Structured thinking

BCG Bain McKinsey
New answer on Jun 10, 2020
8 Answers
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Anonymous A asked on Jun 03, 2020

I have case interviews coming up with McK in a few months and I've practiced around 5 cases till now. I can't help but feel, that in some parts I am just not able to think in a structured manner. It doesn't naturally occur to me to breakdown concepts into 2/3 buckets especially in brainstorming.

Is this something that can be learnt and I'm just experiencing a mental block right now?

Thank you!

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Vlad
Expert
Content Creator
replied on Jun 04, 2020
McKinsey / Accenture Alum / Got all BIG3 offers / Harvard Business School

Hi,

You are at the very beginning of your journey, so do at least 20 more cases to understand the very basic concepts.

Here is some practical advice:

First of all, understand the MECE concept. But be careful, only pure mathematical structures (e.g. profitability) can be 100% MECE. MECE is not a requirement but a good concept to keep in mind

Secondly, you should build a structure using your previous experience, based on:

  • Objective (Should have a metric and time-frame)
  • Context
  • Type of the case

E.g market entry cases can have completely different objectives:

  • Should we enter the market?
  • Which top 3 markets out of 10 we should enter?
  • Can we get xx% market share on the new market?
  • Can we get xx ROI if we enter this market?
  • etc

Depending on the Objective and the Context you should come up with a proper structure to address the problem. Of course, you may use the patterns that you've learned while solving the other cases.

Thirdly, there is a number of ways how you can approach the structure:

  1. Mathematical issue tree (e.g. Total time spent on cleaning operation = # of people x Frequency x Hours per cleaning per person) or formula (e.g. output rate = total number of people being served / time to serve one person) or common industry drivers (e.g. revenues = # of customers x av. check) (e.g Passengers on the plane = capacity x Load Factor) or the industry revenue streams (Fuel revenues / non-fuel revenues for the gas station)
  2. Drivers (e.g. drivers influencing the death rate in a country like accidents rate)
  3. Buckets structures (e.g. for the problems in sales : Sales strategy / sales people and allocation / motivation / sales process). Very often it's a real framework used by the consultants (e.g. the famous Bain Cap framework for PE due dills: Market / Competitors / Company / Feasibility of exit)
  4. Frameworks (e.g. People / Process / Technology) (e.g. The famous McKinsey framework - People don't want to do smth / they can't do smth / smth prevents them from doing that). Even academical frameworks in the rare cases (e.g. Product / Distribution / Price / Marketing (Also known as 4P))
  5. Value chains / Customer Journey / Process steps
  6. Consecutive Steps of the project (Analyzing cost structure / Benchmarking to calculate the cost savings potential / Analyzing the processes to reach the potential / Calculating costs and benefits)
  7. Segmentations (Economy class, Business Class)
  8. Etc

Finally, your structure is not just the structure at the beginning of the case. You should be constantly structuring.

There is no magic pill. It comes with a lot of practice and reflection and building proper industry and functional knowledge.

Best!

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Robert
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replied on Jun 03, 2020
McKinsey offers w/o final round interviews - 100% risk-free - 10+ years MBB coaching experience - Multiple book author

Hi Anonymous,

It's definitely something you can learn. In our every-day communication outside the consulting world we are not that used to rigidly structuring all the time.

Interestingly, you often hear in discussions about case interviews that you should not use standard business frameworks and concepts at all, because they just don’t fit to the specific case question and interviewers don’t like it when candidates use standard frameworks to solve cases. However, when challenging this shallow, generalized and popularized statements, there aren’t any of those arguments remaining on the table.

It is most definitely true that you can't crack a realistic interview case by relying solely on standardized frameworks - but all those business frameworks and concepts are extremely helpful templates which you can and even should put into your toolbox and use them whenever appropriate (if not to the full extent, at least partly!). Such a standard business framework is just a tool - and the tool itself is rarely good or bad, it mainly depends on how and for which purpose you use it.

At the same time, for basically all of my coaching candidates getting the case interview’s structure right is their single largest issue in cracking case interviews. As this is clearly a huge pain point for case interview candidates, it's definitely worth looking more closely at this matter. And in addition you might have heard the term "ABS" (Always Be Structured) - even though McKinsey is the most pickiest one when it comes to structure, all top tier consulting firms have a very strong focus on being rigidly structured all the time in your interviews.

For looking more closely at structuring case interviews, let's distinguish 2 parts of a typical case interview where frameworks usually apply:
1) Structure for the overall case at the beginning of the case interview 2) Answering specific questions in later stages of the case interview

ad 1) Structure for the overall case at the beginning of the case interview
This is when you typically need to develop an overall structure on how you want to tackle this case. Interviewers often ask something like "What are the issues you need to consider here?" or "Let's assume you are the project manager of this consulting assignment - which areas would you like to investigate?".

It is highly unlikely that you will be able to fit a realistic case interview question into a standard framework - if it would be that easy, nearly all candidates would make it into the top management consulting firms, and clients could solve their business problems without paying millions of dollars to consulting firms by simply applying a standardized framework.

So, whatever your approach will be, it needs to be very flexible because you will need to adapt it to a huge extent to your specific, individual interview question. And yes, it is your approach which needs to be flexible to make it fit to the case question, and not the other way round.

(This is exactly what case interviewers hate when candidates use standard frameworks – when candidates use the framework as they are, and try making the case question fit to the framework instead the other way round. Otherwise, nothing is wrong for case interviewer when you are using standard frameworks!)


In general, I can see two different approaches for this stage of the case interview:

Approach #1: Get your hands on some overall case interview structures (like Victor Cheng's Case Interview Frameworks slides, and in addition it is worth reading Victor Cheng's approach on case interview frameworks on his website).

Approach #2: Based on your case interview experience (i.e. having solved dozens of case interviews and having read through even much more of them) you can also try to develop the first level of your case interview structure (or in other words, the main areas or buckets you want to investigate) 100% individually from scratch. It probably really takes a lot of experience to do this well – but the good thing is that you can easily combine this approach #2 with approach #1 at any time!


Whatever approach you are using, this will mainly get you to the first and second level of your structure. However, this won’t be enough to impress your interviewers – depending on the specific case question, it is usually favored to have at least one more level of structure.

And exactly for this additional level, knowing the most common business frameworks and concepts is extremely helpful to all candidates. It is just so much easier to further structure your case interview if you don't have to start from scratch, but can apply existing frameworks and concepts. And even though you might be able to use maybe only 60% or 80% of a framework and need to adapt it to make it fit to the specific question, you are nevertheless already far ahead than if you would need to develop all that from scratch.

Given the high mental pressure and time pressure in a consulting case interview, it is extremely difficult even for the best candidates to come up with the right issues, and at the same time remaining structured in a MECE way – this is just another reason highlighting the advantage of knowing the most important business frameworks and concepts, as they will not only help you to come up with a structure at all, but keeping it MECE and saving precious time in the case interview as well.

ad 2) Answering specific questions in later stages of the case interview
For answering specific questions later on in the case interview, it is as important to remain structured in whatever you say as in the beginning of your case. Sometimes it might be well enough to use internal vs. external, short-term vs. long-term, pro vs. contra and similar basic structures, but more often than not this will not differentiate you from other candidates (merely solving a case is usually not enough, you need to impress your interviewer by clearly standing out from the crowd of other applicants).

Also here, knowing standardized business frameworks and concepts comes in very handy. As opposed to the overall case interview question at the beginning, most questions later in the interview are much more focused and narrow - therefore chances are higher that you can use a standardized business framework to a very large extent just as it is to answer the question.

I can just say from more than 1,000+ case interview coaching sessions over the last decade (stopped counting at some point in time.. and quantity is not to be mixed up with quality anyway) that a lot of otherwise very strong candidates would struggle answering this kind of more specific questions without knowing any standardized business frameworks - because it is still incredibly difficult to come up with a correct answer, and at the same time being MECE again.

For structuring case interviews, I actually wrote an ebook which helps candidates to understand the most commonly used and thus most important frameworks you should be familiar with, and also how to apply them on a real-life-case step by step. You can find the ebook here in case of interest: http://cif.consulting-case-interviews.com/

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

Robert

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Iman
Expert
replied on Jun 03, 2020
BCG | Strategy& |Roland Berger | Interviewed >100 candidates in formal hiring process

Hi,

It is not natural to think structurally for most people as it took more effort. However, once you got use to it then it will be very hard not to think in structures :)

At the most fundamental level. Thinking structurally is just answering a set of question that will enable you to achieve your goal. E.g.

Objective: I am late and need to arrive in the office in 30 minutes

Question 1: What is the best route to enable me arrive in 10 minutes? E.g. Route A

Question 2: What is the best mode of transport to be used to take that route? E.g. Train, Bus, Taxi, mix or mode

Question 3: How much time do I need to get the preferred mode of transport? Etc

Again practice is the only way to make this natural and getting someone to give feedback will also be useful.

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Clara
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Content Creator
replied on Jun 03, 2020
McKinsey | Awarded professor at Master in Management @ IE | MBA at MIT |+180 students coached | Integrated FIT Guide aut

Hello!

To add on top of the great insights shared before, message of calm here.

5 cases is not what so ever enaugh, it gets better with time!

I used to suck at the beggining, since I did not have a business background. However, it´s really a learning-by-doing field!

Hope it helps!

Cheers,

Clara

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Anonymous replied on Jun 03, 2020

Hi there,

It takes time and practice to get used to structuring a case. to be ready for an interview you need to have completed not less than 30 cases.

It is very normal to find this difficulty in structuring the case - you need to study various frameworks and practice tailoring them to the case's requirements. The more you solve, the more you will know how to do it (at the end of the day, there is basically 4-5 types of common cases, with practice you will learn how to crack them)

Also, this is where the coaches on preplounge can significantly add value - they can help you understand the basics, and support you in practicing as well.

Feel free to reach out for any additional tips.

Best

Khaled

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Ian
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replied on Jun 04, 2020
BCG | 100% personal interview success rate (8/8) and 95% candidate success rate | Personalized interview prep
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Anonymous replied on Jun 05, 2020

Hello

To build a good framework and have a structured approach, raising the good questions in the "clarification" part is crucial.

Indeed, if you ask the right questions, your interviewer will give you real clues that will help you later. Quite simplistically the first questions to ask are the following (very basic)

  • What? (e.g. what exactly is the business ? Did I understand the problem?)
  • How? (e.g. do we have an idea of ​​how the client wants to proceed to solve his problem? Does he have a specific objective in mind?)
  • When? (e.g. do we know when the client wants to reach his objectives?)
  • How much? (e.g. do we quantitative information related to ​​the client's objectives?).

These are only examples, but at least you have to get these answers to be able to lay down a good structure. With pleasure to discuss it in PM if necessary.

David

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Anonymous replied on Jun 05, 2020

Dear A,

Very simple but very practical and winnin advice - just practice MORE and you will get the idea and sense of structure.

I would recommend you to start practicing with peers, here on the platform. And once you feel you are not improving anymore, take an expert coach for structured feedback and polishing your own performance.

If you need any specific advice or help in preparation, feel free to reach out.

Best,

André

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Vlad gave the best answer

Vlad

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McKinsey / Accenture Alum / Got all BIG3 offers / Harvard Business School
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