Confused in the middle of cases

Bain BCG Case Interview Cases MBB McKinsey
New answer on Aug 13, 2020
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Anonymous A asked on Aug 12, 2020

Dear Community!

I am preparing for MBB interviews in September, and I have practiced cases with peers for about 2 months now. My problem is that I tend to get confused at some point during the case if the information provided does not fit with my hypothesis or what I expect. From there on it usually gets very painful and I struggling to keep a clear view of what I need to do to crack the case. How can I overcome this weakness?

Thank you!

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replied on Aug 12, 2020
McKinsey Senior EM & BCG Consultant | Interviewer at McK & BCG for 7 years | Coached 350+ candidates secure MBB offers

Hi Anonymous!

If you get lost in the middle of cases, this is a surefire indicator that you are not structuring your cases very well. A good structure makes it practically impossible to get lost along the way, because it has an inherent logic such that you know exactly what tests/analyses/ideations you will have to do before having even started the analysis.

Structuring does not mean coming up with ideas, but devising a top down logic according to which you can answer the question that the client has asked. This is the big misunderstanding that has been planted into the heads of people by the "Bucket Approach" that is omnipresent in most books & guides out there.

Building up this skill will need some proper coaching, and it will not come over night (it usually takes several weeks to master this). But once it becomes second nature, it is by far the best weapon you could ever take into a case interview at an MBB firm.

That being said - in the meantime, there is nonetheless a process that you can fall back to when this situation of "confusion" emerges:

  • First, take a deep breath (and/or a sip of water if you have a glass nearby)
  • Then take a moment to recap what you have learned up to this point and what you still need to find out in order to adress the main question at hand (this helps you regaining clearness on the big picture and where you are on your "roadmap" as defined by your initial structure)
  • Outline how these sub questions can be answered, and what kind of data/information you will need to do that
  • Double check whether data or information provided by the interviewer at an earlier stage is now getting new relevance
  • Don't forget to take the interviewer along and let him participate in your thinking process - think out loud!
  • If you are puzzled by some obvious contradiction, actively discuss this with your interviewer! Oftentimes an interviewer will wait for you to explicitly verbalize what combination of findings is puzzling you before gently giving you guidance.

This process should allow you stay calm and composed while regaining a grip on the problem at hand.

Hope this helps!

Cheers, Sidi

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Anonymous replied on Aug 12, 2020

Dear A,

When you get lost in the middle of the case, then I would recommend you to go back to your structure and look at it again. If you're still not confident about right direction where your structure brings you, then I recommend you to put your efforts in creating clear and understandable structure.

If you need any help or advice on how to make it, feel free to reach out.


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Content Creator
replied on Aug 13, 2020
McKinsey offers w/o final round interviews - 100% risk-free - 10+ years MBB coaching experience - Multiple book author

Hi Anonymous,

I am afraid you are looking at the symptom here, and not at the root cause.

From what you describe briefly in the summary, it looks to me as if you do a wrong job in the first place building your hypothesis in the very beginning of the case and afterwards wondering why you did not guess that one right.

Many candidates I meet are somewhat too much influenced by Victor Cheng. Although he offers a lot of excellent advice, including a strong focus on the hypothesis-driven approach (which really helps many candidates sharpening and focusing their thinking along the case!), stating a hypothesis at the very beginning of the case usually turns out to be more counterproductive than helpful.

Unless you are an experienced hire with a strong focus on exactly that one case question to discuss, stating a hypothesis right at the beginning of the case interview is essentially nothing else than poaching with a stick in the dark and guessing around. And here you are: you are perfectly set for a highly unstructured and confusing start into your case! (Please note that even as experienced hire, you might be completely wrong with your hypothesis, especially in the slightly artificial case interview world - so I would not even strongly recommend the early hypothesis there)

However, at the same time it's also a matter of defining 'hypothesis'. If you look at your structure at the beginning of the case interview, it is basically the connection between the current client situation and a specific goal you want to achieve. In other words, this initial structure is also a kind of hypothesis which elements you need to consider and analyze in order to clearly understand the root cause and develop a solution for that. So essentially you can also consider your structure as some kind of hypothesis.

Apart from that technicality, the correct time to explicitly state a hypothesis during your analysis phase is when you have collected some initial data and you start 'connecting the dots'. Once some distinct pieces of your analysis guide you into one specific direction, then it's the correct time to explicitly state your hypothesis and focus in on 'verifying' (in the non-scientific way) your hypothesis!

Hope that helps - if so, please be so kind to give it a thumbs-up with the green upvote button below!


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Content Creator
replied on Aug 13, 2020
MBB | 100% personal interview success rate (8/8) and 95% candidate success rate | Personalized interview prep

Hi there,

This is a very very common problem! I see it all the time.

Ultimately, expect to see the unexpected. In all aspects of your interview (and your future job), take on a mindset of: "I will not expect what is coming. I will adapt continuously based on new information as it comes through"

Here are some tips for you.

How to better brainstorm when stuck

  1. Practice/Prepare - The more you practice cases, read case studies and articles (The Economist, The FT, etc), the more "example" you'll have, as you just have more base knowledge to work with.
  2. Repivot and Frame - Pause. And look at the ideas you've come up with. Talk to the interview with you frame/group them. This 1) Shows them you can organise your thoughts 2) Helps you gain some time AND identify potential holes yourself 3) Gives them a window to point you in the right direction (they might say "Ok, that's a good bucket, but it's missing something" or " You're missing a bucket that relates to what you';ve said here")
  3. Ask for Help - This is a tricky one to navigate, but you can ask questions or make statements that try to glean more information from them. For example, "I'm out of ideas, but have any competitors excelled in any areas"..."Do we have any analysis on this?"..."etc. etc.

How to "Ask for Help" or "Buy Time" When Stuck

1) State that you're now figuring out where to take this next (that's fine)

2) Recap the objective and the pieces of information you need (and have) to answer the question/hypothesis.

a) Hopefully this triggers something or b) You get a signal from the interviewer on a particular segment (they might probe you and say "is that all we need from bucket x?"

2) If this doesn't work, start to probe in different areas (i.e. do we know x? To double-check you already said y doesn't apply, correct?) etc. etc.

3) If really desperate, you can say something like "Has the client experienced this before or have any ideas they've come up with?" or "Have we observed something similar to this problem in the past that we can leverage?"

How to Ask Good Questions When Stuck

You need to picture yourself at the client site, in front of a whiteboard, with your team, figuring out what you need to do next on this project.

Truly reflect on what you need, what you're missing, or what you don't currently understand about the situation. Then, ask questions to fill this in.

This is super hard to learn, and impossible to teach through some written tips/techniques. I'd be happy to give you a crash course in this - 1 hour is all you need to have a complete mindset shift in this area!

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Sidi gave the best answer


McKinsey Senior EM & BCG Consultant | Interviewer at McK & BCG for 7 years | Coached 350+ candidates secure MBB offers
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