A 'case' is a scenario modelled after a real business or management problem. Deloitte Consulting once suggested that "The case study can be viewed as either an ordeal to be endured, or as a golden opportunity to shine."
Typically, management consulting firms specialising in strategy work use case-style interviewing. This has the benefit of offering candidates a sense of the type of work that their consultants do, while allowing the employer to assess the competency levels of candidates. However, case style interviewing or assessment activities can be used by any employer who is looking for strong problem-solving competence.
It is possible that you may encounter case questions individually, during an interview that you have been invited to. Alternatively, case questions may form one activity at an assessment centre, where they can help to evaluate how well candidates exhibit the skills and qualities desired by the employer, while working as part of a group or team.
The following information will help you understand and prepare for case interview.
The skills case interviews assessment
The idea of case interviews is to test a candidate's abilities in some or all of the following areas:
- analytical and reasoning skills
- ability to organise and present information and hypotheses
- quantitative skills
- ability to manage ambiguity
- professional poise and ability to perform under pressure
- understanding of basic business and economic principles
Types of case questions
- Classic business situation questions are used to see how much general business knowledge candidates have and how logically they can apply this knowledge to a common business problem. There are several types of business questions which could be posed, for example profit/loss, organisational structure, or marketing scenarios. This style of question will usually be answered verbally by the candidate and will often be structured in stages. Your interviewer will probably draw on his or her own real, client experience to steer you through the scenario. An example of a business situation might be: "An airline finds that, while its revenues are at an all time high, the company is still operating at a loss. What is going on?"
- Brain teasers are logic questions that may be used to gauge creativity and problem-solving skills. Examples of this type of question might be: "Why are manhole covers round?" or "What will be different if, in the future, consumers have to pay for every drop of drinkable water piped to their residence or business?"
- Guess-the-numbers are questions for which a candidate needs to use both logical deduction as well as quantitative skills. An example of such a question might be: "How big is the market for golf bags in Australia?" or "How many divorces take place nationally in any given year?"
- Graphic interpretation questions are favoured by certain strategy firms, as this mirrors a method of presenting business data that is preferred within their organisation. Typically, your task will be to review and interpret data presented as a bubble chart, or using another form of graph.
Things to consider when answering a case question
Your goal in answering this kind of question is to demonstrate your ability to solve a problem. It is less important to reach a correct answer. Indeed, in many cases, there may not even be a single, right answer. As a result, there are several things you can do to approach a case style question:
- listen carefully
- summarise periodically, making sure you have fully understood the problem(s) posed
- ask a few questions to show your comprehension of the problem, to obtain additional information or to clarify any points you do not understand
- don't leap in with quick solutions
- work through your answer out-loud, include information that may appear obvious as if you are creating a road-map for the assessor to follow
- don't just 'brain-dump', take some time to think and don't be afraid of silence
- if you are genuinely stuck, work with the assessor to review your progress to date
- don't simply try to force-fit a business analysis framework that you may have learned during your course
- And finally, be guided by this tip offered by Deloitte Consulting: "What separates an outstanding performance from simply a good one is not so much what you say, but how you say it.
A step-by-step approach in answering case questions
Bring a pen and pad of paper for rough note-taking. A confident approach is paramount. Never show that you are flustered - even if you feel that you are!
Analysing the case
Regardless of how structured your interviewers choose to make the case question process, conduct this phase out-loud to demonstrate fully your thoughts and analysis.
Understand the case:
- What is the broader context of the business problem?
- What are the facts? Which are key ones? Which are secondary?
- Given the facts, what are the unknowns? What assumptions are you making about the case? Are these assumptions consistent with the facts of the case? Are they reasonable?
Diagnose the problem – establish a framework to test your hypotheses:
- What are the problems in the case? Of these, which is the main problem? How do you know it is the main problem?
- What are the issues and factors which affect the problem? Are they internal or external to the organisation? How do they affect the problem?
- What course resources can you use? (analytical models, material from your course etc.)
- Clarify for your interviewers whenever you are making assumptions of your own, rather than re-stating facts.
Elicit additional information:
- Demonstrate initiative by posing intelligent, probing questions to your interviewers - just as you would with a corporate client.
- Listen and think carefully before formulating possible solutions.
Develop and analyse alternative solutions:
- What are some possible solutions to the problem? What are the theoretical groundings of each?
- What are the strengths and weaknesses of each solution? How do they compare? Do they offer long-term or short-term solutions?
Organising your analysis of alternatives so that it is clear and systematic.
- Based on your analysis, which is the best solution? Why?
- What is the theoretical grounding of your recommendation? Is it justified by your previous analysis?
- Is your recommendation feasible? How can it be implemented?
- If you need to make more than one recommendation to address separate issues, are your recommendations complementary? Prioritise them with a view to implementation.
- Are your recommendations presented from the client’s perspective?
Presenting the analysis
- In order to test your ability to communicate, you may need to summarise your conclusion as if you were recommending it to a client.
- You may additionally be required to make a formal (stand-up) presentation of your recommendations.
- Ensure that you are able to express clearly to your audience the central ideas of your conclusions and have clear supporting arguments.
- Similarly, ensure clear presentation and logical structure for any written recommendations.
- Be prepared to admit possible flaws in your reasoning.