An Introduction to Case Interviews

The case interviewing style is particularly common among management consulting firms, law firms, counseling and social work organizations, police departments, and other organizations that place a premium on understanding your thought process. Most likely, the case will be the final part of a screening or hiring manager interview.

“Suppose . . .”

The case interview consists of presenting you with a typical set of “facts” that you might encounter in a real-life work situation and observing how you analyze, conclude, and act or recommend actions to be taken. The facts presented can range from a brief snapshot (“Suppose a client came anxiously into your office, hoping to find a solution to a desperate cash-flow problem caused by an unusually severe seasonal slowdown in his business”) or an elaborate maze of information including charts, graphs, numbers, and correlations—some relevant and some perhaps not.

Your job is to become the professional in the situation, making further inquiries to clarify the facts, developing and presenting a framework for thinking about the issues, and then working within the framework to come to conclusions.

Framework?

What do we mean by a framework? In the cash-flow situation stated above, the framework might be an exploration of the bigger picture (“What has your sales history been over the past two years?”), then a look at potential causes, the testing of hypotheses, and finally consideration of short- and long-term remediation possibilities.

If the case presented requires formulating actions in order to implement a strategy, the framework you use might be a two-by-two matrix, in which you classify possible actions in terms of their relevance to the strategy (high or low) and their difficulty of implementation (high or low). The high-impact, low-difficulty quadrant would be the first area to address.

The interviewer is generally more interested in how you explain your assumptions, your reasons for selecting the framework you use, and how you say you would go about operating within that framework than in whether you arrive at a “correct” answer (Tip: There usually is none). Your objective should be to show how you think, and that you think in a clear and reasoned manner.

Naturally, if you have access to the particular framework favored by a given organization for dealing with its clients, you will have an edge. You might, for example, find out that consulting firm X always assumes that a prospective client’s set of facts is incomplete or distorted in some important way and that the first task is to challenge the would-be client’s own assumptions. Discussing the organization with your networking resources will help you to formulate an appropriate framework.

Business Operations Cases

A fair number of case questions cover operations issues. Broadly speaking, “operations” refers to all the things involved in running a business and getting product out the door.

In a manufacturing plant, this would include the purchasing and transporting of raw materials, the manufacturing processes, the scheduling of staff and facilities, the distribution of the product, the servicing of equipment in the field and so on. In its broadest sense, operations would even include the sales and marketing of the company’s products and the systems used to track sales.

Where strategy questions deal with the future direction of the firm (such as whether or not to enter a new line of business), operations deals with the actual running of the business. It is a particularly fertile ground for consulting work, and for case questions. Some of the most typical case questions of this type are those that require the candidate to explain why a company’s sales or profits have declined.

Consultants like to ask operations questions because they allow the interviewer to see whether the candidate understands fundamental issues related to running a business (for example, the relationship between revenues and costs, and the relationship and impact of fixed costs and variable costs on a company’s profitability). In addition, operations questions require the candidate to demonstrate a good grasp of process and an ability to sort through a pile of information and home in on the most important factors.

Think like a Detective

Operations case questions are more complex than market-sizing questions or brainteasers. Not only do they typically require basic business knowledge (or, in place of that, a good deal of common sense), they also frequently require the candidate to think like a detective. In any case, a successful analysis of the question requires the candidate to think clearly and efficiently about the question.

Operations questions usually have lots of potential answers. The first step in identifying a good answer (and demonstrating your analytical firepower) is to separate the wheat from the chaff. Once you have zeroed in on the main issue, you’ll be able to apply your energy to working out a good conclusion to the problem.

Frameworks were made for cracking operations questions! They will help you sift through lots of data and organize your answer. A useful framework can be something as simple as saying “If the airline is losing money, it has something to do with either costs or revenues,” and moving on to talk about each of these areas in turn.

Action

The goal here is action. The hypothetical client is usually facing a critical issue: revenues are falling, costs are rising, production is crashing. Something needs to be done. As a consultant, you will be hired to give advice. As a candidate, you should be sensitive to the fact that your analysis must drive toward a solution. Even if you still need more data before you’re able to make a final recommendation, you should acknowledge that you are evaluating various courses of action. Better yet, you should lay out a plan for next steps.

Business Strategy Cases

Business-strategy cases are the granddaddies—and demons—of the case-question world. Consultants love to use these questions because they touch on so many different issues. A good strategy question can have a market-sizing piece, a logic puzzle, multiple operations issues, and a major dose of creativity and action thrown in for good measure. Moreover, a complex strategy question can go in many different directions, thereby allowing the interviewer to probe the candidate’s abilities in a variety of areas. Again, strategy-case questions can run the gamut from complex, multi-industry, multi-national, multi-issue behemoths to a localized question with a pinpoint focus. Common types of strategy questions include advising a client about an acquisition, responding to a competitive move by another company in the industry, and evaluating opportunities for a new product introduction.

Depending on the nature of the question, the interviewer can use it to assess anything and everything, from your ability to handle numbers to your ability to wade through a mass of detailed information and synthesize it into a compelling business strategy. Of all the different types of case questions, these are also the most like the actual work you’ll do on the job (at least at strategy consulting firms). One other thing the interviewer will be checking carefully: your presentation abilities.

Time to Play CEO

Because business strategy questions can involve many different elements, they can inspire fear in the weak of heart. On the other hand, although it is true that strategy questions can be the most difficult, they can also be the most fun. This is your opportunity to play CEO, or at least advisor to the CEO. You can pull all of your business intuition and your hard-nosed, data-driven research to work and come up with a plan that will bring a huge multi-national corporation into the limelight—or not. Does it matter that you just crafted a story about why a credit-card company should go into the Italian market when your best friend who interviewed immediately prior to you recommended against going Italian? No, not really. Unless, of course, your friend did a better job of exploring the case question.

While analyzing a really juicy strategy question you might be able to draw information and jargon out of almost every course in your school’s core business curriculum. Don’t succumb to temptation! Your interviewer will be much more impressed by a clear and simple story about how you are attacking the question and where you are going with your analysis. The best way to do this is to apply a framework to the problem. Just as with operations questions, this means setting out a plan of attack up front and following it through to conclusion. One other big benefit: having a clear framework will help you organize your analysis.

Focus Your Energy

Successful consulting is as much about asking the right question as it is about providing a good answer. Likewise, your solution to a strategy case will be much better if you’ve focused your energy on the right issue. To help you get there, don’t hesitate to ask your interviewer questions. In the best case, he may help you avoid a derailment; in the worst case, he’ll understand your thought process as you plow through the analysis.

Even though the strategy case you are examining was the subject of a study that lasted several months, you probably have about 15 minutes to provide your answer. Therefore, it’s essential that you start by looking at the most significant issues first. Besides, this is a great discipline for future consultants. After all, the client will probably be paying for your time by the hour, so you’ll want to make sure that you are really adding value.

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