When to ask which questions: Which questions do you ask before you come up with a structure and which do you ask after?

asking questions brainstorming brainstorming questions Case Interview case study Clarifying questions Interview issue tree MBB order of operations preparation rule of thumb Structure
New answer on Dec 31, 2020
14 Answers
10.8 k Views
Marilena asked on Mar 06, 2017
Looking for partner to practice.

After a few mock cases, I found that I have difficulties deciding which questions to ask before I come up with a structure and which questions to ask after I come up with a structure.

I keep wanting to ask all the questions I have as soon as I hear the explanation of a case, but then I find myself already starting with the analysis by asking relatively specific questions.

Is there a rule for this?

(edited)

Overview of answers

Upvotes
  • Upvotes
  • Date ascending
  • Date descending
Best answer
Vlad
Expert
Content Creator
replied on Mar 07, 2017
McKinsey / Accenture Alum / Got all BIG3 offers / Harvard Business School

Pre-structure questions

1) Clarify the business model. Even if you think you understand it, try to repeat it to make sure that you understand in correctly.

2) Clarify the objective. Here make sure that your goal is:

  • Measurable
  • Has a time-framed
  • Has / has no limitations

e.g. Should I invest 100k in this business for 1 year if I want to get 15% return?

3) Ask the questions that will help you build a relevant structure and remove ambiguity.

e.g. if the case is about oil&gas company which revenues are decling, ask if it is Up / mid / down-stream problem. In this case defining a revenue stream is critical to seting up the right structure.

Post-structure questions:

It's kind of hard to generalize all the cases. I will try to provide a general algorythm here:

  1. Ask for a piece of data / info you've defined in a structure
  2. Compare the data with historical trend / becnhmarks
  3. If you find something interesting ask for the root / cause or state the hypothesis
  4. If no root/cause at this point available - ask for segmentation to drill down further
  5. Once you are done with analysis in one branch of your framework (found the root-cause / found nothing interesting) - summarize what you've learnt so far and move to the next one

Again, the last one is super high-level and the devil is in details:)

Was this answer helpful?
Srihari
Expert
replied on Mar 06, 2017
Former BCG consultant and teacher/adult trainer with experience in US, India, and Middle East

Good news here - there is no hard and fast rule, although I'd say watch it on the time - you definitely shouldn't be asking 2 minutes of questions before you come up with your structure. Here is what you definitely need to do before the structure.

1) Replay your understanding of the situation

2) Clarify that you understand the exact objectives, ensure there aren't any others

3) (This is what I think you are asking about it) - ask any quick questions before your structure. I'd start by thinking "What would be general parts of the analysis that I would do?" And leave that to be covered in your structure and later. This would include any trend performance, number data, market/competitor/company information/performance, etc. It's hard to define everything that you would cover in your structure, so I'll move to some of the common things it would be okay to ask before the structure.

Definitions - if you simply don't understand a term or description that was given, it's okay to ask. In fact, it's best to ask early (either before or shortly after the structure). Asking later can look pretty bad, whereas asking early shows you aren't afraid to get clarification on things early and avoids the embarressment later. This is especially acceptable if it's a very technical/nuanced industry, or for example you are from a different country/industry etc and lack some basic context (for example, if you are an Indian national and don't know what exactly an American interviewer means by a "strip mall", better to clarify than assume it has something to do with stripping - you may laugh, but I've seen that go wrong in the past)

Scope of the problem/options - related to objectives, but you can clarify what exactly the focus/options for consideration are. For example, for an large MNC, you might want to clarify if adjacent markets/products/ or divesting is something the company can consider or if there are any "sacred cows" which can't be touched. Don't force this though, and only bring it up at this stage if you have some interesting potential insight or it would shape your framework. You can also address this within the structure itself and discover it through your analysis.

Major contextual scenarios/assumptions - If I were to give you a case on an oil producer, you may want to clarify the time period before assuming the structure. If we are in the post 2015 world with low oil prices, that's very different than 2013 with $100/barrel prices. You can see how the different contexts would influence your framework and where you focus your analysis. Again, don't force this, but if some elements of the context would greatly change how you approach the case, good to quickly ask. It isn't essential, but it can help shape your framework and make it more contextualized, less generic which is always a good thing.

----

The rule of thumb I'd give is to always stop short of getting data or analysis related to the case - if you find yourself asking for detailed information, that's too much before a framework. Think quick questions, especially with a focus on definitions you don't understand and any major scope/context questions if it would help you better frame the case.

Was this answer helpful?
Sidi
Expert
replied on Jan 29, 2019
McKinsey Senior EM & BCG Consultant | Interviewer at McK & BCG for 7 years | Coached 300+ candidates secure MBB offers

Hi JT!

The questions you ask at the beginning have the following objectives:

  1. Completely understanding the context/situation (including, unclear terminology, but also, for example, the business model of the client if unclear!)
  2. Understanding the question(s) of the client
  3. Understanding (and quantifying if applicable) the underlying objective(s) of the client

These questions are aiming at understanding the initial setting, hence forming a precondition to outline your structure towards answering the core question (the issue tree)!

Please note: the clarifying questions are NOT meant to gather information that will be later used in the analysis. This will come across extremely random and arbitrary! Such questions should be a direct consequence of your approach/structure, but not come before.

Cheers, Sidi

Was this answer helpful?
Sidi
Expert
replied on Aug 20, 2018
McKinsey Senior EM & BCG Consultant | Interviewer at McK & BCG for 7 years | Coached 300+ candidates secure MBB offers

Hi Kay,

the questions you ask at the beginning have the following objectives:

  1. Completely understanding the context/situation (including, unclear terminology, but also, for example, the business model of the client if unclear!)
  2. Understanding the question(s) of the client
  3. Understanding (and quantifying if applicable) the underlying objective(s) of the client

These questions are aiming at understanding the initial setting, hence forming a precondition to outline your structure towards answering the core question (the issue tree)!

The later questions that you ask while navigating through the case are then aiming to verify the actual relevance of each sub-branch in your tree. So if you have defined and disaggregated the criterion to answer the client's core question in a clean way, all these leater questions follow a this precise "roadmap" as layed out by your tree. These questions then oftentimes also comprise enquiries on current performance metrics (revenues, costs, growth rates etc.), which normally should never be asked in the clarifying questions (before making explicit your structure).

Cheers, Sidi

Was this answer helpful?
Guennael
Expert
replied on Jan 29, 2019
Ex-MBB, Experienced Hire; I will teach you not only the how, but also the why of case interviews

You need to make sure you understand the problem:

1. Can you restate the whole question?

2. Do you understand the terminology?

3. Are you clear with the objective? How long do you have? What does success look like? How much improvement is good enough

Basically any other type of question is best kept for after you build a framework / plan of attack. Hope this helps

Was this answer helpful?
Benjamin
Expert
replied on Aug 20, 2018
ex-Manager - Natural and challenging teacher - Taylor case solving, no framework

Hi Kay,

Indeed calrification question should be asked with the objective to fully understand the situation.
In some cases, you might receive on purpose a limited info, and this will be your responsibility to ask theses question to fully understand the scope of the case and clearly identified the issue of the client.
The answer to these question should help you to focus your structure on the main issues in case the case opening is to wide.
Best
Benjamin

Was this answer helpful?
Ian
Expert
Content Creator
replied on Dec 31, 2020
BCG | 100% personal interview success rate (8/8) and 95% candidate success rate | Personalized interview prep

Hi,

There is always more that you can understand. For example, if you understand the goal as improving profits, there's so much more you can ask - do they have a % change target in mind, how long do we have to turn this around, do they prefer this to be done through raising revenue or cutting costs, etc.

I always write BOTMG at the bottom of my framework page to help myself think of things I'm missing in case I'm stuck.

This helps "trigger" you to consider questions around B = Business Model, O = Objective, T = Timing, M = Market, G = Geography.

However, you should never just say "so, what is their business model?" Obviously, ask questions that help you frame your hypothesis, understand the situation, and ultimately drive your case better.

Was this answer helpful?
Anonymous replied on Aug 13, 2020

Dear A,

There is only 3 types of clarifying question which you can ask before structuring your case:

questions that clarify the objective of the case interview

Here the basic things you have to know about the case objective:

  • What is the measurable metric of success?

  • What is the time frame?

  • What are potential restrictions or limitations?

2. questions about information that strengthens your understanding of the company

In this chapter the main things you have to know are:

  • Business model: How does the company make money? Do they sell directly to customers or do they sell through retailers or partners?

  • Products and services: What products and services does the company sell? What benefits do these products and services provide?

  • Geographic location: Does the company have one location or are they a national chain? Does the company operate in just one country or do they have an international presence?

3. question about definition of a term you are unfamiliar with

Most consulting interviews do not require you to have specialized knowledge or expertise in an industry. Therefore, if you come across a term that you are unfamiliar with, it is completely acceptable to ask the interviewer for the definition.

The other question you may ask later while navigating through tree structure.

Hope it helps,

Best,

André

Was this answer helpful?
1
DianeAult updated an answer on Feb 01, 2019
Was this answer helpful?
1
Ian
Expert
Content Creator
replied on Dec 31, 2020
BCG | 100% personal interview success rate (8/8) and 95% candidate success rate | Personalized interview prep

Hi,

There is always more that you can understand. For example, if you understand the goal as improving profits, there's so much more you can ask - do they have a % change target in mind, how long do we have to turn this around, do they prefer this to be done through raising revenue or cutting costs, etc.

I always write BOTMG at the bottom of my framework page to help myself think of things I'm missing in case I'm stuck.

This helps "trigger" you to consider questions around B = Business Model, O = Objective, T = Timing, M = Market, G = Geography.

However, you should never just say "so, what is their business model?" Obviously, ask questions that help you frame your hypothesis, understand the situation, and ultimately drive your case better.

Was this answer helpful?
Anonymous replied on Oct 05, 2017

Tadeus,

You are right that there are a lot of possible fit questions. And while the fit interview may vary by firm, the fit questions sometimes are actually the same. It seems you are referring to the opening explanation of the case situation. In that scenario, you usually want to want to do the following:

  • Play back your understanding of the case, clarifying any points that you missed or didn’t understand
  • State your understanding of the objectives
  • Spend about 90 seconds gathering your thoughts and outlining your structure
  • Develop a logical, MECE structure that includes at least 2 but usually 3-4 logical buckets with 2-4 2nd level questions / thoughts

In the opening case scenario, you usually are not going to ask for more information. That will come after the first question. You should still feel free to ask for clarifying information should you see fit, but most likely the interviewer will defer.

It is also very important to understand that there is a big difference between first round interviews with Associates and Managers that “go by the book” and have recently received interview training and 2nd / 3rd round interviews with Associate Partners, Partners and Senior Partners, many of which had no formal interview training at the time when they joined the firm. This is why I encourage candidates to practice cases with a range of different people (i.e., other candidates, PrepLounge Experts that were Associates / Managers and PrepLounge Experts that were Associate Partners / Partners). You will not only experience a different interview style and receive different feedback, but it is also more cost effective for you and allows you to gain more practice experience.

Was this answer helpful?
0
Vlad gave the best answer

Vlad

Content Creator
McKinsey / Accenture Alum / Got all BIG3 offers / Harvard Business School
415
Meetings
11,518
Q&A Upvotes
127
Awards
185 Reviews