The Management Consulting Lingo Dictionary

Management consulting terms and management consulting lingo

“A consultant is someone who takes a subject you understand and makes it sound confusing.”

It’s a common perception of management consultants. From “bucket” to “scope”, from “sniff test” to “bandwidth”, to excel in the industry is to master a new and often entirely consulting-specific vocabulary and set of consulting terminology.

I received a lot of feedback when I published my first post on consulting lingo.

Now I’m happy to announce the most comprehensive dictionary of consultant lingo on the web. I want to give a quick shout to bnjammin’s Blog, which covered many of these terms in previous posts.

I’m hoping this database of words will grow with time. If you have additional terms to include, email me with the term + definition and I’ll add it. Thanks!

So here it is!

5,000 mile view: a phrase used to describe a high-level, summary view of the situation. 5,000 can be replaced by any large number to indicate the same thing

80/20 rule: belief that 80% of the effects come from 20% of the causes; in consulting, this term is used to imply that 80% of an assignment can be finished in 20% of the time

adding value: quite simply, that value is being added. See also “value-add”

AOB: Any other business – Term generally used in developing a meeting agenda. Denotes time scheduled to discuss miscellaneous topics in a meeting.

at the end of the day: a phrase used to attempt summarization, introduce an air of finality and perhaps close off certain avenues of discussion; since most consultants’ days do not end with the setting of the sun, at the end of the day most of them are still working

B2B: business to business, referring to a company’s primary audience for sales and marketing

B2C: business to consumer, referring to a company’s primary audience for sales and marketing

bandwidth: capacity, free time, ability to do (additional) work; generally used to indicate that speaker cannot or would not prefer to do additional work, as in: “I don’t think I’ll have any bandwidth this Friday”

beach: the consulting equivalent of sports’ being on the bench, it is viewed with worrisome anxiety by junior consultants and relieved gratitude by senior consultants

Big 3: McKinsey, Bain, BCG aka “MBB”

Big 4: Deloitte, Ernst & Young, KPMG, PricewaterhouseCoopers

Bird’s eye view: high level view

Boil the ocean: as the name states, clearly an impossible task. Generally, a project manager or partner will say “Let’s not boil the ocean” as a pretext for suggesting a ton of analyses that in effect, often ends up boiling a very large lake, if not exactly the ocean

bottoms-up: expression meaning to look at the smallest units possible to initiate analysis (eg, bottoms-up analysis of a company would start with its lowest-level employees and then work its way to upper management)

buckets: categories; this is the extent of this word’s definition, so it remains a mystery why people choose to employ the former term; also used as a transitive verb to mean ‘categorize’

buttoned-down: see buttoned-up

buttoned-up: to indicate that a particular piece of work or analysis is comprehensive, accurate and capable of withstanding close scrutiny; this is an example of opposite terms with identical meanings

buy-in: agreement, support; it is unclear why ‘buy-in’ has come to supplant these terms, as no actual purchasing occurs

CAGR: compound annual growth rate. If you don’t know it, you won’t get very far

campus hire: a consultant hired directly from undergraduate or business schools, as opposed to “experienced hire”

capacity: your available time and energy for additional tasks

charge code: a unique code provided with each project/assignment to which you can charge work-related expenses

circle back: to follow up with indicated individuals at a later point in time, usually to review progress on the current topic of discussion; this phrase is somewhat redundant, as it is impossible to trace a circle that does not connect back with itself

core client: a client with a long-standing firm relationship, and one in which there is continual dialogue between senior executives even if there are no ongoing projects

crisp: an adjective indicating that the referenced work or analysis is thorough and complete, perhaps by gastronomical allusion to food that is fully prepared; it is duly noted that crisp objects, while ostensibly finished, are also far more brittle and prone to shattering

deck: your Powerpoint slides, sometimes referring to the master “deck” for the team

deep dive: similar to “double click”, this means a thorough in-depth exploration of a particular topic

deliverable: anything that is owed by you to your manager/team, or owed by team to client

double click: similar to “deep dive”, this means a thorough in-depth exploration of a particular topic

due diligence: comprehensive study/survey of a business model with an aim to set clear expectations, risks, dependencies, etc as part of a business proposal

EBITDA: earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation, and amortization

elevator test: a test of one’s ability to explain concepts in a short-period of time (typically 60 seconds or less). The elevator test represents a hypothetical situation where you are sharing the elevator with a VIP and need to give them a quick summary/presentation during the ride

engagement: also known as a project or a case

experienced hire: a consultant hired from another company, typically with a higher starting position and salary than 1st year consultants. See also “parallel hire”

fact pack: typically a “pack” of information that provides the essential “facts” on a project/industry/company

Gantt chart: type of bar chart that illustrates a project schedule with start and finish dates, deliverables, etc

GMC: Global Management Consultancy, sometimes referring to just the Big 3, sometimes referring to the Big 3 plus the Big 4 accounting firms

granular: a detailed level of abstraction; often used in the context of increasing the fineness of the analysis, as in: “We need to get more granular here”

hands: often prefaced with ‘client,’ indicates the interpersonal skills of an individual in relation to a particular group of people, as in, “That manager sure has great client hands”

hard stop: used to indicate that after the time indicated, the listeners are on their own, because the person stating that they have a hard stop sure isn’t going to be around to help after then

high-level: similar to 5,000 mile view, but high-level can also mean a very rudimentary analysis (often lacking in detail)

hope you’re doing well: a generally well-intended but insincere interpolation used at the beginning of most voicemails to replace the standard pleasantries that would be present in verbal communications; use of this phrase does not indicate actual interest in the well-being of the recipient; also found with alarming frequency in electronic mail

I need someone who can hit the ground running:really means, “I am screwed.” Because no one can hit the ground running. You need to at least assess what race you’re in and who else is running.

I’m calling to touch base:“I want something from you but I can’t say it up front.” Or “I am worried that you are lost and I’m sniffing around for signs to confirm my hunch.” Or “I’m calling because you micromanage me.”

keep this on your radar:“This will come back to bite you. or me.”

key: critical, essential, required, important, central; the key analysis is generally the linchpin; often used as a noun, and with such frequency that its significance has been diluted, since everything is now ‘key’

let me play this back: said when the listener wants to refract and color the conversation through his or her own perspective, under the pretense of reviewing the transcript of what’s been said; in this manner the listener can pretend he or she is a tape recorder

let’s close the loop:“Let me make sure I’m not going to get into trouble for this one.”

let’s hit a home run: “I’m desperate to look good. Even though the odds of a home run are slim, I’m banking on one because it’s the only thing that’ll save me.” Something for all your sports fans to remember: If you have a bunch of solid hitters you don’t need a bunch of home runs.

let’s run the numbers and see how they look:“I know they look bad on first blush. But the true use of Excel is to keep changing the formulas until you find a format that makes the numbers look good.”

let’s think out of the box: really means, “Can you creatively anemic people please come up with something?” The person who says, “Let’s think out of the box” is usually desperate for a new idea and surrounded by people who are not known for generating ideas. So the phrase is actually an announcement that says, “I’m in trouble.”

let’s touch base next week: “I don’t want to talk to you now,” or “You are on a short leash and you need to report back to me.”

leverage: a fancy way of saying “use” as in “Let’s leverage this set of data”

low-hanging fruit: the initial opportunities, areas of exploration, etc. that are easiest to cover; intended to evoke visual imagery of fruit-laden trees, suggesting that much remains beyond the lowest boughs; syn. quick win

MBB: McKinsey, Bain, BCG aka the “Big 3″

McKBain Group: a term I made up that is easier for newbies than MBB

MECE: mutually exclusive, collectively exhaustive. A term originating at McKinsey and common across management consulting firms, it’s a grouping principle that in the words of Wikipedia, “data in a group should be divided into subgroups that comprehensively represent that group (no gaps) without overlapping”

my plate is full: “Help I’m drowning,” or “I would kill myself before I’d work on your project.”

on board: the status of being assigned to a case, engagement, or project

opportunity cost: basic economic principle that describes the “cost” of the next best alternative foregone when making a decision

paradigm: consulting-ese for “pattern” or “model” or “framework”

parallel hire: a consultant hired from another company, typically with a more senior position position and higher starting salary than 1st year consultants. See also “experienced hire”

ping: synonym for “contact”; originated as an onomatopoeia for the sound that is emitted when someone receives an instant message, but nowadays can refer to any form of contact including email or even tapping someone on the shoulder

PIOUTA: pulled it out of thin air, also see “WAG” or “SWAG”

pipeline: typically used to reference the current and upcoming list of client engagements

POA: plan of action

production: in noun form, a department (either internal or outsourced) of the consulting firm that assists in producing the materials needed for presentations, meetings, etc

progress review: a periodic meeting (either internal or with the client) to review the progress made in the preceding period

provide color: a directive that translates roughly to “This is perhaps the most boring thing I have ever read, with the possible exception of certain lengthier legal disclaimers, and even then it’s pretty close”; this bit of jargon is nevertheless somewhat of an advance, since, back in the early days of consulting, people were encouraged to provide black and white

push back (verb form) or pushback (noun): formerly the sole domain of airplanes leaving their gates, this term is now used to indicate resistance and/or disagreement, without actually using those terms; this phrase attempts to avoid any negative connotations of controversy

QC: Quality control, typically referring to need to check for typos, grammar mistakes, calculation errors, etc

quick question: the answer will be anything but; bizarre since the adjective ‘quick’ is intended, by implication, to be transferred to the answer to said question and does not necessarily have any bearing on the length of the question

right sized: euphemism for downsized

rock star: an individual whose performance in a given area or success at specific endeavors is highly impressive, unique and/or admirable; this appellation is generally used sparingly; although the term is sometimes used frivolously to express purportedly extreme gratitude, as in: “Thanks for picking up my mail for me, you’re a rock star”

sandwich method: a structure for providing feedback that resembles a sandwich – one positive comment, then a developmental critique, ending with a positive comment

scope: the agreed-upon list of deliverables and boundaries that underpin any client engagement

sea change: in between lake change and ocean change

sniff test: as in evaluating food for rancidity, this term is used when gauging the viability or reasonableness of a particular analysis; var. smell test

space: a market, arena, field of endeavor, or general area, not to be confused with the area beyond Earth’s atmosphere; use of this term usually adds nothing in the way of descriptive value, as in “I don’t think there will be many opportunities in the technology space”

stand up call: a ‘quick’ round table team call to update status from each team member/lead. Usually no longer than 15-20 mins.

straw man: a construct presented purely for the sake of argument, with the implication that it is not designed to withstand repeated attacks

summer: abridged noun form of summer intern

SWAG: some wild-ass guess. See “WAG”

take the lead on: a clever phrase often used by more experienced consultants when they wish to delegate a menial task, as in: “Why don’t you take the lead on putting together this document,” which may translate to, “I’m lazy and probably not smart or energetic enough to work on this, so go do it”; often appears in utterly irrelevant settings, as in, “Why don’t you take the lead on making dinner reservations for the team,” a manifestly silly request, since one is asked to “take the lead on” something which doesn’t require leadership of anyone and on which they will certainly be working solo

takeaway: in other settings a British term referring to carry-out food, here this word has been transmogrified to indicate the salient point that should be retained upon the conclusion of the discussion, often prefaced with key

to be transparent: in indication that what follows will be particularly revelatory, although it often is not especially so; the troubling implication of this usage is that the speaker has heretofore been opaque

up or out: employee promotion policy where if you’re not promoted “up”, you’re counseled “out” of the company. Many consulting firms use up or out but not all

upward feedback: the process of providing feedback “upward” to more senior employees, from managers to partners

utilization rate: client service hours vs. time on beach. If below 50%, prepared to be “right sized”

value-add: quite simply, that value is added, mashed into a hyphenated noun form. See “adding value”

WAG: wild-ass-guess. See “SWAG”

wordsmith: to make trivial or generally unnecessary edits to text that may only subtly change the meaning, if at all; incorrectly implies that one is a craftsman on the order of a blacksmith or goldsmith; sadly, wordsmithing rarely involves the deletion of jargon

workstream: a group of tasks that make up a project. Usage – “The team was developing various workstreams to complete the client deliverables”

You and I are not on the same page: “Get on my page. Your page is misguided.” No one ever says, “We’re not on the same page, so let me work really hard to understand your point of view. If you want to understand someone else, you say, “Can you tell me more about how you’re thinking.”

That wraps up our tour of management consulting lingo!

  • ttn2n

    Can’t leave out “operationalize” and all those other words we make up that people hate.
    SME (subject matter expert) is important too because it is more generally used by non-consultants to mean small-medium enterprises.

  • A1

    “Check-in” :  Sometimes preceded by “fifteen-minute” or “quick”, these meetings usually run 30 minutes or longer and involve your manager completely changing his/her mind about what you should be doing and giving you 50 hours more work at the last second

  • ajzz

    Suggested correction:

    it should be “bottom-up” and not “bottoms-up”. The first fits the above definition whereas the second is a drinking term that has connotations of forcing something down your throat or finishing up in a rush.

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  • Guest

    Ballpark figure – quick estimate of a quantity within reasonable boundaries of uncertainty

  • P Green

    Great list.  I was checking out your salary info for a friend and found your dictionary.  Love it, love it. Haven’t worked with a “big name” consultant in several years — they’ve added more gloss to the glossary!

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  • jennyrae

    Ha! In that case, this is consistently misused in the industry. :)

  • Cons.

    CLM – Career Limiting Move

  • Brad Friedlander

    SWAG has always been “scientific WAG” connoting a WAG with some (often small) amount of calculation behind it. :)

  • Brad Friedlander

    “straw man” has another common usage. It is something that is close to what the facilitator of a meeting thinks is the correct answer. however, presenting it as a straw man allows people to “shoot at it” (as with a bow and arrow) without fear. This often helps get to consensus a lot quicker.

  • Brad Friedlander

    I’ve never heard the “5,000 mile view” terminology. The more common expression is the “30,000 foot view”. this implies the altitude above the surface of the Earth. As you move up, you see more of the shape of the Earth, but less detail.

  • Eli

    “Bread and butter” is frequently used, particularly at BCG to mean either what someone is focusing on or something they are already very good at, perhaps something where they’ve corned that market. Example: “An innovative product line is Apple’s bread and butter.”

  • Guest

    I have a Colleague In Sales who likes to use the term ‘Crowbar’ when talking about how he can position our product ahead of the competition e.g “I wonder if it would be possible to Crowbar that in there!???”  Cue stunned silence from the other end of the line.

  • Johnsmith

    I have a smilimar colleague who refers to the “value” laptops in our range as “transactional laptops”.

    What should I do?


    Best practice and other lies….


    So I am sure you have had the best practice
    conversation?  No?  Well it is quite common in the corporate
    habitat to ask someone who has never worked in your industry, how to do the

    Often the person being asked has no real experience but they
    do come from a large consultancy and they do claim knowledge of best practice.

    So what is best practice?

    This is the way the consultancy gets past the questions
    about competence and experience, e.g. How can you claim enough competence to
    tell us how to do our job, when you only left Uni 3 years ago and have never
    worked in any industry before?

    By using the term ‘best practice’ it ensures all questions
    are stopped. The consultant can claim that the consultancy has done loads of
    xxxx and this is the best practice we have observed. The client can relax in
    the knowledge that they are getting the latest tools.

    Only they aren’t.

    How do you measure ‘best practice’? How do I know that my
    competitor (the one that doesn’t use this consultancy) hasn’t got a better way?

    Or perhaps more alarmingly, how do you know they will not
    use your implementation to sell a better one to your competitor?

    You don’t. What you will get is the method tried at previous
    similar jobs. The measure of success or failure for the past implementation is how
    much money the consultancy made, not if the client was happy.

    So best practice could turn out to be the way which
    generates the most revenue for the consultancy.

    How would you know?

    Experience has shown that large Mc Donald’s type
    consultancies implement stuff which is good for them. It makes sense. They have
    thousands of users of their methodology in numerous locations. That is why they
    push standardisation. It does work out much cheaper for them to work this way
    but the customer suffers. Maybe that is why we see so much business where the
    business is the important thing and not the customers.

    Personally I prefer small consultancies. These guys have
    real experts or they would not survive in the business. With a small
    consultancy there is nowhere to hide. You deliver or you fail. You fail and the
    next job gets harder to get.

     The concept of ‘best
    practice’ does not make any sense. 
    ‘Best’ is an entirely subjective term. 
    Whatever practice is deemed ‘best’ is typically deemed so by an external
    consultant.  No internal people will ever
    say that what they have is the ‘best’. 
    They’re too busy running things to ‘benchmark’ other organisations that
    do vaguely similar things to them (but have different cultures, customers and
    business models).  It’s just good for
    them, right now with whatever is going on within their business.  However, they will also be working on something
    – better.  

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  • Amit Verma

    I’ll visit again and try to memorize and use more & more of them. Thanks much.

  • Neutron1989

    Domino Effect – a cause that triggers a set of events.
    Tentacle Meeting – Meeting of all LOB’s
    LOB- Lines of Businesses
    Development Opportunity – nice way of saying something you need to fix something.
    WIP – Work in Progress

  • Sandy

    Timeline. Great for making the team convulse in fear realizing the scope of the project is too big and the deadlines too soon.

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  • Ciscokid

    NOT a “DOS command”. PING stands for Packet-InterNet Groper” – from the well-known TCP/IP protocol.

  • jennyrae

    You’re very right, and so are we. The terms are often used interchangeably.

  • sdffds

    No lol

  • Drew

    “Reach Out” – Contact. “I want you to reach out to her next week.” “We’re trying to reach out to them to see if they’ll help.”

  • YJ

    Wow, as a person who studied the Tempest for a really long time and a current consultant, I never ever noticed it until now…

  • Stooge

    you should be “cognizant” of the risks.

  • GK15

    “Take a stab at it” (I have no idea how to do it so why don’t you try?)

  • eb

    cost model, onboarding, service provider, technical ability, whitespace, cross functional, streamline, enabling area, development area.

  • Cthommy

    Optics: How something will appear to others, as in, “Well, you could do that, but I’d be concerned about the optics.”

  • AJ

    I don’t know if it’s because I’ve worked in a lot of different industries or I’ve watched too many (finance/business) movies but most of these are not new to me and the one’s that are, are pretty obvious.