Top-down thinking: what it is and why it's a winning mindset for consultants

Roy Williamson is a Technology and Innovation Specialist at PA Consulting Group, a leading UK-based consulting firm.

Part of his role involves training other consultants on a consulting methodology known as "top-down thinking" and how to implement it in their work.

Here he explains what top-down thinking is, how it's used at PA Consulting, and why it works.

What is top-down thinking and what are its benefits?

Put simply, top-down thinking means beginning with the most important issue or question. Getting to this is the real value of top-down thinking and results in keener insight, robust reasoning and clear communication.

It's an approach found across the consulting industry, and one we like to use at PA Consulting. Developing great insight and having the ability to communicate it are, after all, the fundamentals of great consulting.

How is top-down thinking used at PA Consulting?

We ensure that everyone who joins PA Consulting, from new graduates to partners, understands what top-down thinking is and how they can identify and clearly deliver stronger and more valuable insights through its use. We want all our employees using the same methodologies so that our clients continue to receive our consistent, high-quality service.

Top-down thinking can be used throughout consulting practice, from structuring a major project to crafting a simple email.

Can you give some examples of how top-down thinking can be applied?

Top-down thinking can be applied in many of the different scenarios that consultants are likely to encounter.

1. Sales pitches: focus on essential information

Taking a top-down approach means grabbing your existing or potential client's attention with essential information before you touch on the finer details of what you can offer.

Imagine being in the passenger seat of a car, on your phone and going through tunnels. Make sure you could get the key point of your pitch across to the person on the other end of the phone before the next tunnel comes along.

One of the best presented pitches I ever saw was printed on a single side of A4. All the key messages and information were there, so the client didn't have to search for them. Needless to say, the pitch was a success.

2. Diagnosing a problem: ask incisive questions

As consultants, a large part of what we do involves helping clients experiencing business problems to figure out what's going wrong within their organisations.

They don't want to know every detail, but they do want to know what the key issue is and how to fix it. A top-down approach means thinking through the problem and then asking incisive questions that get to its heart, which sometimes include questions that the client doesn't want to hear.

Clients can sometimes look in the wrong place for the source of the problem. For example, we once worked with a client having business problems who'd just issued a bid for some work, which they subsequently sent to us. The bid, though otherwise thorough, didn't include any details of their financial position, which we identified ought to have an impact.

We asked them about the omission and then suggested they should add this aspect to the bid and reissue it, which helped to solve their problems. Consultants often add value in this way - having experience from numerous and varied sources means they can bring a fresh yet informed look at challenges - and not being too close to these challenges initially can often be a benefit.

3. Assessing an opportunity: focus on the client's needs

Top-down thinking is sometimes mistakenly taken to mean taking a big-picture or industry-level approach.

When you're trying to help a company assess its opportunities to grow, doing so might seem like a logical place to start. But in fact you need to focus on what's most important for that particular business, that client, that person or team - and 99 per cent of the time, it's going to be specific to that business.

For example, if a company comes to you asking where it should expand, some consultants might look at the global economy and point them in the direction of Brazil. After all, Brazil has a growing economy and a rapidly expanding consumer base. Before you know it, they've flown out there and lined up prospective meetings for their client - only to realise it's not what the client really wants.

Instead, you should start with the client, or your audience. Understand what they really want to achieve and what the business needs, which means being able to ask the right questions and analyse the information you gain about them effectively. Logic, empathy and passion are traits all great consultants should have, and top-down thinking is a framework in which they can be applied.

4. Delivering results or other information: start with the key message

Ongoing delivery of your findings and presentations to clients is one of the most critical parts of the consulting process. It's pointless having great insight and valuable direction if you can't communicate it simply and clearly. So you should apply top-down thinking here too.

As I explain to junior consultants, remember your presentation isn't a murder mystery - the client doesn't want to have to wait until the very end of it to find out how the story ends. Deliver the key message where it belongs: at the beginning.

I like to apply a QACC test to the key point or "governing though": it should lead to a Question, be Action-orientated, be Clever, and also Constructive - don't just tell them the problem, have some great options to solve it too.

Top-down thinking also helps you be selective about how you layer your information and how much you need to use to support your point. I once saw a 50-page report condensed down into eight pages, plus annexes. It contained all the vital information and was all the client needed to hear at that point. It was convincing and compelling, with evidence and key facts in the body of the report, with the annexed layer there too for completeness.

Pretend you're delivering your report to the most important person you can think of right now, in an elevator. If they go one floor with you, did you get your key point across? Yes and agreed? - great! Yes, but to be convinced? - you caught their interest and might get another floor to expand on your reasoning. No? - not a great outcome for you or the other person, but you can always do better next time.

What's a good way to start putting top-down thinking into practice?

The first place that many people start using top-down thinking is in emails, our most common form of communication in the commercial world.

Quite often our key point is the last sentence. Putting this in the first sentence instead sets the context and makes your point or request very clear. You might then need to shuffle what follows, but just remember to focus on what you want to say and to remove any ambiguity for your audience. No more murder mystery, just great consulting.

Image: Gideon Tsang (https://www.flickr.com/photos/gideon/)

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