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Expert spotlight: The value of project management and storytelling in economic consulting 

Douglas Frank is an expert in the Antitrust and Competition Practice. His background includes more than the usual consulting work. Here he discusses how that background differs and how those differences benefit clients.

Q. Tell us a bit about your background.

A. Before getting my PhD, I was an executive at a Fortune 100 global chemicals and life sciences firm. I started out there as a chemist and then moved through a variety of roles in the United States and Germany in business-to-business marketing, internal consulting, and corporate strategy. Then I took a significant change in direction and became a professor at INSEAD, a peer institution to schools such as Harvard Business School and Wharton that is located outside of Paris. There I taught economic foundations of strategy, organization design, and governance to MBAs, PhDs, and senior executives. About seven years ago I joined the economic consulting field.

Q. Why did you turn to economic consulting?

A. Having worked in industry and earned an MBA before pursuing my PhD, I was always interested in the practical applications of economics, whereas academia, overall, is less oriented toward this. Also, consulting allows me to see the impact of my work more immediately. In contrast, academia is like a big conversation among hundreds of people that proceeds slowly and incrementally. It’s very hard to see your impact, even over a period of many years.

Q. Is there one skill you've used across all these types of work?

A. I would say there are two: project management and storytelling.

I spent many years managing large projects in my corporate career, which fit my strong process orientation. When I teach project management to junior consultants, I encourage them to constantly ask themselves: “Am I managing the project or is the project managing me?” In other words, do we have a clearly defined path towards our end goal, and do we have contingency plans for the inevitable disruptions—or are we constantly reacting to events? What’s important here is that the more stability and predictability we can inject into the process, the more mental space we have for the value-added knowledge work—the research and analysis—which leads to a better product.

Storytelling has been a constant throughout my career. By “storytelling,” I don’t mean spinning yarns, but developing a factual narrative that persuades someone to adopt a specific viewpoint. This could be, for example, that Mercedes-Benz should use my company’s products, or an INSEAD student should understand and apply an economic concept in their business, or a judge or jury should accept the opinions in an expert report over alternative analyses. This relates to project management because it entails working backwards to identify the steps that will lead the audience to your conclusion. That involves many different considerations, including understanding the audience, what information they need and in what sequence, what level of complexity is appropriate, and what questions or objections need to be addressed in advance.

Q. Teaching at INSEAD must have played a role in developing both of these skills.

A. Yes. As I mentioned, teaching combines the skills of planning and storytelling that are also applicable to managing litigation matters. In both instances, the assignment is to communicate highly technical subject matter in a way that the audience can not only understand, but also ultimately incorporate into their view of the world.

Q. That can't be easy—but you won a teaching award, didn't you?

A. I think any craft—whether it’s teaching, managing complex projects, or writing expert reports—requires a lot of practice, and I’ve always had a strong perfectionist impulse that has motivated me to make those kinds of investments. After a few years at INSEAD, I consistently received the Dean’s Award for Excellence in Teaching. And the last two graduating classes that I taught voted me the Outstanding Teacher of Elective Courses. That’s kind of like INSEAD’s version of the Best Picture Oscar, so it was really gratifying.

Part of what made it so gratifying is that the students felt that the course had a big impact on them. Former students would routinely hire me to consult for their organizations, and I continue to hear from them that they still use my lecture notes in their work. My goal when I launched the course was to change students’ way of understanding the world. To succeed in that with that audience of extremely bright, inquisitive—and often skeptical—students, you need to know your subject matter right down to the ground and be able to field all sorts of unexpected questions without getting rattled. Winning over a room full of 50 of those students is the closest thing I know to being deposed, and I’ve carried that experience through to my economic consulting work.

Q. Shifting gears entirely, before we conclude, what is something people would not know about you from your CV or LinkedIn?

A. “Shifting gears” is apt. I’m an avid cyclist, thanks to my time living in France. One of my favorite vacations there was two weeks spent in the French Alps, riding with the local cycling club and summiting many of the peaks that appear on the Tour de France. These days, my greatest cycling challenge is the semi-perilous DC traffic on my 10-mile ride to the office.

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