Crack a case in 4 steps

Below you can find a simple, four step method that you should follow in your case interviews. It helps you understand and gather the information first, then build a structure, solve the problem and finally present recommendations. Incredibly, a number of candidates do not follow a rigorous process in solving the case, something that discredits them from the outset.  

STEP 1: CLARIFY

WHAT THE INTERVIEWER WILL DO:

Introduce the case to you by:

  • Providing a bit of background, e.g. type of industry, who your client is
  • Describing the specific business situation
  • Giving you some initial context information

Some of this information will be important, other bits will be less important or even irrelevant. In some cases there may be very little information up front, deliberately leaving the question vague to see how you cope with initial ambiguity.

THE SKILLS THE INTERVIEWER IS TESTING:

  • Prioritizing: Can you tell a relevant from an irrelevant fact?
  • Coping with ambiguity: Can you ask relevant questions?
  • Quick learning: Can you understand in one minute the essentials of e.g. the tissue paper sector?

WHAT YOU SHOULD DO:

  • Listen very carefully: The importance of listening cannot be emphasised enough
  • Take tidy notes: Make sure that you take a pen and paper with you to the interview 
  • Ask clarifying questions: While there is no penalty for relevant questions, there are strong penalties for wrong assumptions. In asking your questions try to focus on what really matters (what you are trying to solve in the case). Asking questions that are irrelevant or unnecessary may signal poor prioritization skills
  • Verbally paraphrase the problem back to the interviewer before you begin to tackle it to ensure that you have understood the key facts
  • Take some time to lay down the structure you are going to follow to crack the case, as shown in the next step

STEP 2: STRUCTURE

The structure is not the solution, but it’s like creating a roadmap or defining a set of areas that you’ll investigate with the interviewer. Once you have ensured the interviewer’s buy-in to your structure you are more than halfway through the case. All you have to do is solve the problem by delving deep into drivers you identified in your structure.

THE SKILLS THE INTERVIEWER IS TESTING:

  • Prioritizing: Can you pinpoint the key issue to solve?
  • Breaking down problems: Can you identify drivers and tell cause from effect?
  • Independent thinking: Can you create a simple and sound structure that (really) fits a problem (different from replicating a pre-packaged one size-fits-all framework)?

WHAT YOU SHOULD DO

  • Take time to create a structure. It is normally accepted to take a minute to lay down the structure, however some consultants (rightly) argue that this makes very little sense. After all, if you are in a conversation with a top manager, asking him to take a minute would sound a bit awkward.  Bottom line: it's much better if you are able to create the structure by thinking aloud (you are also in a better position to get insights from the interviewer), otherwise, feel free to take a minute of silence
  • Neatly lay down your structure on paper
  • Guide the interviewer through your structure and ensure that they agree with the approach

The difficulty in coming up with a simple, clear and relevant structure is by far the main cause for failing case interviews. What do you do to nail this key part of the case interview? Buying expensive recordings? Memorizing 12 all-powerful frameworks? None of them will work. Getting into consulting would be too easy. Here, we have developed our own approach to structure: the priority driven method, that we explain in this article. Our aim is teaching you the mind-set to come up with your own bullet proof structure to solve all types of problems. There are no short-cuts. If you ask those already in consulting, none of them use Cosentino’s or Cheng’s framework in their job. They have a specific mind-set, and that’s the same mind-set we are teaching you.

STEP 3: ANALYze

WHAT THE INTERVIEWER WILL DO

It will differ based on whether the case is candidate-led or interviewer-led

  • Candidate-led cases: the interviewer will provide data, information and occasionally hints
  • Interviewer-led cases: the interviewer will ask a series of questions or mini cases that the candidate will have to crack. 

THE SKILLS THE INTERVIEWER IS TESTING:

  • Being consistent: Can you stick to your structure?  
  • Prioritizing: Can you tell a relevant from an irrelevant fact?
  • Connecting the dots: Can you connect new facts and evidence to the big picture?
  • Establishing conclusions: Can you establish the right conclusions without rushing to conclude facts not supported by evidence?
  • Being a leader: Can you engage senior stakeholders in a strategic conversation?
  • Teamwork: Can you leverage the interviewer as your most valuable resource and work together as a team?

WHAT YOU SHOULD DO

  • Walk your interviewer through your structure, pointing out key questions you will ask and stating any initial hypotheses or assumptions.
  • Start broad and try to work through a range of issues methodically. Ask questions as you move along, using the interviewer as your ally in solving the case together. Use new information you gather to form new hypotheses and ask additional questions.
  • Describe your thought process as your work. This can seem uncomfortable and artificial, but remember that describing your thought process is the only way the interviewer can know what (and if) you are thinking.
  • Leverage new information. Your structure is not a cage. While it is important to use your framework, don't allow it to constrain you. If the facts of the case take you in unexpected directions, be willing to explore new issues by changing/extending your framework. Don’t venture into new areas without a clear framework, you’ll quickly get lost.
  • Summarize: when you have worked through an issue, briefly state your findings and move on to the next point.
  • Note any key findings so that you remember to mention them in your wrap-up.

STEP 4: CONCLUde

WHAT THE INTERVIEWER WILL DO

Ask you to provide a quick summary, often in the form of an elevator’s speech: a 1 minute summary of the key takeaways of the case.

THE SKILLS THE INTERVIEWER IS TESTING:

  • Synthesizing: Can you synthesize the main takeaways for the client, differentiating according to priority?
  • Establishing conclusions: Can you establish the right conclusions without rushing to conclude facts not supported by evidence?
  • Seeing the big picture: Can you extract the implications of an analysis and connect it with the grand scheme of things?     

WHAT YOU SHOULD DO

  • Summarize your key findings and synthesize them into one or more overall recommendations
  • Discuss any trade-offs or implications of your recommendations or explain why you ruled out other possible solutions. The purpose here is not to use up time - it is to show that you have a big picture view of the case and your analysis.
  • Relate your conclusion back to the original problem statement and make sure you have answered the initial questions
  • (If possible/relevant) add some next steps or additional considerations, to your recommendations
  • Use CEO-level communication: highlight what is important for the top management, being precise but not overly detailed

After more than half an hour of intense deep-diving into a company’s problem it may be difficult to rise up and take an helicopter view. But this is exactly what you have to do. You have to imagine the analysis phase as the phase when you are in your teamroom with your colleagues and excel files. Now you moved to the top floor and you are talking to the CEO. He does not care about the 4th decimal of your analysis, he cares about how the conclusion of your analysis affects the future of the company. This transition is particularly hard with candidates with technical backgrounds, but absolutely essential. You might be the sharpest problem solver on earth, but if you are not able to convey your messages, your sophisticated analysis is absolutely useless.But communication is an art and can be learnt, this is why we created a set of guidelines on how to speak like a CEO to get a job (and succeed) in consulting. 

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