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Interviewer-led cases: Ask more questions before outlining structure to create more detailed structure?

Anonymous A

Since you need to outline your issue tree in quite a lot of detail from the beginning in interviewer-led cases, should you ask some questions (beyond just clarifying questions, e.g. about terminology) before outlining your structure? E.g. to be able to segment revenues in the most relevant way in a profitability case, should you ask questions such as “what is the client’s product mix” or “what are the primary customer segments”? And if not, how would you be able to provide enough detail in your issue tree from the beginning? Should you simply guess? Or should you outline different ways of how to segment further?

Thanks!

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Tyrion Lannister replied on 06/13/2017

Dear Anonymous A,

My humble wisdom would be to ask as few questions as possible after receiving the prompt of your case study in an interviewer-led scenario.

This wisdom makes the assumption that this interviewer-led scenario is a McKinsey one. My remarks take this into consideration. They are likely less applicable to non-McKinsey scenarios.

So, first of all, why ask as few questions as possible in general?

The purpose of clarifying questions is, primarily, to ensure you made correct notes, and to close any gaps of immediate understanding (for instance; understanding of the business model, clarification of any business jargon, time-frame of the engagement, ultimate objective beyond that which has been explicitly stated, etc.).

It is not a time to cross-examine the consultant. Neither is it a time to begin trying to solve the Case. There are no hard rules with what the right number of questions is, but perhaps a vanilla example before I move on to talk about the role of clarifying questions in McKinsey scenarios specifically, will shed light on my personal philosophy on how I think clarifying questions ought to be used.

Vanilla Example

Prompt: our client has recently experienced a decline in profitability in their primary business of auto insurance in the United States. They believe this problem could be driven by a rise in their ‘bad claims,’ and have hired us to investigate what is going on.

Your clarifying questions might look something like this:

  • repeating the salient points of the prompt above to verify accuracy
  • asking for a brief clarification of the industry jargon ‘bad claims’ if you do not know what they are
  • clarifying that, as you investigate whether ‘bad claims’ are indeed the source of the client’s profitability decline, might the study also entail identifying other potential sources of the decline and exploring strategies to reverse them

Some candidates might want to go further and ask if revenues have changed in this recent time-frame, or if costs have changed in this time-frame. My preference (which may or may not be convention) is to pick the least amount of questions that make the most impact on the Case. This is an early demonstration of your ability to be efficient in your problem structuring (which is a very important metric in McKinsey Cases).

Secondly, why ask as few questions as possible in McKinsey scenarios, specifically?

Two reasons, I believe:

  1. The case studies at McKinsey are delivered in a manner that does not invite deep probing with clarifying questions at the outset. My universal experience (coupled with input from McKinsey consultants) is to get cracking at the earliest available opportunity; i.e., as soon as you have the minimum amount of data to begin forming a hypothesis and initial structure, you should do so
  2. The purpose of the McKinsey interviewer-led scenarios at this early stage in the Case is to test your problem-structuring skills in the abstract. You will be given the floor for about five minutes in which to develop a sound structure that demonstrates: clear organisation of thoughts (MECE), clear prioritisation of the issues (least effort/biggest impact), clear understanding of how the first two drive towards the client’s objective, and clear initiative on other extra-objective issues could be identified and tested/resolved…among other things.

You say that because you need to include lots of detail in your interviewer-led Case structure, you should get as much information as possible through clarification.

I disagree. I believe that the reverse is true.

Let us refer to the vanilla example above to illustrate this: let’s us assume that this is now a candidate-led scenario, and that the candidate went beyond the three issues for clarification I suggested above and probed on revenues.

“Revenues have remained flat,” the interviewer says, “indeed, prices have been stable throughout this market due to government regulation that sets rigid price ceilings. Volumes have also held steady as the market seems to be a bit mature.”

Then, you might either ask one more clarifying question on cost, and/or correctly hypothesise that rising costs are likely driving this decline in profitability. You might state that you would like to examine the trends that costs have followed in this period of profitability decline and then test what sources of factors (broadly grouped into two buckets of factors: internal and external) have, by themselves or jointly, contributed to this.

Then you would start on your framework.

In this candidate-led scenario, you would then return with a framework that was more tailored to the Case objective, and to the additional information you received through clarification. Your framework would look at financial factors (with an exclusive focus on cost drivers), and non-financial factors that are driving up costs for our client.

Notice how all conversations on revenue have been excluded for the time-being. In other words, you‘ve ‘shortened’ your framework because your clarification probes were longer and yielded more information.

Conversely, because you can elaborate (and, indeed, are expected to do so) with a fully –fleshed structure in an interviewer-led scenario, you need fewer clarifying questions to get you started. What you don’t clarify in advance of laying out your structure would then become separate items within your structure to be tested in line with your hypothesis. In this case, a full discussion on revenues would be included that examined both components of price and volume.

Separately, I would add that roaring in at the start of interview to query what the ‘primary customer segments are,’ or what the client’s ‘product mix’ come off sounding like you just leapt out of the pages of a generic textbook on Case frameworks.

I would push towards being as thoughtful, as creative, and as structured as possible while avoiding any appearance of trying to force-fit Cases into textbook frameworks, or buzz-word catch-phrases.

All the best! :-)

Vlad replied on 06/16/2017
McKinsey / Accenture / More than 300 real MBB cases / Collected all Big 3 offers / Harvard Business School

Hi,

Can't agree with the previous one. From my experience 80% of mistakes in case take their roots from the beginining of the case process (Misunderstanding objetive, misunderstanding the business model, and lack of a proper structure)

Here is my advice:

First of all don't think of the cases as Interviewer / interviewee led. If you are good with cases - it doesn't matter at all.

The main goal of clarifying questions is to help you build a proper structure. Thus I strongly suggest to do the following:

1) Ask clarifying questions:

- Clarify the business model (i.e. how the business works and what are the revenue streams / core products or business lines)

- Clarify the objective both in money terms and timeline (e.g. Our objective is to increase profits by 5M in 5 years). When you have a to select from several options in a case - clarify the selection criteria

- Clarify other possible limitations if you feel that it's necessary

2) Repeat the objective and most importnat business model factors

3) Now when you've identified the most important factors - take a minute to make a structure

Good luck!

Victoria
Expert
replied on 06/18/2017
Ex-Accenture Strategy Consultant, Career Coach (5yrs)

Hi,

In my experience in Strategy - the classic structure when we first start working on client site is to voice over the issue, challenges and case. So you are just 'double checking' that you have captured information correctly.

I would then take a bit of time to think of how you will segment and what information you need, then engage again to ask questions. There is no guessing in consulting - only facts and assumptions. But you are tested on your ability to logically structure your thinking, clear communication skills and of course working under pressure, accuracy in calculations and overall approach.

The best candidates that I have seen - have a structured approach and engage the interviewer once they dissect the case study. Their response is usually logicalm easy to follow and they have a strong communication style.

Hope this helps! Good luck!

Victoria

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