How can I begin to train and exercise my mind to think like a consultant at a top level firm? originally appeared on Quora: the place to gain and share knowledge, empowering people to learn from others and better understand the world.

Answer by Bernie Klinder, technology consulting, on Quora:

Consultants are typically brought in to either solve a problem, or provide insights by looking at a problem in a new way.

Solving problems is something we've learned all through academia - it's the core of nearly every homework assignment. Deep research and analysis, followed by a conclusion (or in consulting, a recommendation). That is what most consultants do each day - they provide answers. The mindset you have to bring to the table is a lot different than what most consultants think of. At the core, consultants are problem solvers and most of us have been conditioned from school to answer the question as presented: "solve for X". Higher level consultants look past the problem itself. They aren't necessarily focused on "solving for X" or what the client thinks the problem is, but they challenge all of the assumptions and constraints around the problem. It's about exposing the client's blind spots and limitations in their thinking. For them, asking the right questions is more important than having all the answers.

Probably the most famous example is the when the legendary Ram Charan was brought into GE by Jack Welch to discuss the Plastics division. After going through the problem statement from GE, Charan simply asked "If you weren't in this business today, would be getting into it? And if not, then why are you in it?" This lead to GE re-examining all of their business units and determining that they would exit any business where they were not leaders in the industry.

While this may seem obvious in hindsight, it is difficult to do on your feet in front of a customer. Ultimately you want the client to come to their own conclusions with you acting as a guide for the discussion. Most people are familiar with the "5 whys" (drilling into a question by asking why through five levels). Getting deeper insights and learning to turn around a problem takes practice.

In many cases the problem presented by the client is the wrong problem - they are asking the wrong question, and they just don't know it. Clients are often blinded by their very focused view of the world, and often get stuck on industry views, trends, and group-think within the company. Culture can stall innovation and constrain options.

A good consultant must:

  • See the opportunities, not the obstacles.
  • Determine the real problem. Often the client is trying to tackle a technical problem, when the issue is actually a business problem.
  • Bring insights from other industries.
  • Help the customer see the art of the possible.
  • Help the customer work on the right problem.

It doesn't help the customer if you improve the efficiency and speed of their operations if their overall strategy is driving the business off of a cliff...

Challenging all the basic assumptions is a good start. In my experience consulting, nearly all the external constraints on a problem (we can't do X because of Y) don't stand up to a mild challenge - especially constraints imposed by the organization itself as more people have the power to say "no" and only a few people have the power to say "yes" to anything. Most people see a wall, accept that it is there, and never examine the problem or even "push" against the wall to see how resilient it is. In some cases, the obstacle or constraint they were referring to was there years ago and no longer exists - its just that no one has ever checked.

To start, learn to ask probing open ended questions and see where they lead:

  • Why is this important?
  • How much does this impact the business?
  • Why are you doing it this way? (Challenging basic assumptions - and likely is its always been done this way.)
  • If you started from scratch today, would you do it the same way? (Likely not.)
  • What does that really mean? (In response to any broad statement that is supposed to explain away concerns.)

Above all, don't try to be clever or seem brilliant - especially early on. You're more likely to fall on your face and destroy your credibility. Sometimes the customer is asking the right question, and forcing some clever alternative is actually the wrong approach.

Developing insight takes practice. Learn from your senior consultants, and listen to the conversations. If you have an insight, bring it up to your senior consultants and see what they think. Let them bring it up to the customer if appropriate until you've established credibility. In time, this process will become easier and you'll be selected for tougher assignments.

This question originally appeared on Quora - the place to gain and share knowledge, empowering people to learn from others and better understand the world. You can follow Quora on Twitter, Facebook, and Google+. More questions: