Tuesday, November 26, 2013

What It Means to be "Down In the Weeds" at McKinsey

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If you've worked in the food service industry - or watched Top Chef - you're probably familiar with the term "in the weeds".  But that means something very different than the term "down in the weeds" which not a McKinsey-specific term, but one I heard used frequently at the Firm.  In this post I'll explain the difference and what you should do if your McKinsey boss asks you to not be so down in the weeds...

It's also worth nothing that McKinsey interviewers also view being down in the weeds negatively, so aspiring consultants should also be mindful of not getting down in the weeds during interviews, especially when breaking down the case.

"In the Weeds"...

This is a term restaurant workers both in the front of the house (e.g., hosts/hostesses, servers) and back of the house (e.g., cooks, chefs) use when they get overwhelmed and are in danger of falling hopelessly behind.  While I have heard McKinsey consultants - likely those with food industry backgrounds - use this phrase in this context.  However, it's not as universal across the Firm as the slightly different phrase that I've heard multiple engagement teams, consultants, and Principals use...

...vs. "Down In the Weeds"

This phrase is used to describe someone who is being way too nitpicky and focused on minute details, especially relative to their role, phase of the project, or workstream goals.  It might also be phrased as being too tactical instead of sufficiently strategic.  McKinsey bosses can get down in the weeds by taking on tasks their teams should be handling and consultants can get down in the weeds by having too narrowly focused on details of their workstream(s).  Here are some examples:
  • Role:  Sometimes a Partner or Director will fixate on something very specific like fine-tuning an Excel model or tweaking the formatting of a PowerPoint (PPT) exhibit.  It could be because they have a passion for the task or they're not good at delegating, but regardless, there are more important things to the engagement team that they can be focusing on.
  • Timing:  Early in an engagement or workstream, teams and consultants should be applying T-shaped problem solving and looking broadly for potential topics to investigate before deep diving into the few with the most potential impact.  Sometimes, people will go too deep too soon at the risk of wasting time the wrong lever or missing other, more important sources of impact.
  • Goals:  It's not uncommon to lose sight of the overarching purpose of an engagement or workstream by getting sucked into a particular task that's part of the broader effort.  For example, one might spend too much time working on a single PPT page or exhibit and not get enough done on the overall deck or storyline.  While preparing an industry overview, one might become fascinated with a particular competitor or industry dynamic at the expense of understanding the big picture.

How to Get Up Out of the Weeds...

...or Avoid Getting Down There In the First Place

Fortunately, there are some basic principles you can apply to get yourself up out of the weeds.  These include identifying and focusing on the critical or vital few by applying the 80/20 rule and using the previously mentioned T-shaped problem solving approach.  Remind yourself to apply top-down thinking whenever possible and going bottom-up only when appropriate.

Unfortunately, getting McKinsey leaders to get up out of the weeds and out of your hair is significantly more challenging.  But, you can leverage the Firm's culture of 360 / upward feedback and obligation to dissent to speak up, but be tactful and think of positive ways to deliver the message that feel like you're offering solutions rather than just pointing out problems.  For example, "I appreciate you showing me how I can improve my model - why don't I take it from here so I can learn first-hand and free you up to help the client(s) and the rest of the team?"

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