Method for analyzing graphs and tables

BCG McKinsey and Bain quantitative quantitative analysis Quantitative skills
New answer on Jan 15, 2022
5 Answers
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Anonymous A asked on Jan 14, 2022

Hello, 

 

I struggle when analyzing graphs and tables: do you have a step by step approach that could be useful for that?

 

Thank you

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Sidi
Expert
updated an answer on Jan 14, 2022
McKinsey Senior EM & BCG Consultant | Interviewer at McK & BCG for 7 years | Coached 300+ candidates secure MBB offers

Hi!

This will be a longer answer, but I hope it is helpful!

Effectively interpreting data and information is one of the crucial success factors in most case interviews. Very often, this data comes in the form of graphs or charts which the interviewer shares with the candidate at some point during the case. Finding the central insight of the chart, the ‘so-what’, is the single most important quality you will have to show in this situation! 

There are a few habits which, if properly internalized and applied, will massively help you to impress the interviewer in this domain! Let’s go through them one by one…

 

1 Take TIME!

The first thing you should do when presented with a table or chart is to take time to properly scan the information provided. In fact, you should ideally have a “standard phrase” such as 

“Thank you! I see, there is quite some information on this chart. So let me take a brief moment to quickly scan the information and identify… 

which steps we need to take to determine X” (if the interviewer has asked you a concrete question like “How to derive XYZ from this data?”)

…how we should proceed” (if the interviewer just gave you the chart but asked for no concrete analysis)

This is a very frequent Achilles’ heel with candidates! It is a pretty widespread problem that candidates tend to put themselves under time pressure and start talking before even having properly looked at the chart! The consequence is that you are not crisp in your messages, you’re just “wobbling around”, starting sentences without knowing how you will actually end them, etc. This leaves a very bad impression! Interviewers at MBB actually TEST for whether you have the maturity to take the space that you need in order to conduct a proper analysis! Just understand it from the interviewer’s perspective: as a project manager, the last thing I want to have on my team is a young colleague who tends to talk before thinking! This would represent an enormous risk in client interactions and can undermine credibility of the whole team, or even the whole firm! 

What leaves a much better impression is to confidently announce that you will need a moment to 

  1. take in all the information on this chart,
  2. link it to what has been discussed to this point,
  3. suggest the best way forward.

Another reason for taking time is that it allows you to verify/clarify your understanding of the information given. Very often, e.g. unit abbreviations are not entirely clear (or even lacking!). Taking a moment after receiving the chart will allow you to scan these elements and clarify their meaning with the interviewer, before you start discussing observations and insights.

 

2 Scan the base parameters (“Read the chart correctly!”)

This is tightly related to the previous point of taking adequate time. Oftentimes, candidates do not pay attention to what is actually shown on a chart, hence they are not properly grasping the parameters and what they actually describe! A couple of habits are important when reading a data table or chart. 

  • It starts with reading the title (this sounds trivial, but oftentimes just properly reading the chart title would have prevented candidates from stating obvious nonsense!)
  • Look at the units and labels (frequent source of misreading charts!)
  • Identify whether and which dependencies are shown on the chart (just properly checking what depends on what is oftentimes a very effective way of preventing yourself from completely unnecessary instances of misreading data! For example, in a x-y-axis chart, the vertical metric (y-axis) usually depends on the horizontal metric (the x-axis), and NOT the other way round!) 
     

3 Identify key observations

The key messages (the ones that are relevant for the client’s question) within data and charts are usually found amongst the following:

 

  • Static relations
  • Trends
  • Correlations
  • Breakdowns

 

Let’s look at each of these points.

 

  • Static relations
    • A simple comparison of values (comparing one number or group of numbers to the others - often a bar or a line chart), e.g.,
      • comparing client metric vs. market average or vs. competitor (e.g., “Client’s profit margin is 30% below strongest competitor.”)
      • comparing one scenario vs. another scenario (e.g., “Outsourcing is 20% cheaper than in-house production.”)

 

  • Trends
    • Specific number or group of numbers showing growth or decline (e.g., “Revenue has grown by about 10% over the last three years, however profits have halved during that time frame.”)
    • Rate of change compared to other logically related numbers (e.g., “Sales volume drops by 20% for every 10% increase in price.”)

 

  • Correlations
    • Specific relationships between two or more numbers; such correlation can be geared towards the same direction (positive correlation) or in divergent direction (negative correlation)

 

  • Breakdowns
    • Pretty often, even if Totals seem to show a consistent pattern, digging deeper into specific segments will reveal certain “hidden shifts”

 

Spotting those kinds of patterns quickly is vital. When you are given two or more charts, the key message usually becomes evident by combining them. Again, here you might need to take appropriate time. 


 

4 Turn observations into insights & avoid “spontaneous amnesia”!

This is a BIG one! 

One of the most amazing observations I have made over the last couple of years is the following. Many candidates, as soon as they get a chart or data table, fall victim to what you can call “spontaneous amnesia”! This means, they immediately forget EVERYTHING that has been discussed leading up to this chart. 

Instead, they  tend to stare at the chart, drowning in the information, and trying to distill insights JUST by looking at all the information on the chart. But they DON’T CONTEXTUALIZE the chart! This means, they don’t relate the information on the chart back to the core question, the criterion to answer this core question, or to the last insight generated BEFORE the chart was given out by the interviewer. 

So, there is a simple trick: as soon as you receive a chart or data, your IMMEDIATE mental reaction should be “Wait, what did we just discuss, that led the interviewer to give me this data now?”. Usually, this is often sufficient to point you to the central insight of the chart! 

You must be guided by the LOGIC which allows you to answer the core question, and the chart should just work as a source of information to perform the required corresponding analyses. 

!!! Do not be guided by the chart itself !!! 

Because very often, not all information on graphs you get is insightful or important! Parts of the information in the charts are crucial, others just create noise to distract you. Taking your LOGIC as the guiding star will allow you to quickly identify which pieces of information are crucial to generate the required insights to proceed towards an answer to the client question.


5 Communicate top-down and propose next steps

Whenever you present an insight during a case interview you should communicate your findings top-down. The same is true when presenting your interpretation of a chart, table, graph, etc. Start with the single most important fact you can extract from the chart.

  1. Communicate this key insight that you identified from the chart
  2. Then, give the reasons for your conclusion. These reasons must be substantiated by the data!
  3. Based on the insight generated, proactively suggest (without having been asked by the interviewer) the logical next step in your navigation through the case in order to proceed towards reaching a recommendation/answer for the client!

 

------------------------------------------------

All of these points are vital to understand and master. Unfortunately, it is very difficult to do this on your own. You will need senior guidance for this, otherwise it will inevitably take quite long until you really reach excellence here. Just like on the job - adequate mentorship ensures swift progress. Trying to figure out curcial skills on your own will take a lot of time. And time is very expensive - much more expensive than cash usually...

 

Cheers, Sidi

(edited)

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Francesco
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Content Creator
replied on Jan 15, 2022
#1 Coach for Sessions (3.800+) | 1.300+ 5-Star Reviews | Proven Success (www.case.tools/results) | Ex BCG | 8Y+ Coaching

Hi there,

The method I would suggest for graph analysis is the following:

1. READ THE GRAPH

  • Ask for 30 seconds to understand the graph
  • Summarize the graph. Read in particular the graph title, the legend, and the footnote. Candidates quite often skip this part and then make mistakes

2. ANALYZE THE GRAPH AND FIND THE MAIN INSIGHTS

  • Repeat the question. Many candidates don’t spend time clarifying the question; consequently, they answer the wrong question. Be sure to align with the interviewer on what you have to do
  • Provide an analysis related to the question. Identify the key insights of the graph based on the question (this is the most difficult part of graph analysis, as it is different in every graph)

3. PROPOSE THE NEXT STEPS

  • State your hypothesis or suggestion on what to do next. Present what should be done next to help further the client
  • Ask a question/propose an analysis related to what is needed to move forward. This will show you are able to drive the case

In case you need help, I do a specific session on graph analysis, please feel free to PM me for details.

Best,

Francesco

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Lucie
CoachingPlus Expert
replied on Jan 14, 2022
10+years of recruiting & top BCG trainer & BCG Project leader & experienced hire

Hello there, 

Let's take one step back, I think it would be important to clarify: Are you having problems to read charts and graphs also outside the business case, in your day to day life?

… I would guess you may struggle to identify what information is relevant for your case, as during the interview, you may be given information out of which a significant part is not relevant (testing how you prioritize, 80/20 approach, able to navigate in complex problems). 

If you struggle overall with the graphs and charts, I would recommend any course in the internet that gives tips and tricks. If you struggle only during the case, then I would recommend:

- start practicing cases where are no charts and graphs to identify what process works for you and so being able to transfer that process

- most importantly, when you approach the case and you formulate your early hypothesis, you identify what is information you will need to test it. This should help you to read the charts.

Please feel free to reach out if you would like to dig deeper → I can provide insight as a BCG trainer, teaching newly-joined Associate and Consultant precisely this

Wishing you all the best,

Lucie

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Pedro
CoachingPlus Expert
replied on Jan 14, 2022
# 1 Rated Bain Coach | EY-Parthenon | Roland Berger | FIT | Former Head Recruiter | Principal

This how you should approach it.

  1. Read the slide (take your time, ask questions if you need to understand the slide)
  2. Consider the case objective
  3. Tell the impact of the slide in terms of the recommendation
  4. Explain / support with the evidence from the slide.

_____________________________________________________________

Candidates usually do three mistakes:

  1. They just describe what the slide says (e.g. segment X is growing by 10%"). There's no “so what”, no insight".
  2. They bring up an insights but… not related to the problem you are trying to solve.
  3. They just don't know what to say.

In all of these situations the real problem is that they are not being objective or hypothesis driven. You have to read the exhibit in the context of the problem you are trying to solve.

So the first question you have to ask yourself is: how does this influence the case recommendation? (e.g. “should we invest in market XYZ”?)? Is it supporting evidence or not? Once you find it, you have an objective or hypothesis driven insight.

Then when you read the slide you say: this does (not) support entering market X, because of  insights XYZ, which is based on ABC evidence".

Hope this helps,
Pedro

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Ian
Expert
Content Creator
replied on Jan 15, 2022
BCG | 100% personal interview success rate (8/8) and 95% candidate success rate | Personalized interview prep

Hi there,

1) Read the title - and understand it

2) Read the legends - and understand them

3) Remind yourself of the objective / hypothesis in the case, to see where this might fit

4) Find the differences - where does the line graph plummet or spike? Which column is a lot smaller or bigger than the others? Where does change occur? The differences are what matter

5) Talk outloud while interpreting - first, it helps you think and process your thoughts, second, it lets the interviewer provide guidance and course correct if needed.

Best Rote Practice

Rocketblocks

Best Practice Strategy

1) Read the Economist (especially the daily graph and Financial Times frequently

2) Ask case partners to focus particularly on your chart-reading skills (i.e. by providing you with cases with many charts) - Bain and Deloitte cases tend to be chart heavy

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Sidi gave the best answer

Sidi

McKinsey Senior EM & BCG Consultant | Interviewer at McK & BCG for 7 years | Coached 300+ candidates secure MBB offers
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