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Solve Problems Like a Consultant

See also: Mediation Skills

Learning how to break down and solve complex problems is a core skill you need in today’s business world.

The more complex and multi-faceted your problems are, the more your problem solving skills and techniques will be put to the test.

No one understands this better than some of the world's most highly paid and highly regarded problem solving professionals, the strategy consultants whose fame and fortune is dependent on their ability to quickly break down complex problems and develop effective solutions.

This page details two powerful problem solving techniques you can take from the consulting world to begin breaking down your problems and tackling them like a pro.

Problem Solving Technique #1:
Focus On The Key Drivers

When analyzing a complex problem, focus your time and energy on the key drivers and big wins; don't get bogged down in the problem solving minutia. And although this sounds obvious, it is easy to inadvertently end up doing the exact opposite when first applying your problem solving techniques.

Consultants recognize that complex problems can have hundreds, if not thousands, of issues surrounding them and that can it be tempting to dig into and analyze them all for potential solutions. To fight this temptation, one problem solving technique that consultants use is to focus their time and energy on the 'key drivers' of their problem; in other words, they focus on the largest and most salient aspects of the problem that, if solved, would have the biggest immediate impact.

When problem solving, ask yourself this:

"What are two or three 'key drivers,' or main issues, affecting the problem I am trying to solve?"

For example, if you are hired by an organization to cut costs, think of all the different ways you could potentially help them cut costs. Instead of spinning your wheels analyzing all of the potential cost saving areas, you’re better off focusing on the two or three costs that, if reduced, would have the largest overall impact on the organization.

If you're having trouble finding the key drivers of your problem, use the 80-20 rule to find your problem’s highest value components.

The 80-20 Rule:
The Secret to Achieving More with Less

The 80-20 rule, or the Pareto principle, was first adopted as a problem solving technique by a management consultant who coined the phrase after Vilfredo Pareto’s 1906 research in which he observed that 20% of the pea pods in his garden produced 80% of the peas.

This principle has since become known as the 80-20 rule, and simply states that 80% of the effects, come from 20% of the causes. When applied to business, the rule can be used as follows:

  • 80% of a company's profits come from 20% of its clients.
  • 80% of a company's costs come from 20% of its operations.
  • 20% of a company's clients produce 80% of its complaints.

Although this is not a universal principle, the distribution often holds true in many aspects of business and life and, as such, is one of the first problem solving techniques used by consultants to get to the heart of an issue.

For example, using the 80-20 problem solving technique for cutting costs, you could start by asking yourself questions like:

  • Which 20% of the company’s divisions are generating 80% of its costs? – Reduce or reorganize the company’s divisions.
  • Which 20% of the company’s production costs represent 80% of its cost of goods sold? – Streamline manufacturing processes.
  • Which 20% of the company’s marketing costs are generating 80% of its new clients? – Cut the marketing fat.

If this problem solving technique produces too many key drivers, you can narrow them down by asking yourself which of them you can build a strong case for with hard data (see #2).

#2: Build Your Case with Hard Data

When problem solving, gathering and analyzing hard data is critical to effectively building a case for, and eventually selling, a solution.

As such, consultants focus their energy on the key drivers that they can prove or disprove, by gathering and analyzing hard factual data.


Executives are not going to give you the time of day unless you can prove your point with convincing facts and figures. As such, assume that no one will listen to you, or your message, unless you have strong factual evidence to back it up.

Arguably the most famous consulting firm in the world, McKinsey, is notorious for its rigorous data gathering methodologies and problem solving analysis. Why such a focus on hard data? As Ethan Rasiel notes in his book, "The McKinsey Way", hard data allows McKinsey consultants to quickly achieve two things:

  1. Make Up For Lack Of Gut Instinct

    Consultants are typically generalists, which means they lack the 30 or 40 years of in-depth industry experience that their clients often have. Whereas a client might have a “gut” instinct for how to solve a specific problem based on their experience, McKinsey consultants will dig for hard data to prove or disprove their clients' “gut” instinct before moving forward.

  2. Bridge The Credibility Gap

    Hard data is objective and tends to be less prone to argument. As such, hard data allows McKinsey consultants, who are typically much younger and greener than their clients, to quickly establish credibility and authority when presenting their problem’s solutions.

Recognizing that hard data will be critical to the success of your problem solving, focus on key drivers that you can back up with hard data given your time constraints.

For example, if your solution to the problem of needing to cut an organization's costs was to reorganize all of its divisions into one location, ask yourself whether or not you can get access to enough hard data to thoroughly prove or disprove your solution. If not, ask for a project extension, break your key driver down into smaller pieces, or pick another key driver to focus on.

Two Data Analysis Tips From McKinsey

A common challenge when problem solving complex issues is knowing where to start and when to stop.

Here are two problem solving tips straight from McKinsey:

Problem Solving Tip #1 – Start With The Outliers:

A great problem solving technique when analyzing large sets of data is to calculate a performance metric around your key drivers and focus on the outliers.

For example, costs per unit per region:

  • Positive outliers (low cost per unit) will surface potential best practices you can mimic.
  • Negative outliers (high cost per unit) will give you something to immediately figure out and fix.

Problem Solving Tip #2 - Don’t Boil The Ocean:

It’s important to realize that when figuring out how to solve a problem, there is always an enormous amount of research and data analysis you could potentially do.

Instead of trying to perform all of it, which is the equivalent of trying to boil the ocean, McKinsey consultants focus on doing enough research and analysis to thoroughly prove or disprove their key drivers and ignore everything else.

Further Reading from Skills You Need

The Skills You Need Guide to Interpersonal Skills eBooks.

The Skills You Need Guide to Interpersonal Skills

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Although there are many other problem solving skills and techniques you can apply to your problems, these two strategies from the consulting world will help you quickly break down your problems into their core components and more effectively come up with a credible and fact-based solution.

About the Author

Taylor Croonquist is the co-founder of Nuts & Bolts Speed Training which delivers actionable PowerPoint training courses for working professionals who spend hundreds, if not thousands, of hours a year using the program.