Case Solving 101
Ah, that moment. A new case in your hands. Pages. Charts. Adrenaline.
So, where do you begin?
(Note that solving a competition case (the focus of this post) differs from standard case solving. You don’t have the luxury of more time, expertise beyond what your immediate team knows, or access to extensive resources. You’ll need an efficient competition solving strategy that optimises your team’s key strengths. This post will hopefully give you some tips along the way, but won’t delve deep into processes such as, ‘do a SWOT and then a PEST’ type of advice.)
- Identify the context. First, scrutinise the company. You need to step back and look at their objectives, their past performance, and their current operations. Then look more broadly. What’s happening in their industry, with their competitors, with their customers…? What has been going on, or changing, internally or externally, that is contributing to the current situation, and that puts them at risk? Which is/are the most prevalent within the time frame, or for the key objectives you’re addressing? Where do they want to be/could be in the future, and what is stopping them, or will help them get there?
- Understand the urgency. In your presentation, you want to demonstrate that you empathise with the company. That you can see their pain points or their potential, you can feel their worry, or ride with their excitement — basically that you know why it’s so important to address their challenges or capitalise on opportunities. To do this, you need to think about what it all means for them. Then, you need to communicate this in their language, using the metrics they care about. If you’re going to get buy-in, you need to make the client feel like you understand them, what they’re facing, and the impact of any action, or inaction.
- Find good solutions, efficiently. Structured brainstorming will make or break your case here. This is often the most time consuming part of case solving, and it’s important that you create a plan and stick to time. Being a devil’s advocate is useful. Trust your team enough to know that you’re attacking ideas, not the people who proposed them. Tear the solution to shreds from all possible angles. If it holds, brilliant. If it falls apart, you probably shouldn’t run with it. Most importantly, make sure it actually solves the problem you’ve identified.
- Look for the details. You need to think about what the change will mean for the company, and how it will work. Sure, implementing strategy X may bring huge upside Y, but have you missed some key dependencies that could ruin the plan? How long will it reasonably take to realise?Thinking through logically and applying a fine comb where needed will help strengthen your arguments and ensure you don’t leave yourself exposed.
- Crunch the numbers. Excel (and if you’re lucky, a spreadsheet template) will become your best friend. Data is one of the best ways to sell a point, and you should always be looking for supporting evidence. My best advice is to go into a case confident that you can forecast costs and revenues, present a reasonable NPV and impact on EV, and calculate payback period and other related financial metrics. Aside from these general ‘financials’, be well versed in general data presentation. You should have a sense of what data you need, where to source good data, and how to create charts that will clearly demonstrate the point that you’re trying to make. Again, practise and reading is important, as making your own, and viewing other reports, pitch decks, and proposals will help you get a feel for how to do it.
- Select the best recommendations, and start to form your story. You’ll need to establish a criteria for strategy selection based on the key outcome objectives. You then want to succinctly, and logically, show the company how your recommendation will work, to get them from point A to point B. What is the impact? What is it going to take? What should they do first? How much is it going to cost? Do they have those resources? Where could they get them? What could go wrong? Why is it all worth it? Why should they believe you, and select your recommendation? Change can be scary for a client, because change can be risky. Make sure that you can demonstrate the best path for them, and make them comfortable along the way by showing them the evidence (hint: forecasting, best practise, case studies, helps!). However, don’t only present the upside, but also clearly acknowledge the downside to your proposal. It is highly unlikely that your strategy is risk-free. Demonstrating that the risk severity is low, and that it can be mitigated will strengthen your argument.
- SENSE CHECK, CHECK SENSE, SENSE CHECK. I’ve mentioned it before, but I cannot stress how important it is to challenge everything you come up with, regularly. Take a minute to check in with your team and your progress. Where are the holes? Are your assumptions robust? Where did you get your information — are your sources reliable? Did you consider the risks? If you ever come up with something which raises your alarm bells DO NOT IGNORE IT. The executives know the company better than you do. If you’ve thought that there may be an issue, they’ll probably know that there will be an issue. Work out how to mitigate it, or acknowledge it. It’s better to say you can anticipate issues in a strategy even if you don’t know the answer, rather than let them think that you couldn’t foresee it.
- Know *all* your team recommendations. Know the nuances, know how to explain it in different ways, know how you arrived at your NPV…. Not being able to articulate your own proposal can be an instant case killer. Usually teams will assign a particular strategy to a person, so at the bare minimum you need to be an expert in your own recommendation, but ideally you need to be across the whole pitch.
- Sell the pitch. Logic, language, and listen are the three important things here. Logic: Your time is limited when you’re in front of the executives and the judges, so you need to make it count. A logical approach will help you do this. Every word, every chart, every tone in your voice has to justifiably contribute to your ‘story’, and to selling your pitch. You need to make it flow in an order that makes sense, and take them on a clear journey through your recommendations, your rationale, the impacts, and the key takeaways. Don’t jump around, be ambiguous, or ramble. Language: Be careful in how you communicate your pitch. For example, don’t tell them that their company sucks. Tell them you see that there are ‘opportunities’, not ‘huge problems that need fixing’. Also, don’t act like you’re a McKinsey consulant or speak like an investment banker— your language also needs an element of ‘student’ to it. Listen. Consider your audience, too. When I say ‘listen’, I mean think about who you’re presenting to, and what they would need to hear to be convinced. A finance executive is probably going to drill you more on the numbers and reasonableness, want to understand your assumptions, and look at your best case or worst case predictions. So you need to be prepared for different types of judges and what they’ll be listening for. They’re all different, and some can also be pretty defensive and resistant. Often their questions (or body language and facial responses during your presentation) can flag points of interest or concern for them — if you can identify that on the fly, and work to address it, it can be an advantage.
- Answer the questions. Question time is probably the scariest part of competitions when you begin, but once you gain experience, it can become part of your strategy to differentiate your pitch. Think of it as an extra 15–20 minute opportunity to drive your presentation home. A good strategy is to clarify with the judge about what they’re asking, and ensure you talk to their points. You should be anticipating questions while you prepare, so ensure you make and use back-up slides to support your answers. If you haven’t prepared an answer, don’t give them an irrelevant response, (or panic). You should be able to come up with something, but at worst, acknowledge that they raise a valid point, but perhaps that the question was out of your immediate scope, and try to think of a reasonable reply. During case preparation, practice answering questions with someone stern and ruthless. It will help.
And two bonus tips:
DO CASES. THEN DO MORE CASES. Nothing will prepare you better for those limited hours of intensive case solving than making the process a tried and tested routine. Expose yourself to as many different case types/problems as you can, read as much as possible, watch other team pitches, practice Excel, Powerpoint and other tools that you’ll be using, and know how you and your team operate under stressful case conditions. Then, plan, prepare, and apply yourself accordingly.
RELAX, BREATHE, HAVE FUN. Remember to enjoy the process. That elation after you’ve made a killer presentation is second to none. It’s all worth it in the end.
Note: This is all subjective advice from my case solving experiences, and is by no means exhaustive. There’s plenty you learn from case practice, and a million resources online. This is some of what I picked up over the many, many trial cases my team completed while training to compete in two international case competitions, (Denmark and New Zealand), as well as six domestic competitions in Australia. I hope it helps you.