10 Case Competition Tips & Tricks
Written by Sarah Wang, Director of Promotions at YIP Vancouver 2017
1.Be One with Your Role
During case competitions, you will often be given a role. This role is usually an external consultant, but can sometimes vary depending on the context of the case. It is important to stay in your assigned role and not wander back to your “student” role. This helps you stay confident and sound more professional, which will help convince the judges that your solution/recommendation is correct. Specifically, during the Q&A session, stay professional and forget that you’re just a high school student participating in a case competition — pretend this is a real life situation where you are presenting to the CEO and Board of Directors of a company!
2.Know Your User
The “user” is your audience/judges; it’s who you’re presenting your case to. When doing case competitions, it’s important to know your user and understand their perspectives. If they’re playing the role of a CEO, they probably want to hear recommendations on changing large-scale operations, rather than firing a certain employee who is always late. If the judges are playing the role of a BOD (Board of Directors) for a Not-for-Profit organization, you probably don’t want to recommend ways they can increase their monthly profits. Also, remember not to offend your user! For example, if the CEO has been slacking off at work recently, you probably don’t want to tell the CEO himself that he should be putting in more effort. So, make sure you know who you’re presenting to and tailor your presentation towards your user!
3.Focus on Integration
A case will often present to you more than one issue. The key here is to see the bigger picture and try to identify how the smaller issues are interconnected to each other. For example, perhaps the decrease in revenue last year was due to insufficient marketing, which was caused by
unmotivated employees in the marketing department. By seeing the broader picture, you will be more likely to identify the root cause of the issue, which will help you develop a stronger recommendation. Being able to see how everything integrates together will also allow you to identify the main 3–4 issues that link back to the “real required” (see Tip #4) and what your users are really looking for in your analysis and recommendations.
4.Link Back to the “Real Required”
As previously mentioned, a case will often throw many issues at you. So which of these are important and which are (somewhat) irrelevant? It all depends on the “real required”. Now, what is the “real required” (RR)? The RR is the overarching issue that your user really cares about; it is something you MUST address. Now, the RR may not always be a problem; it can sometimes be a goal or objective that your user wishes to achieve. For instance, perhaps a tennis club’s main objective/mission is to promote a sense of community in the city in which it is located. Then, with every recommendation that you bring up in your presentation, you must link them back to the RR and explain how your recommendations will help the company achieve its mission. The issues they are currently facing, however, may include whether to open up a new location or not, unmotivated workforce, insufficient funds for marketing etc. When you address these individual issues in your presentation, make sure to link them back to the RR! Your recommendation may help the company solve one of its smaller issues, but if it does not play a role towards the RR, then it is not what the CEO is looking for. Last but not least, the RR will either be given to you explicitly or will be made very clear near the beginning of the case; most of the time you won’t have trouble identifying it, so don’t worry too much!
5.Rank the Issues
Alright, so now you’ve identified the RR and found several key issues. Which ones should you focus on? A tip is to rank the issues and decide on which issue is the most important (you’d want to spend the most time on that in both your preparation and your actual presentation) and which issues are important enough that they should be mentioned, but perhaps not in so much detail. Many students like to save the most important issue for the end, but keep in mind that the presentation is strictly timed and that you will be cut off! How horrible would it be to not have enough time to discuss the most important issue? Therefore, it is actually recommended to present your main issue first and then move on to the smaller issues throughout your presentation. Also, you should only be addressing a maximum of 3–4 issues, which allows you to have sufficient breadth and depth in the given timeframe.
6.There are Multiple Approaches!
Always remember, there is never one correct approach to analyzing a case! As long as your analyses and recommendations are consistent with the information given to you, then it’s right!
7.Exhibits are Important!
When reading over the case, oftentimes students would only focus on the text and ignore the exhibits/appendices at the end of the case. Exhibits can be important! Sometimes, exhibits will present you new issues or additional information on an issue you have already identified. At the same time, however, some exhibits are merely “red herrings” and do not actually present anything useful — watch out for these! Remember, you are only allotted a certain amount of time to prepare and present your case, so focus on the important issues!
Another thing that is often ignored during junior level case competitions is the quantitative analysis portion of it. Yes, I know, no one likes math and calculations, but you have to include them. Some cases will be more quantitative, whereas others will have more qualitative facts and issues. However, both quantitative and qualitative analyses should be included with every case. Specifically, your quantitative analysis should serve as support for your qualitative recommendations. Regardless of what your recommendations are, your user is likely going to want to know about the quantitative side of them — how much will it cost, how much revenue will it earn etc., so make sure you have that ready for them! Estimates are fine if specific numbers are not provided in the case.
9.Q&A Tip: Include an Appendix for your Presentation
During your presentation, you probably won’t have enough time to go into details about your quantitative analysis, but this is often something judges like to ask about during the Q&A period. A trick is to include a few extra slides at the end of your presentation with all your detailed calculations and/or graphs. That way, when judges ask you, “Can you show me how you got those numbers?”, you can quickly flip to the end of your presentation and show them the physical proof. This looks a LOT better than trying to explain or make up something on the spot! In addition to quantitative analyses, you can also include other things in your appendix. For instance, I like to brainstorm what type of questions the judges are most likely going to ask us, and then my team would prepare slides to address those questions ahead of time. Most students are well prepared for the actual presentation, but get stumped when it comes to Q&A. That’s why you want to be the team who is prepared and confident during Q&A!
10.Be Creative and Apply Knowledge!
Last but not least, always look for ways to be creative and apply knowledge you’ve previously learned before! It will help you stand out compared to the other presentations and increase your chances of winning. For example, one case competition I participated in had a case regarding Lululemon. From class, I remembered learning about the “Golden Circle” from a Ted Talk. Now, on the surface, these two concepts have nothing to do with each other, but in fact they are related. The “Golden Circle” is a theory that states, “People don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it,” and this is exactly how Lululemon succeeds. Why are people loyal to Lululemon? Not because they make the best quality leggings, but more because they believe in the underlying cause of Lululemon, which is to promote healthy and active lifestyles in communities. I incorporated the knowledge that I had on the Golden Circle and Lululemon in the case competition, and the judges all thought it was a creative and unique integration of ideas. They remembered our group because of this, and we ended up advancing to the finals round and placing second out of 35 teams. So, be creative and leverage knowledge you already have!
One of the common questions posed to Matt and myself about the case studies we have written is: “Did the case work out as you were expecting?” Our usual answer is: “We didn’t know what to expect.” Although each case scenario has solutions that are more desirable, feasible and viable than others, the beauty of a live market case study is that there is no single right answer. We do not write a case with a given solution in mind, and as in real world consulting, a number of different avenues will be available, each with its own merits and risks. We ourselves learn in watching the development of solutions and I especially love it when participants uncover a gem of information or a potential solution that even we had not anticipated.
That said, there are a number of competences that underpin success in both case-based assessments and real world consulting engagements. With the 2014 WBS International Healthcare Case Competition now only days away and the first part of the case having been sent out to participants, here are our top tips.
1. Impress with your research
Proud winners of the WBS Case Competition 2013, the Lancaster MBA team were nonetheless the first to admit that none of them had a background in healthcare or related industries: to others who had seen them in action, this came as a surprise. One of the standout features of Lancaster’s presentation was the level of preparation the team had undertaken. Not only had they followed the trail laid down by the case study but they had actively sought out expertise and insight by meeting with Lancaster academics from other, relevant disciplines.
In a consulting engagement, such research demonstrates knowledge and expertise. It also shows that you are actively interested in the client. Typically, a client employs a consultant to gain access to insight beyond that of their own: showing a client that you can truly offer this service is important.
The same is true of case-based assessments and competitions. Those who stand out are the teams and individuals who have gone the extra mile: those who know that little bit more; who understand and correctly use relevant terminology; and who share up-to-the-minute knowledge that others might have missed.
2. Show your working
“Show your working!” The mantra of every maths teacher up and down the country at GCSE, A-level and beyond. Who’d have thought it was also relevant to case competitions and consulting?
Through a number of case-based events, Matt and I have been privileged to observe firsthand the creative process as teams develop their solutions. Some teams are fiery, others are thoughtful, but whatever the team’s style, one can almost guarantee intelligent, insightful conversations and some truly brilliant ideas.
When the time arrives to present or to share recommendations with the client however, we are often surprised by how many of these ideas have been lost. Had we not been witness to conversations earlier in the day, we would never have known the ideas existed.
“Show your working,” is the mantra of many teachers because it ensures that even if a student’s final answer is wrong, the pupil will nonetheless be given credit for their working. A similar principle exists in case-based assessments and consulting. A client, assessor or judge may not agree with your final recommendation but if they can see the path you have taken to arrive at your conclusion, this provides a firm basis for further discussion.
Similarly, it is often as helpful to share the solutions you have discounted as the ones you have chosen. Understanding that, “Solutions A, B and C are not viable because… Therefore we recommend Solutions X, Y and Z,” enables a client or judge to grasp the full picture. It also shows that you have done your job comprehensively and any client should feel that they are in a safe pair of hands.
3. Always ensure you meet the brief
In a consulting engagement, failing to meet your brief will likely guarantee that you end up with an unhappy client. Clients request those things that are important to them. If they make a request, it matters.
The same is true of case-based assessments. If something is asked for in the brief, it is there for a reason and you will be assessed on it. We were surprised during the WBS Case Competition 2013 that many teams did not directly address the issue raised by the last minute newscast. In a real world engagement, to ignore breaking news that has direct relevance to the client’s situation and your recommendations may just prove disastrous.
4. Get to the heart of the issue
On the flip side of meeting the brief, it is also vital that you are able to take a step back from the client’s perspective and to become objective. Both clients and cases present information from a particular viewpoint and often with a particular agenda. Sometimes that perspective is accurate. Other times information is missing or erroneous judgements may have been made. Occasionally, information or the viewpoint held by a client might just be wrong.
Case-based assessments require that you are able to synthesis knowledge in a complex environment and that you can analyse this knowledge from multiple perspectives. Benchmarked against the competition, is the company performing as well as the client thinks it is? How desirable is the product or service to potential customers? Looking at the market as a whole, are there future shifts that could prove game changing? How does the situation appear when viewed from multiple stakeholder perspectives?
Be prepared to challenge the assumptions that have been made to date. Ultimately, clients, assessors and judges are looking for solutions and recommendations that work, that deliver real return on investment, and that have value. Rarely is someone looking for a yes man. Finding the heart of the issue—whatever that may be and regardless of whether it is an easy pill to swallow—is key.
5. Have the courage of your convictions
Once you are sure that you have arrived at a solution of merit, that you can back up your recommendations with accurate data, and you are confident that your ideas will deliver, hold fast to your convictions. Similarly, as you are developing your recommendations, dare to trust your instincts.
In last year’s Case Competition, although Xceletra—the pharmaceutical company around which the case was based—had already undertaken its own research into a particular avenue, the brief itself was open. Those teams that stood out, including Lancaster, were the ones who dared to step outside the box. Teams who, despite a weighty suggestion to focus on a given area, had the courage to assess the bigger picture and presented solutions that were bang on the money but broader than the client may have been expecting.
Unsurprisingly, this tip does not however come without a caveat. To stick to your guns, you must be confident that you are right. If you’re presented with information that suggests otherwise, you also need to have the courage to hold up your hands, back down and rethink. Continuing to hold fast to a misguided belief or conviction will spell trouble for both you and the client.
Ultimately, great consultants are able to combine their insights with a deep understanding of their client. The same is true of competition winners: teams and individuals who combine creativity and insight with a deep understanding of the case. These individuals are able to empathise and understand but they also have the ability to lead judges and clients on a journey: “We understand that ‘A’ was your favoured option but have you considered ‘K’?” This is not said at anyone’s expense nor in ignorance of valid concerns, but rather, with conviction that the answer has the best interests of all stakeholders in mind.