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Friday, March 11, 2011

Case-based interviews and general case method tips

Are you preparing for an IMD or IESE case-based interview? 

Please read these tips


Case discussion is interactive, student-centered exploration of realistic and specific narratives that provide grist for inductive learning.  The students engage in the intellectual, and emotional, exercise of facing complex problems and making critical decisions within the constraints imposed by reality, e.g. limited time and information, and pervasive uncertainty.  Considering them from the protagonist’s perspective, which calls on analysis to inform action, the students strive to resolve questions that have no single right answer.  Their differing views and approaches produce a creative tension that fuels the enterprise and a synergistic outcome that both recognizes and exceeds their individual contributions.  In their effort to find solutions and reach decisions through discussion, they sort out factual data, apply analytical tools, articulate issues, reflect on their relevant experience, and draw conclusions they can carry forward to new situations.  In the process, they acquire substantive knowledge, develop analytic and collaborative skills, and gain in self-confidence and attention to detail.

A case discussion differs in come important respects from what is conventional in many college and university classrooms.  The students engage in the text rather than examine it.  They are active and animated:  offering ideas, raising questions, building on each others’ statements, constructing a collective analysis, re-framing the discussion, challenging the teacher, learning with and from each other as much as, or more than, from him or her.  

The teacher is also active, and frequently mobile: initiating discussion and drawing the class into it, inviting engagement in the issues, amplifying some students’ remarks and pointing up opposing views, feeding the group’s thinking back to it, pulling the threads of conversation together and tying them in to the course’s themes; in short, structuring and facilitating the students’ work rather than delivering information, giving explanations, or providing answers.  The emphasis is on the students’ reasoning and expressions, on their capacity to structure the problem and work out a solution.  It is also on the process as well as the substance of inquiry, and a case discussion often ends with questions as well as conclusions.

Among the purposes of case discussion are to:

• Foster Critical Thinking
• Encourage Student Responsibility for Learning
• Transfer Information, Concept, and Technique
• Develop Command of a Body of Material
• Blend Affective and Cognitive Learning
• Enliven the Classroom Dynamic
• Develop Collaboration Skills
• Teach Questioning and Self-Directed Learning


Case discussion requires more intense effort, form both students and instructors, than many more traditional methods of instruction.  While the demands on time, energy, and personal commitment are great, the rewards of the case method are also substantial. With repeated exposure to cases, students improve their skill in analyzing and dealing with ambiguous situations and incomplete information. 

They begin to approach problems in a focused, confident way that leads to firm, well-reasoned conclusions even in the face of uncertainty.  As well as developing knowledge and understanding, the process fosters good judgment and effective action.

The power of the case method lies in the active participation of the students.  In learning from a case, they determine the relevant facts, analyze them, and draw conclusions about the cause of the problem and what action to take.  Their conclusions often differ from both the protagonist’s thinking and the case writer’s own implicit diagnosis, although all are based on the same facts.  The most powerful and interesting cases are those that allow for several assessments of the same situation, leading to several equally plausible and compelling conclusions, each with different implications for action.

In case learning, students encounter the problem before they create the structure to solve it; the method is basically inductive and experiential.  The problems that cases present are subtle, complex, and persistent; they have no easy, definite, or correct solutions.  In confronting such problems, students face the challenge of working out their own approach to defining, analyzing, and solving them.  The experience is that of having the problem oneself and striving to find a way to resolve it, because the case method encourages students to see it from an action perspective rather than analyze it from a distance.

At the same time that it develops their skills, repeated exposure to the ambiguous and complex problems found in cases builds remarkable confidence in students.  Case learning develops tolerance for ambiguity and fosters the ability to make timely decisions and take effective action despite incomplete information, unclear problems, and uncertain consequences.  During case discussions, instructors encourage students to face these risks and move toward specific action.  Through such practice, students learn to cope with the circumstances that will challenge them in the future.

Much of the power of the learning comes from the study group and class interaction among the participants.  Learning from each other’s as well as their own experiences is one of the most valuable opportunities this interaction affords.  It also exposes students to others’ analytic and problem-solving approaches, and this exposure encourages them to recognize and reflect on their own.  The incorporation of many points of view into the case discussion fosters the fundamental strength of generating alternative responses to problems.  The mere fact of the interaction enhances such skills as listening, articulating, and participating effectively in group enterprise.

Finally, it is difficult to define, but also difficult to overestimate, the impact of the fact that case learning in more than a sterile, academic exercise.  By challenging the student to adopt an action perspective, experience the raw data of a problem, and determine his or her own means of coping with it, by engaging students in the relatively unstructured, but highly charged enterprise of case discussion, the case method involves the whole person, the emotions and the intuitions as well as the intellect.  Such qualities as persistence, patience, and persuasiveness count, along with mental agility and power, just as they do in the real lives of professionals.  Case learning educates the person who will become the professional, not just the mind.

STEP TWO: Case Study Handbook: 
How to Read, Discuss, and Write Persuasively About Cases
256 pages. Publication date: Mar 15, 2007.
A former client created this outline of the book pictured below

Chapter 1 and 2: are a relative waste of time.
Ellet spends a lot of time romanticizing the Case Study and locating it within Western Tradition.
This can all be summarized in a few sentences:
The case study is a document quite different from what most students are used to seeing in the classroom.
  • Not linear, having no clear beginning or end, containing multiple types of information, some important and some useless, the case study requires the reader to relearn the process of reading and analysis.
To effectively study and learn from a case study, one must learn how to interpret the information in a useful, time-efficient fashion.
  • To this end Ellet tries to break down the case study itself, as well as gives advice on how to prepare an analytical report.
Chapter 3 How to analyze a case
Things to remember
1) reading in order is not always beneficial
2) reading actively- taking notes, highlighting, reorganizing information- is key
3) you will never have as much time as you need, so keep moving!

The Four types of Case Situations:
1) Problem Cases
"...situation[s] in which 1)there is a significant outcome or performance, and 2) the is no explicit explanation of the outcome or performance" (21).
Situations can both be negative (a new project fails, sales increase but revenues drop, etc.) or positive (a product our market research showed was ready to come off the shelves suddenly sold out, and we don't know why).

2) Decisions
Cases that revolve around an explicit decision.
All cases will include decisions, but Decision Cases will have some big decision that becomes the fulcrum for the case.
(Do we launch a new product? Do we buy that company?)
In decision cases, there is no objective answer. It is up to you to defend your decision well and be aware of the other options.

3) Evaluations
"Express a judgment about the worth, value, or effectiveness of a performance, act, or outcome" (23). Evaluations can be about people, outcomes, decisions, etc.

4) Rules
Not discussed in detail here, rule cases involve situations where a specific set of information needs to be compared under a specific condition.
Here rules and frameworks are given and must be applied.

The process of analyzing a case is the same in all situations, but the details will change. Let's look at the overall process:
How to Analyze a Case
1) Situation
2) Questions
3) Hypothesis
4) Proof and action
5) Alternatives

So you've got your case. Here's how the process works:
1) Situation (5 minutes)
-Read the first and last portions of the case. Ask yourself, "What is the situation?"
Often times reading the first and last sections first will make it very clear what type of case it is, and may provide direction. (For example, often times in decision cases, which decisions are available are spelled out at the end. Without reading these first the student may make assumptions while analyzing the case only to realize that a different element was at play.)

Decisions and evaluations are often stated in the very beginning.
- Consider what kind of framework you may want to use for this case, and what kind of information you are given. (For example, do you have a lot of quant data? Do the two sections give any hints about specific criteria needed to evaluate or decide?)

2) Questions (15 minutes)
Start to ask yourself questions about the case to get your thoughts organized. After you have established the situation, ask yourself "what do i need to know about the situation?"
Ellet gives questions specific to each situation:

  • Who/what is the subject of the problem? (A manager, a company, a country?)
  • What is the problem?
  • Am I trying to account for a failure, a success, or something more ambiguous?
  • What is the significance of the problem to the subject?
  • Who is responsible for the problem? (often time it is the protagonist. ALWAYS BE CRITICAL OF THE PROTAGONIST. sometimes cases are written from her perspective, but don't let that stop you from evaluating her influence on the situation.)
  • What are the decision options?
  • Do any seem particularly strong or weak?
  • What might be the most important criteria for this kind of decision? What kinds of criteria are mentioned in the case?
  • Who/what is the subject of the evaluation?
  • Who is responsible for the evaluation/what is at stake here?
  • What are the important criteria for this evaluation? What kinds of criteria are mentioned in the case?
Once you have some questions laid out, scan the headings in the text and a little of each section. Try to get a feel for which sections will contain information valuable to your analysis, and which ones may just be dead-ends. Mark the case up- make notes!

3) Hypothesis (45 minutes)
Now it's time to dig in. Hit the text- those places you noted and marked up- to gather the information that will answer your questions and help you form your hypothesis.

  • Know what the problem is.
  • Think about frameworks that may be helpful (5 P' 4C's, Leadership frameworks, etc.) to locate the cause, after all, your hypothesis will be able it's cause, so think about the case in terms of effects and causes. You have the EFFECT- what is the cause? (eg- sales fell. Why?)
  • Work backwards and take notes

THINK AS QUANTITATIVELY AS POSSIBLE. If there are numbers, charts, USE THEM. The more data you can have to support your cause, the better evidenced your hypothesis will be.
If there is a protagonist, consider that they may be a cause of the problem, or at least be contributing to it.

  • Think about the criteria you have already noted. Do they lead you one direction or another? (i.e. yes/no, hire/fire, etc.)
  • Review the decision options and think about which one sounds the best to you. (Criteria- reduce costs. increase sales. regain market share. Which decision gets us there fastest?)
  • Apply the criteria that seems to have the most evidence backing it up. (Sales are a little weak but the main issue is cost. Lets look at which decision saves us the most loot long term)
    Look into the decision that works with your strongest criterion.
  • If there is a lot of Quant evidence in the case, consider which criteria is most relevant to it. (eg if you have a TON of sales figures but no cost figures, costs may not be the main criterion)
  • If you see a lot of conflicts between groups/people, ask yourself why. Consider you decision from the POV of each group.
  • Consider the position of the protag. in reference to your decision.
  • Look over the evaluation criteria you have. Which sounds the most useful?
  • What are the terms of the evaluation going to be? (strengths/weaknesses? good/bad?) Do any stand out?
  • Do you have an idea of what the bottom-line evaluation is going to be? If so, what are the reasons for it?
  • Apply the most useful criterion to the evidence. (eg- evaluating a manager. The criterion: A leader has to spur change, Overcome obstacles, and lead a group)
  • Look deeper into the most positive and negative rankings you have
  • Use as much quant information as possible
4) Proof and Action (40 min)
  • Compile your evidence (here is where, if you are presenting, you want to make graphs/charts) and create a bottom line ACTION recommendation. How will we move forward?
5) Alternatives (15 min)
  • THERE ARE ALWAYS ALTERNATIVES. Respect that, prepare for it. Consider holes, other ways to analyze, and compare them to your hypothesis and action. be ready to defend your idea and potential reshape it.

Problem Cases

Five elements are incorporated into the study
1) Problem definition. Step one- what's the problem? There are usually multiple problems occurring, so it is your job to...
3) Cause-effect analysis: Consider this in terms of cause-and-effect, and remember you HAVE the effect, so you have to work backwards.
4) Frameworks- apply one here. (Like external and internal consistence are crucial to an effective strategy")
5) Action: Create a forward-moving solution

In other words, think about the whole case as cause and effect. One you have your main effect (problem), your hypothesis becomes the main causes you feel contributed to the problem. From here, you must back up that hypothesis with evidence- both analytical and quantitative, and recommend some sort of action to take.

Decision cases have five elements
1) Options- often laid out within the beginning AND END of a case. Watch that!
2) Criteria- the priorities of the company/individual/country/
3) Analysis of the options- see which option fulfills the criteria the best. Consider both advantages and disadvantages of the option you choose but stay efficient and focused
4) Recommendation- Recommend an option- this is your hypothesis
5) Action- Develop an action plan to make your recommendation a reality!

Evaluation: Six elements:
1) Criteria: Sometimes given, sometimes not, is the framework for your analysis.
2) Terms: You have to decide how you are going to evaluation. 5 Stars? Good? Efficient? Pick the most appropriate to the case.
3) Evaluative Analysis: Consider each criteria based on the information you are given, including the positive and negative sides of each
4) Bottom-line judgment: Make an evaluation. Don't beat around the bush.
5) Qualifications: consider other forces involved (maybe the manager was not effective, but was it all his fault? If corporate shares responsibility, that goes here. If the market sucked over all, that goes here)
6) Actions- make future recommendations.

STEP THREE: Case in Point

The First 4 Steps (from Cosentino's "Case in Point" book)
  • Summarize the question
  • Verify the client’s objective
  • Ask clarifying questions about the company, industry, market, products and competition.
  • Layout your structure
The 12 Most Popular Case Scenarios
Business cases traditionally have focused on either business strategy or business operations. However, with today’s more complex cases, candidates are getting cases that cover both categories and multiple scenarios.

Strategy Scenarios
  1. Entering a new market
  2. Industry Analysis
  3. Mergers & Acquisitions
  4. Developing a new product
  5. Pricing Strategies
  6. Growth Strategies
  7. Starting a new business
  8. Competitive response
Operating Scenarios
  1. Increasing sales
  2. Reducing Costs
  3. Improving the bottom line
  4. Turnarounds
Entering a New Market – Things you need to be thinking about.

Step 1: Investigate the current market to determine whether entering the market would make good business sense.
  • Who is our competition?
  • What size market share does each competitor have?
  • How do their products/services compare to ours?
  • Are there any barriers to entry? Such as government regulations, access to distribution channels, capital requirements.
Step 2: If we decide to enter the market, what is the best way?
  • There are three main ways to enter a market.
  • Start from scratch
  • Acquire an existing business
  • Form a joint venture
Analyze the pros and cons of each. This is sometimes called cost-benefit analysis. You can use this whenever you are trying to decide whether or not to proceed with a decision.

THE FIVE C’s and 4 P’s
There are two elementary frameworks that can do the job. You’re not going to blow anyone away with these, but you won’t drown either. They will allow you to touch on all the main points and appear fairly well organized.

FIVE C’s (usually best to pick 3 that fit your situation)
  1. Company
  2. Costs
  3. Competition
  4. Consumer
  5. Channels
  1. Product
  2. Price
  3. Placement
  4. Promotion
Case Preparation - Case Commandments

These Commandments are the result of years of research. Cosentino has interviewed recruiters, consultants, partners and debriefed hundreds of Harvard students.

Listen to the Question: Listening is the most important skill a consultant has. The case isn’t about you or the consultant. it’s about the client. What are they really asking for? Pay particular attention to the last sentence – one word can change the entire case.

Take Notes: Taking notes during the case interview allows you to check back with the facts of the case. As someone once said, "The palest ink is stronger than the best memory." If you blank out, all the information is right in front of you.

Summarize the Question: After you are given the question, take a moment to summarize the highlights out loud:
  • It shows the interviewer that you listened
  • It allows you to hear the information again
  • It keeps you from answering the wrong question
  • It fills the otherwise awkward pause when you’re trying to think of something intelligent to say
Verify the Objective(s): Professional consultants always ask their clients to verify their objective(s). Even if the objectives seem obvious, there could be an additional underlying objective. When the objective seems apparent, phrase the questions differently: "One objective is to increase sales. Are there any other objectives I should know about?"

Ask Clarifying Questions
You ask questions for three main reasons:
  • To get additional information that will help you identify and label the question
  • To demonstrate to the interviewer that you are not shy about asking probing questions under difficult circumstances (something you’ll be doing on a regular basis as a consultant)
  • To turn the question into a conversation. Nothing turns an interviewer off quicker than a five-minute monologue.
Organize Your Answer: Identify and label your case, then lay out your structure. This is the hardest part of a case – and the most crucial. It drives your case and is often the major reason behind whether you get called back.

Hold that Thought for one second / think before you speak: The interviewer wants you to think out loud, but think before speak. If you make a statement that is way off-base in an interview, the interviewer will wonder if he can trust you in front of a client.

Manage Your Time: Your answer should be as linear as possible. Don’t get bogged down in the details. Answer from a macro–level and move the answer forward. Stay focused on the original question.

By the Numbers: If possible, try to work numbers into your answer. Demonstrate that you think quantitatively and that you are comfortable with numbers.

Be Coachable: Listen to the interviewer’s feedback. Is she trying to guide you back on track? Pay attention to her body language. Are you boring her or is she enthralled?

Be Creative and Brainstorm: Consulting firms like liberal arts candidates with intellectual curiosity who can "think outside the box" and offer up a new and interesting perspective.

Exude Enthusiasm and a Positive Attitude: Recruiters want people who are excited by problem solving and can carry that enthusiasm throughout the entire interview.

Bring Closure and Summarize: Create a sense of closure by summarizing the case. Review your findings, restate your suggestions, and make recommendations.

Case Questions tips

Listen to the question

  • Ask clarifying questions only if you don't understand

Base your assumptions on some sort of logic; otherwise the interviewer might challenge how you came up with your conclusion

Write down all numbers

First Three Steps

1. Summarize the case
2. Verify the objectives
3. Ask clarifying questions
 a. To get additional information
 b.  To show you can ask direct and probing questions
 c.  To turn the case into a conversation

Notes design

  • Use landscape format
  • Divide the first page into two sections


  • Case notes: write down the information you know
  • Be sure to verify the objective


  • Write the objectives across the top of this section.
  • Write the answers to questions that you asked about the case.
  • Draw or lay out your structure.
  • E (P+R-C) M
  • Sales / R&D or
  • Earnings / R&D

A good interview consists of

  • Repeating the question, verifying the objective and asking about other objectives
  • A logical and well thought out market sizing process (if the question asks for one)
  • No math mistakes
  • Not getting flustered when being cut off and asked “What else?” (This is a crucial element of the interview, since clients will be demanding and sometimes rude.)

“Let me tell you why you are wrong.” Sometimes during a case, the student will be asked to make a decision. She will be forced between A and B. If she chooses A, the interview will look her right in the eye and say, “Let me tell you why you are wrong.” If she had chosen B, the interviewer would have looked her right in the eye and said, “Let me tell you why you are wrong.” It does not matter which one she chooses, they are going to tell her why she is wrong. The interviewer does this to see how she reacts. Does she turn red, does her jaw tighten, or do her eyebrows shoot up? Clients are going to challenge her findings and ideas all the time. The interviewer wants to make sure she can handle criticism when someone challenges her.

While the interviewer is telling her why she is wrong, if she does not find his answer persuasive, then she should simply say, “That was an interesting argument, but I did not find it compelling enough. I am sticking with answer A.” That is what he wants her to do, stick with her answer if she thinks it is right. Defend her answer without getting defensive.

If in his argument he brings up something that she did not consider, and not that she thinks about it, it changes everything, she should admit that she was wrong. She should simply say, “That was a very persuasive argument, and to be honest, I did not think about the inventory issue. I think you are right; I think B is the right answer.” There is no shame in changing her answer if she was wrong. It shoes that she is still objective and open to reason. What he does not want her to do is change her answer just because he said she was wrong.

  • Brainstorming good ideas and strategies
  • Determining other considerations like competitive response and exit strategies
  • A good, short summary touching on the most critical points
  • Well-organized and easy to read notes



  • Structured framework - Did they organize their thoughts and analyze the case in a logical manner? Did they layout or physically draw a structure before they started answering the question?
  • Quant acumen - Did they try to quantify their answer? Did they make any math mistakes?
  • Data  - Did they incorporate the data provided into their answer? Did they make logical assumptions based on data provided?
  • Good use of data provided


  • Eye contact and posture - Was it consistent and positive?
  • Articulation  - Could you understand them? Did they speak in complete sentences? Did they use slang? Did they show a sense of humor?
  • Listening  - Were they listening while you were speaking or were they thinking of what they were planning on saying?
  • Asking probing questions - Did they ask insightful and probing questions?
  • Note layout - Were their notes well organized? Were they visual with their notes? Did they draw boxes, graphs, arrows, decision trees, value chains, or flow charts? Could you read their handwriting?


  • Enthusiasm  - Did it seem that they enjoyed solving cases? Did they remain upbeat throughout the interview - even when they were in trouble? Is this someone you want to work 60 hours a week with?
  • Self confidence
  • Teamwork and engagement - Did they bring you into the process?
  • Logic, original thought and intellectual curiosity  

(adapted from; accessed 3/2009)

-Updated by Vince on 14 March 2012

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