Unstructured Case Interviews – How to Prepare for Untraditional Cases

Unstructured and non-traditional cases are becoming increasingly common in case interviews, particularly among top-tier firms and MBB. The longstanding practices of conventional business problems with standardized solution protocols are seeing a fresh infusion of more unorthodox cases that require non-traditional approaches to solve them.

There are multiple reasons speculated for this shift:

  • Preparation material for traditional cases is now widely available, enabling candidates to prepare extensively. As a result, candidates' innate skills are often overshadowed by their ability to follow a pre-learned process. By incorporating non-traditional cases, consulting companies can maintain an element of surprise and better assess candidates' true capabilities.
  • Non-traditional cases encourage candidates to bring out their innate creativity and think laterally yet in a structured manner. Those who excel in such cases are not only more likely to succeed in interviews but also in their consulting roles, making these cases a better performance indicator.
  • Non-traditional cases enable consulting firms to accommodate a diverse range of candidates with different backgrounds. An effective consultant does not have to be only an engineer or a finance expert. These cases can be tailored to focus on the unique skills that make a good consultant, rather than those that can be learned on the job.

As unstructured and non-traditional cases become more prevalent, it is crucial for candidates to adapt to this new format for maximizing their chances of success. In this article, we will first understand what these cases are, followed by tips to perform better in such cases, and key practices to incorporate in your preparation for them.

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1. Why is it so Important to Know Unstructured Cases?

Unstructured and non-traditional cases are becoming increasingly common in case interviews, particularly among top-tier firms and MBB. The longstanding practices of conventional business problems with standardized solution protocols are seeing a fresh infusion of more unorthodox cases that require non-traditional approaches to solve them.

There are multiple reasons speculated for this shift:

  • Preparation material for traditional cases is now widely available, enabling candidates to prepare extensively. As a result, candidates' innate skills are often overshadowed by their ability to follow a pre-learned process. By incorporating non-traditional cases, consulting companies can maintain an element of surprise and better assess candidates' true capabilities.
  • Non-traditional cases encourage candidates to bring out their innate creativity and think laterally yet in a structured manner. Those who excel in such cases are not only more likely to succeed in interviews but also in their consulting roles, making these cases a better performance indicator.
  • Non-traditional cases enable consulting firms to accommodate a diverse range of candidates with different backgrounds. An effective consultant does not have to be only an engineer or a finance expert. These cases can be tailored to focus on the unique skills that make a good consultant, rather than those that can be learned on the job.

As unstructured and non-traditional cases become more prevalent, it is crucial for candidates to adapt to this new format for maximizing their chances of success. In this article, we will first understand what these cases are, followed by tips to perform better in such cases, and key practices to incorporate in your preparation for them.

Further along in your preparation, if you are interested in mastering unstructured and non-traditional cases, I am pleased to offer personalized coaching through a variety of non-traditional cases featured in consulting interviews.

2. What Are Unstructured and Non-Traditional Case Interviews?

Unstructured case interviews deviate from traditional structured interviews by presenting candidates with open-ended, ambiguous, or unconventional problems. The focus is on evaluating a candidate's ability to think creatively, adapt to unexpected situations, and navigate through uncertainty. Such cases are often made up of small, familiar elements of traditional cases wrapped up in a new package. A case can be unstructured or non-traditional in one or more of the following parameters:

The Situation

This is the most common form of non-traditionalism seen in interview cases, where the situation in the case does not conform to traditional knowledge and experience. In traditional cases, the situation bears elements that are commonly known and observed in the world around us, such as a conventional business like a power company, a known business model like food delivery, or a familiar city or country. Having a known or traditional situation allows candidates to assume certain baseline facts about the case from the get-go.

However, a non-traditional situation can surprise candidates and throw them off-balance. Without a common understanding of the situation, candidates must first build a basic understanding before moving to their hypotheses. Here are a few examples of non-traditional situations in cases:

  • A company is planning to start burial and cremation services in outer space.
  • A mining company has found a dinosaur in one of their open-pit mines.
  • A country in the Middle East has developed an underwater city and wants to pioneer underwater tourism that offers tourists the opportunity to experience life beneath the sea for an extended period.

The Problem

This is the next most common non-traditional parameter in a case, where the problem posed in the case prompt may not be a typical business issue such as declining profitability, increasing revenue, reducing costs, or entering a new market. Instead, these cases may present unique and unconventional problems that require a more creative and out-of-the-box approach. Some examples of non-traditional problems include:

  • Designing a customer experience for a newly invented teleportation service.
  • Developing a marketing strategy for a product that can read people's minds.
  • A country experiencing a decline in the number of medals & trophies won by its professional athletes on the world stage.
  • A Middle Eastern country pioneering underwater tourism wants to attract tourists to their underwater city while ensuring visitor safety and marine ecosystem conservation.

The Analysis

In a traditional case, the analysis generally follows a systematic and rational route. In unstructured and non-traditional cases, the analysis may not follow standard frameworks and methodologies. Candidates must think on their feet and tap into their first-principle abilities to develop a customized approach on-the-fly for the problem at hand. There is no fixed recipe for this. Note that even a traditional situation and problem can have a non-traditional analysis. Here are some examples of non-traditional analyses:

  • A restaurant faces declining sales, but there is no change in food quality, service quality, or nearby competition. The analysis could involve the candidate assuming the role of the customer and going through the customer's journey, starting from restaurant discovery to completing the meal. The candidate should ask questions at each point of the journey to better understand potential issues that may not be uncovered using traditional revenue-decline analyses.
  • A shipping company is unable to convert its shipping tender bids with the same success rate as before, but there is no change in service, competition, or any technical parameter related to shipping. The analysis could involve the candidate assuming the role of the tender document itself and going through the tender's journey from issuance by the customer to processing by the shipping company and being evaluated by the customer for selection.
  • For the Middle Eastern country developing underwater city tourism, they need to devise marketing strategies, safety protocols, and environmental conservation measures to make their venture successful and sustainable. The candidate could assume the roles of an expert (if possible) and/or a lay-person tourist and go through the journey offered by the underwater city. This would uncover various aspects of the tourism strategy that would otherwise be elusive.

The Solution

In a traditional case, the solution to the case is rather standard. Say, profit is declining – it is likely the problem lies with a specific cost category. Or, say, revenue is declining – the problem lies in the competitor’s newly launched product. Client wants to enter a new market – would be either a yes or a no. In most cases, a conventional analysis will lead to a conventional answer.

In non-traditional cases, the solution or the specific answer to the case may not be obvious or conventional. It often requires a deeper understanding of the unique situation and problem at hand. Most often, a non-traditional or unstructured analysis will lead to a non-traditional solution as well. Here are some examples that illustrate the distinctive nature of the solutions in non-traditional cases:

  • A tech company notices a decline in employee productivity and an increase in turnover. Despite offering competitive salaries and benefits, they struggle to retain top talent. After a thorough investigation, it is revealed that the company's open office layout is causing high levels of noise and distractions, making it difficult for employees to focus on their tasks. Additionally, the lack of private spaces for meetings and quiet work leads to frustration among employees. By redesigning the office space to include a mix of open and private areas, as well as soundproofing solutions, the company can create a more conducive work environment that addresses the root cause of declining productivity and high turnover.
  • A small grocery store in a rural area experiences declining sales, even though the local population remains stable, and no new competitors have entered the market. After conducting a detailed analysis, it is discovered that the decline in sales is due to the fact that the grocery store's opening hours are not aligned with the work schedules of the local population, many of whom work in nearby cities and commute long hours. By adjusting the store's opening hours to better accommodate the residents' schedules, such as opening earlier in the morning or staying open later in the evening, the store can effectively address the underlying issue and potentially increase sales.
  • For the Middle Eastern country developing underwater city tourism – upon investigating the challenges faced by the country, it is discovered that the primary barrier to attracting tourists is the perception that the underwater city experience is too complex and requires extensive preparation. To address this concern, the company can develop and offer comprehensive "all-inclusive" packages that simplify the process for tourists. These packages could include pre-trip training sessions, specialized underwater accommodations, and guided tours with marine experts. By streamlining the experience and providing all necessary services in one package, the company can reduce the perceived complexity and make the underwater city more appealing to potential visitors.

3. Key Interview Tips

When faced with unstructured and non-traditional cases, you should keep the following tips in mind to excel during the interview:

Embrace the Case

If you find yourself faced with a non-traditional case, the initial step is to recognize and accept its unorthodox nature. Embracing this fact can instantly alleviate any unease and foster a mindset conducive to tackling the case effectively. Be aware that flexibility and adaptability in your thought process are crucial in navigating such situations. Relying on rigid, cookie-cutter frameworks will only lead to frustration and confusion. No case is more or less unorthodox than you deem it to be. If you are mentally inflexible and solely prepared for orthodox cases, be ready to face surprise, disorientation, and instability – potentially all at once.

Ask a Lot of Questions

In unorthodox cases, it's crucial to ask a lot of questions to get a better understanding of the situation, even if some questions might seem basic or trivial. With the lack of a common knowledge baseline, asking questions can help fill in gaps and ensure that you are working with accurate information. Instead of hesitating and assuming things incorrectly, it is better to ask even the stupidest of questions.

Stay Grounded and Leverage First-Principle Thinking

Often, unorthodox cases can be solved using basic, first-principle thinking instead of trying to force-fit a pre-set framework. By focusing on fundamental principles and "dumb" approaches, you can uncover solutions that might be missed through more complex methodologies. In one of Dr. House episodes (S02E10) – the diagnosis is eluding everyone until Dr. House asks his team to actually "look" at the blood sample instead of just running it through test machines and diagnosing based off the machine readings. By doing it the "dumb" way, the team was instantly able to see the infection that was causing all the problems – an infection that the machine wasn’t programmed to detect.

Put Yourself into the Problem

Often, trying to assume the role of someone in the case is very helpful. Usual suspects are the customer, the product/object, or the staff. Depends on what problem you are trying to solve. For revenue decline – best to impersonate the customer. For operational efficiency issues – both the product and the staff roles can be helpful. As you assume a role, you go through their journey while investigating and discovering clues to help you solve the client’s problem.

Don't Worry About the Solution

Unorthodox cases are best approached with a sense of enjoyment and curiosity. Instead of treating the case as an examination and rushing toward a solution or analysis, you should allow yourself to explore the case, flowing along with its natural progression. When you take this approach – you will often start seeing the case from a very different angle and get more ideas to crack the case.

Maintain Your Structure

Despite the unorthodox and unstructured nature of these cases, maintaining a structured approach and clear communication is essential, as it is one of the key aspects being evaluated by the interviewer. It is easy to get sidetracked or lost in unstructured cases, but maintaining structure can help you stay on track and present their thoughts in a coherent manner. It is still important to organize your thoughts and communicate them in a logical, structured way to make it easy for the interviewer to follow your analysis.

4. Key Preparation Tips

To excel in both orthodox and unorthodox case interviews, you may think about the following preparation tips

 Work on Core Casing Skills

Instead of getting lost in memorizing frameworks, focus on understanding the underlying principles and how they can be applied to solve problems. This means knowing "how" frameworks are drawn-up, “how” they are explained to the interviewer and "how" they can help in solving the client’s problem. Memorizing the profitability framework, for example, will not be helpful if you don't know how to implement it effectively in a case.

Devise Your Own Frameworks

With enough preparation and rigor, you'll start forming your own frameworks. Spend time reviewing your previous cases, thinking about how they could be solved more effectively. Revisiting cases after a few days or weeks can provide fresh insights and help you develop unique frameworks that are more adaptable to a wider range of problems, including unorthodox cases.

Practice, but ...

Preparation without practice is incomplete, but practicing with other candidates may only expose you to standard cases, since they are preparing for the interviews themselves. To enhance your exposure to unorthodox cases, try to create one yourself. Try and adapt standard cases by adding unorthodox elements and use them in your practice sessions when assuming the role of the interviewer. Observing your partner's approach as they tackle the unorthodox case from the interviewer's perspective can provide valuable insights into the dos and don'ts of solving such cases, accelerating your learning and awareness.

Be Aware of Pitfalls

The fluid nature of unorthodox cases allows interviewers to maneuver the case in order to exploit your weaknesses. For example, if you struggle with maintaining structure, unorthodox cases may lead you into convoluted arguments, leaving you feeling lost. Or for example, if you have difficulty asking clarifying questions, you may make incorrect assumptions that will negatively impact your performance. Identifying your weak points (such as adaptive frame working, lateral thinking, brainstorming etc.) can be very helpful as a first step. Once discovered, you should work on sealing these gaps in your casing skills and hence avoid falling into the common traps of unorthodox cases. A good coach can be vital in identifying the gaps in your casing skills for unorthodox cases – providing you targeted and action-oriented focus areas for improvement.

5. Conclusion

In conclusion, successfully navigating unorthodox case interviews requires a combination of adaptability, curiosity, and strong analytical skills. By focusing on core casing skills, developing personalized frameworks, practicing with adapted cases, and addressing individual weaknesses, you can improve your performance in these challenging scenarios. Embracing the unique nature of unorthodox cases and maintaining a structured approach can help you demonstrate your ability to think creatively, adapt to unexpected situations, and excel in the ever-evolving world of non-traditional cases.

5. About the Author

Agrim

BCG Dubai Project Leader | I will transform your thinking about Consulting Interviews

  • Professional Experience: BCG, Opera Solutions
  • Languages: English,
  • Location: United Arab Emirates

Agrim is an interview coach, former BCG Project Leader, and Solutions Analyst at Opera Solutions. He is a Specialist in PEI / Fit / Unorthodox Cases / CV / Market Sizing. Agrim helped a lot of candidates to land offers from McKinsey, BCG, and Bain. He is an expert in the Middle East (Saudi Arabia / Dubai / Qatar / Abu Dhabi / Oman / Kuwait). As a consultant, Agrim worked as a Project Leader at BCG for four years. Before that, he was a Solutions Analyst for Opera Solutions for two years. 

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