A client who is a recovering consultant marvelled when I introduced him to our methods for efficient, collaborative decisionmaking, joint design. “That sure isn’t how we did it at Bain,” he said.
I asked how they did do it at Bain, and learnt that their mantra is answer first. This is mostly wrong—but not completely!
The part that’s nuts is the idea that you can make an effective decision unilaterally first, and then rally others to help you implement it. There’s a problem with motivation there—“why should I get behind your crazy plan?” But much worse, you’re likely to be missing lots of vital information when you “answer first”, and paradoxically, when you build up enough momentum for your solution, you’ll actually drown out the very people who could tell you why your answer won’t work.
Sometimes, when I’m working with a group on a decision, I’ll tell everyone that if they discover a secret word I’ve told one member, they’ll all get ice cream. Later, I let slip that there isn’t really any ice cream and there is no secret word—but they should all act just they had planned to when they thought there was a reward, since the group will make a better decision if everyone is focussed on learning what they don’t know. (I can only get away with this when I’m with groups who know me well!)
However, there’s a sense in which “answer first” isn’t all bad. If you start not with the idea that your answer is right and needs supporters, but instead aim to test the hypothesis that it might be and seek input, you arrive at something pretty close to Stephen Bungay’s back briefing. You may find out, for example, that you completely misunderstood the goals of your team or your company, or that your solution contains an assumption that is flat-out wrong. Discovering this soon, by “radiating intent” early, is a great way to avoid investing a lot of time and resources on a doomed mission.
I wasn’t surprised that a big consultancy would have an unproductive, unilateral principle baked into its culture (that’s why I’m never worried about the competition for my consulting services). But I was pleased to find that there was something useful in the idea of sharing your intent.