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.