Getting Smart, Fast

Empty Notebook

It's a pretty common occurence in any kind of consulting services business to have to get smart, quickly about a given industry, topic or company. Often we only have a few days or weeks to make ourselves proficient in the language, mechanics and tropes a particular part of the business world.

For me, it's the single greatest benefit of working in this kind of business - I get paid to take a deep dive into a subject I wouldn't otherwise have learned about.

While absolutely critical to sucess, this constant education and re-education on the fly is time-consuming, can be expensive, and doesn't always produce the same depth/quality of team-wide understanding. I've spent some time recently thinking about why that is, and what we can do to get better at this relatively core function of our business.

The challenge may seem fairly straightforward, but in fact there is no obvious way to attack the problem. A few problems I've encountered, some resource-based, others process- or team-based:

  • Lack of single source for in-depth industry overviews.
  • Lack of clarity of learning objectives.
  • Disparate depth of business acumen/interest across team.
  • "Lumpy" communication and dissemination of knowledge.

Lack of single source resources is not surprising and my be somewhat misleading - there are overview sources that can help quite a bit (e.g. Statista, Hoovers) - but no single source in my opinion serves as Wikipedia for business, helping provide a practical, plain language overview that breaks down how businesses in a given category make money, how they're evaluated by investors, what the most important levers are, and what the predominant forces are that are shaping the industry. Again - the key here is plain language and practical knowledge - things that help me get at what the prospect's key challeneges are. Macro analyst reports from the financial industry help fill the gaps here, but they're (appropriately) cast in the language of finance and aren't usable by a wider team without translation.

The other three issues are more internal, and probably pose a greater challenge than any data-sourcing problem. We tend to work in cross-functional teams, which means that everone is interesting in learning something slightly different in order to inform their rather specialized work. This can cause quickly (and sometimes erratic) changes in the questions for which we're pursuing answers, slowing our progress toward a cohesive understanding. We don't always share a common interest in thoroughly understanding the business fundamentals (i.e. how the customer makes money), and this can create trouble because it makes it more difficult to quickly form a shared understanding with prospective clients. And we often share the knowledge we gather in what I'd describe as a "lumpy" fashion - sometimes sharing lots with a smaller group, other times covering a topic in broad strokes with a wider team, resulting in uneven distribution of knowledge, something that can make a team seem disconnected when viewing from the outside.

While all of these things make it hard for us to collectively get smart, quickly, in general I think we do a pretty good job. But I think rapid learning has itself emerged as a mission-critical skill for success in almost any field, and there's definitely room for improvement.