Cracking the Case Question: Advice from the World's Best

Published: Mar 18, 2013

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Case questions are a critical part of preparing for life as a consultant—not only are they a major component of the course load at many MBA programs, they are often used as a means of testing job candidates at the interview stage. Being able to quickly and efficiently handle a case question, then, is critical. With so much at stake, who better to turn to for advice than some of the best case question solvers around—participants in the annual IESE-Roland Berger International Case Contest. 

Held recently in Barcelona, and featuring teams from some of Europe's top business schools, the IESE-Roland Berger International Case Contest is about more than prestige—the winning team can also take up the option of a coveted internship with competition sponsors Roland Berger. As such, the entire three-day event serves as something of an extended interview. To find out how to stand out and get some tips on prospering, I spoke to several of the participants in this year's contest, including  Blanca Muñoz—a member of the IESE team—and Kevin Royal, who worked as part of the London Business School team that took home the title. Here's what they had to say about the process:

Basic Steps

Both candidates had very similar lists of steps to be applied when tackling the case—not exactly surprising, given the thoroughness of the methodologies being taught in business schools the world over. In basic terms, the rough outline of the steps to be applied are as follows:

1)    Read the case and reach a hypothesis

2)    Create a storyline and build a 'ghost' presentation

3)    Do more research and analysis to build out the presentation

4)    Challenge recommendations/anticipate counter arguments

5)    Revise

6)    Practice

7)    Present 

So far, so simple. But the real challenge, according to Royal, is to ensure that you—whether as an individual or part of a team—are thorough. "In our case, one question was whether to expand internationally," he said. "The first level of analysis is a go/no go decision on expansion, the second level is which geographic regions to consider, the third is for the specific region—which countries to consider (and rank order them)—and the fourth level is to determine the exact method of entry and how that may differ by country and also compared to our current model. That level of rigor enables you to not only have a concrete, reasoned recommendation, but also to easily answer questions as to why you did not go to certain countries/regions. When those questions came from the judges, our answers were detailed, cogent and fact-based, enabling us to demonstrate the thoroughness of our analysis. "

Useful skills

In terms of the skills required to successfully compete in the contest, both Royal and Muñoz stressed the importance of analytical and interpersonal skills, as well as having the ability to ask the right questions to elicit the information necessary to crack the case. 

Unsurprisingly, both were also very upbeat about the extent to which their experiences to date on their respective MBA programs had helped them to develop those skill sets. "The MBA teaches you to tackle problems from a cross-functional perspective and be a cross-functional thinker," said Royal. "This allows you to address a case question from multiple perspectives as opposed to your prior role o r industry." Additionally, Muñoz noted that the class participation-centric nature of life at IESE "directly translates to good communication skills." 

The perils of preparation

While skills and methodologies can be learned in advance, both contestants stressed that there's no way to truly prepare for the ins and outs of a case contest beforehand. As Royal noted, "it’s not possible to prepare for the specifics of a case since the possibilities are limitless in terms of geography, industry, company, etc." However, according to Muñoz, part of the secret to good case performance lies simply in the continual practice: "Over time, you become good at filtering information, coming up with hypothesis, criteria, and doing the analysis." 

Focus on the data—and only the data

Both contestants stressed the importance of using the data provided to guide their decision-making process and, ultimately, their recommendations. While Muñoz cautioned fellow case-tacklers to "focus on few things"  for the presentation and "stay away from controversial data," Royal was even more forthright: "The key to our team's success was not fancy slides or groundbreaking insights," he said, "but a rigorous, data-driven approach to solving the problem in a methodical and reasoned way."

As his final takeaway, meanwhile, Royal advised candidates to resist the temptation to think too big with their answers: "If you are suggesting dramatic in your recommendation, make sure it is a well reasoned and developed decision. Depending on the case, an incremental, well thought-out approach may make more sense than a drastic change.