MBA Tips: How to Prepare Harvard Business School Cases

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While reading and preparing cases is a significant part of any business school experience, there isn’t always a concrete result to your work.  You could easily invest hours preparing a case and have nothing to say about it during the class discussion.  It’s because of this ambiguous return on investment that many people choose not to read the scheduled case before a class discussion.  Between recruiting, extracurricular commitments, finals and midterms, and trying to have a social life, some prefer to just play the odds and hope the professor doesn’t cold call them.

The problem with this approach: you’re still paying 50 grand a year for your education.  While it’s true that case prep is one area where you don’t always get out of it what you put into it, there are definitely ways to prepare cases more effectively and increase the likelihood you’ll get something for your effort.

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Read the Case Twice

Business case write ups are designed to be confusing and contain superfluous information.  During your first read of a case, you’ll likely miss key points and have trouble putting the big picture together.

My experience is that it’s best to spread out the timing between your readings of the case.  Read the case once well before it’s due and read it again shortly before the discussion.  The human thought process requires a gestation period to come up with really good ideas.  And for those of you concerned about time constraints – don’t worry, your second read will go much faster.

Reading a case twice also improves your memory of key data points – it’s surprising the number of times a random statistic or ratio becomes a significant part of the case discussion.  Being able to recall these figures will make it much easier to participate.

Use Both a Highlighter and a Pen to Take Notes

Most people use just a highlighter when reviewing a case, but doing so severely limits what you can capture from your reading.  If you use a pen in conjunction, you’ll be able to jot down notes, build up frameworks, and write down concrete ideas.  The key is to establish a hierarchy: use your pen to distinguish what’s really important from everything else you highlighted.  This approach is particularly effective if you’re reading the case twice.

Apply the Basic Context Frameworks

Every student eventually learns about the 3 C’s, 4 P’s, and Five Forces in business school.  (Some professors have added Context and Collaborators as additional C’s to consider)  While they’re generally not considered very sophisticated, applying the basic context frameworks is a great starting point to your analysis.  It’s important to note that each framework and many components within those frameworks may not always be relevant to your case.  Despite this limitation, it’s always good to lay out what information you have.  Below are some examples of very common context frameworks.

3 C’s

  • Customer
  • Competition
  • Company

4 P’s

  • Product
  • Place
  • Promotion
  • Price

Five Forces

  • Buyer Power
  • Supplier Power
  • Barriers to Entry
  • Substitutes
  • Industry Rivalry

Value Chain

  • Research & Development
  • Manufacturing
  • Distribution
  • Marketing & Sales
  • Customer Service

Apply a More Detailed Framework

Within your syllabus, each professor usually prepares a guiding set of questions or themes you should focus on when reading the case.  I’ve found that, despite this guidance, you still never really know which part of the case the professor will choose to focus on or how the case discussion will unfold.  Harvard cases were designed to have multiple discussion threads, and because of this, the professor has flexibility.

The people who demonstrate the best participation are generally those who go deeper into the case, and perform analysis with a detailed framework.  This usually involves making assumptions about the case and using those assumptions to calculate specific outcome values.  Again, it’s possible if not likely that the case discussion will turn in a different direction, but building out one or two of these won’t take too much time.  Below are common analysis frameworks you should consider applying.

  • Breakeven Analysis
  • Criteria Matrix
  • Financial Forecast
  • Sales Projections
  • Customer Lifetime Value Calculation
  • Pricing Thermometer

Take a Side

One of the biggest mistakes people make when reading a case is not forming an opinion.  Generally at the end of a case, you’ll be presented with several different options to pursue.  But just listing the pros and cons of these options is not enough.  The good case moderators won’t let you just put out an idea without aggressively defending it.  Always be prepared to have an argument with someone, because even if your classmates are cordial, many professors will chew you out if you present something without evidence or examples.

Take Another Side

The biggest problem with taking only one side is that the side you’ve chosen is likely to be the one everyone else chose as well.  Unless you’re the first one the professor calls on, there’s a good chance you won’t be able to present your view.

If you’re looking for airtime and trying to improve your participation grade, sometimes it’s good to take the contrarian point of view.  As long as you can adequately defend it, it will bring a new perspective to the discussion and the professor will appreciate it.  Those who end up participating a lot in class discussions are generally able to prepare and defend multiple positions.

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