to folks include the following:

When Implementing Behavioral Science, What Is the Role of a Choice Architect?

This post is based on an answer I wrote in response to a question posed to me on Quora, “What do choice architects do?” I wanted to repost my answer here because I still feel there is a lack of understanding about what it means to implement nudging and behavioral science within companies, and the role of choice architects are key.

Choice architects essentially use insights from behavioral science to design environments for people that encourage or support some sort of end goals.

For example, suppose there are a layered set of three main goals to encourage people to 1) participate in a retirement savings plan, 2) save enough money, and 3) invest wisely. A choice architect may address behavioral obstacles that may hamper these goals from being met through creating solutions. These solutions could include auto-enrolling people into a retirement plan (versus having them opt-in) to address behavioral obstacles associated with status quo biases that hamper participation in a saving plan. In order to get people to get to healthy saving rates over time, the architect may create a way for people to commit today to savings increasing in the future (a process which addresses psychological biases associated with present bias and hyperbolic discounting). Finally, an architect may default most people into an automatically managed, diversified portfolio that evolves as the person reaches and continues into retirement. This essentially makes a healthy investment choice easy as a default for most people and for most of their money.

So choice architects do the following things:

  1. They identify goals of all constituents, any guardrails (e.g., ethical, philosophical, financial), and desired outcome measurements.
  2. They look for behavioral obstacles that people face in whatever environment is being addresses or designed (e.g., financial spending, medication adherence, governmental compliance).
  3. Architects try to leverage behavioral science research where they can (e.g., to inform the precise nature of obstacles, potential ways to address).
  4. They innovate and try to create solutions and interventions to address behavioral obstacles (e.g., website design, text messages, email content, customer outreach, product design, decision tools).
  5. Architects also look to measure and perform A/B testing where they can to see how solutions and interventions impact outcomes.

How Do Management Consultants Quickly Come Up To Speed On Projects?

This answer is based on the response to a question I was posed on Quora.

Here are some of the main ways I’ve seen consultants get briefed on projects.

  1. Engagement manager – The engagement manager has responsibility for the client problem statement and the problem-solving structure (i.e., project tactics). As the on-the-ground, field leader, the engagement manager can help to get new people on the project oriented both from a high-level and with their role on the project.
  2. Engagement workplans and blueprints – Some projects have clear engagement workplans laid out at the outset. Sometimes the high-level workplan is set out before the project even starts. If not before, then most certainly the workplan is addressed in the first week +/-. These often breakdown the workstreams, key activities, deliverables, project roles, and governance structure. Blueprints which potentially specify the templates that should be completed may even be available in some cases. These structures help keep consultants focused on what matters and may help them avoid re-inventing the wheel.
  3. Management reports – Consultants often get reports normally directly accessible by the management teams. This helps to accelerate knowledge transfer and provides a lay of the land within any limitations of the reports (which may also need to improved based on mutual agreement between the consultant and client).
  4. Peers – Consulting is really based on apprenticeship and teamwork. Consultants often ask peers on the consulting team for information they’ve learned, feedback on approaches, etc.
  5. Industry reports – Consultants often dive into industry reports very close to when they arrive onsite for a new client. This can help the consultant come up to speed about industry-specific terminology, product offerings, competitors, new entrants, regulatory issues, geographical considerations, etc.
  6. Client interviews – Consultants also get very key info through interviews with client management and personnel. These sessions are usually motivated by the engagement workplan and are used to assess the current state of a particular area, identify issues, collect ideas, and get color regarding business operations. It is often preferred that items #1 through #5 are explored to some extent as preparation for client interviews.

Quick Thoughts on Boosting Versus Nudging

I only recently learned about the term “boosting”. Boosting takes a different worldview of addressing a person’s competencies whereas nudging tends to address immediate behavior. There does appear to be some overlap between boosting and System 2 nudges (where the nudge tries to engage a person’s slow, reflective thinking). There is also overlap between short-term boosting and educational nudges. However, long-term boosting is about building a person’s competencies (e.g., teaching them, giving them tools, getting competencies to persist even beyond the immediate decision point). A boost appears to necessarily require both transparency of the intervention and cooperation of the person who is a target of the boost. Those advancing the concept of boosting admit that boosting may actually be more costly to implement and less effective on affecting immediate behavior as compared to nudges.

For more details on boosting, I recommend starting with the following paper.

An Anecdote on How Experimental Design and Statistics Are Used in Behavioral Economics and Business

In recent study I having been working with Hal Hershfield and Shlomo Benartzi at UCLA, we worked with a FinTech company that had its roots in providing a mobile app to Millennials to get them to save incremental money through rounding up purchases. For example, if you bought a cup of coffee for $4.55, you could round things up to $5.00 and save the incremental $0.45.

We wanted to introduce the concept of a recurring savings feature, where people could save a specified amount of money at regular intervals. As part of that effort, we constructed an experimental design and A/B/C test where during the sign-up process, users were randomly assigned to one of three treatments where they were given an opportunity to save: A) $150 per month, B) $35 per week, or C) $5 per day. At the heart of the design is the notion of presenting essentially equivalent information but using temporal reframing to present the choice option differently. Our hypothesis is that the $5 per day treatment would yield the most success in terms of sign-ups for recurring savings. So we use traditional statistics to show that the difference in sign-ups between these treatment conditions is statistically significant. In this case, we provided evidence that sign-ups were 4x higher using the daily frame and that we could close an income discrimination gap of 3x between the highest and lowest income users in terms of percentage of people saving comparatively between the monthly and daily temporal framing. More details on the study can be found here: Temporal Reframing and Savings: A Field Experiment

In other studies I am involved with related to the different framing of information and savings, I measure not only outcomes like savings rates (i.e., what people do and choose) but also people’s thoughts, perceptions, and mental associations regarding the financial decisions (i.e., the psychology and process). Using statistics to better understand the underlying psychology behind people’s decisions can help inform one in providing better user experiences (e.g., to improve outcomes, reduce confusion, increase confidence).

Statistics can be a very powerful tool to have when trying to analyze messy things like social science processes and human decisions. Companies are starting to ramp-up their data science capabilities a lot more, and while I think much more can be done in terms of incubating behavioral science initiatives, I think the shift to data science will be here to stay for quite awhile.