Consulting Case Study: The One Thing Every Consulting Case Study Must Produce
A case study is one of the most common tools used anywhere a major decision has to be made, whether it’s within a large company, or it’s for a consulting firm advising a company. This common tool is so often used but people don’t really think about what a case study should deliver. So today I want to talk about logical case studies and really focus you on the one thing that a consulting case study should deliver. If you can deliver this one thing, it doesn’t matter whether the rest of the case study is missing components or it’s not very clear.
Now let’s show you a slide that we put together in the corporate strategy and transformation program where we’re helping Empire International, a very large energy utility, restructure themselves.
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Extract the key insight from the consulting case study into one slide
Back to our slide, it’s a very straightforward and insightful slide. I’m not going to talk you through the slide because you can read it for yourself. What I want to talk you through today is why we presented this slide versus a 20-slide deck on the case study.
Think about this, right! When a firm or a consultant does a case study, the perception is that the consulting case study should be about 5 to 20 slides. There should be a cover page, a summary page, an executive summary page, the details and lessons learned. That is what other people do.
What I had always done when I was an associate, or when I became an engagement manager, what I had always instructed the teams to do even when I led teams directly as a partner, is that I asked them to focus less on the fluff, and if they can extract the key insight from the consulting case study into one slide, that is far more valuable to me.
Can you imagine I’m presenting to an executive and I’ve got to present this 20-slide deck for each of four case studies? That’s 80 slides, in which a lot of pages are just redundant and nonsense whereby there are the cover page, summary page, index page, and so on, which are unnecessary. The client does not need to know all of the background. The client does not need to know all of the things you analyze, either. They want to know the deepest insight that is relevant to them, which can be depicted on just one slide in any case study you do.
And you have to be careful, creative, and take some time to figure out how to create that one slide designed in such a way that you can show the insight versus using just any standard templates the firm has, which is one of the dangers you have. Firms have these template guides. You pick a template to use and populate it with data even when the template does not allow you to convey the key message you want in just one slide.
So if you are doing a consulting case study ask yourself this, “What is the one most important thing you want the client to know from this case study?” It’s possible that you want the client to know three important things. That’s fine, then you can have three slides, or you can have two important things in one slide and the third thing on the second slide, giving you a total two slides.
The habit of showing clients a lot of slides
You want to break away from the habit of showing the client you did work by presenting to them many slides. Initially, you may impress the client with the amount of work you’re doing, but at the end of the study when the senior members of the client team are talking about the insights and value, it would be apparent that you haven’t actually shown them anything important or that you haven’t actually extracted some piece of information that is useful.
They’re never going to say, “Well, you know, this consulting firm gave us a three hundred slide deck; therefore, they brought a lot of value even though we can’t really understand the insights.
I remember once working with a very large firm. This is after I left and I was considering joining them, and they let me talk to some of their consulting teams. The team I was talking with was from New York and they were doing this really in-depth set of analyses. I mean extremely detailed mapping of the sector and so on. I remember talking to them and saying, “What is your hypothesis? Why you are doing this?” And I remember the engagement manager, who I think was a senior manager, telling me that, “Well, we’re doing all this analysis, and hypotheses will come later.” That to me is a problem.
They’re doing a lot of analyses because they want to show that they’re busy, and they’re producing a lot of slides. It looks like an equity report from an equity analyst but there’s no insight and it’s going to take me forever to go through it. I remember looking at the slide deck and it was incredibly detailed 70 slides on the sector. They went out, analyzed everything, and summarized everything but I couldn’t know what they were telling me because even they didn’t know what they were telling me.
They were opting for an enormous amount of slides without giving me that one insight that I needed to know. In fact, they were coping out and making me do the work. They were making me read all of this and it’s dense with tiny writing. Some of the font was size five on a PowerPoint which is really small and is ageism as well because it doesn’t let old people to read it, which is another problem you have to deal with.
If you’re doing a consulting case study, figure out the most important thing you want to say and say it on one slide
If you’re doing a consulting case study. In fact, if you’re doing anything, figure out the most important thing you want to say and say it on one slide. If there’s nothing else more important you want to say, no one is going to punish you for that and say, “Well, you have been doing the case study on the entire company for three weeks.” That’s fine because if you come up with one very important insight, that’s okay. And remember sometimes you can do a case and there’s nothing really useful there.
One insight, one slide to get your message across. You will become a better consultant if you do that. Of course the flip side is don’t just produce one slide because you are lazy. You must have some deep message and deep sight in that one slide for your consutling case study.
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Business Case Study Research: The Pernicious Mistake Made
All of these rely heavily on case studies and this article examines one of the big mistakes consultants make when they rely on case studies. People who work in corporate environments also make the same mistake when looking at case studies of competitors.
What is a businesscase study
A business case study research is a process in which detailed consideration is given to a particular case (e.g. an organization, a person, events or actions). It is used in business, including management consulting, but also in psychology, clinical science, sociology, anthropology and many other fields.
For example, in the social and life sciences case study research involves a detailed, in-depth examination of a particular subject. For instance, in medicine, it may involve examining a specific patient a doctor treated.
Case studies outside of management consulting/business are often produced by following a formal research method. Such case studies are likely to be published in formal research publications and usually peer-reviewed. Case study research can include quantitative and qualitative research methods.
Business case study research
A business case study usually examines the development of a particular organization over a period of time. While, corporate strategy case study research, a type of business case study research, looks specifically at the corporate strategy aspects when analyzing a case.
A type of business case studies called case methods or casebook methods are heavily used by some business schools, to help students analyze a specific real-life situation or scenario and learn to make managerial and other company-related decisions. Students are required to analyze a prescribed business case study and present their solutions and decisions, supported by the line of reasoning employed. Business school faculty generally develop case studies with particular learning objectives in mind. For example, a strategy professor will use case studies with the goal to teach students strategy skills, while a marketing professor will select marketing case studies with a goal to teach students marketing skills. Case study heavy business school’s include Harvard Business School and Ivey Business School in Canada. Those are the big two case study-based schools.
A case study approach is also used by organizations to showcase how an organization’s products or services were used by other clients effectively. It goes beyond simple testimonials by showing how a client used a product or service to accomplish their goals. An example of this type of case study can be found here.
Business case study research in management consulting
Business case study research is also used in case competitions and in consulting case interviews (consulting job interviews) by firms such as McKinsey & Company, Boston Consulting Group, Deloitte etc., in which candidates are required to develop a solution for a case under time pressure. You can view many business case study examples on our YouTube channel. Subscribe here. And, of course, we go in depth on teaching how to solve consulting case interview cases in The Consulting Offer, a part of our Premium membership.
Case study research is also used by consulting firms like McKinsey, BCG, Bain, Deloitte, PwC etc. to understand best practices, emerging trends and other information within a particular industry or region. Consulting engagements often involve presenting the client with case studies of competitors, or potential competitors if, for example, a company wants to enter a new market. It can also be a case study of other organizations, events or activities. For example, if a client wants to introduce more innovation, case studies may include a list of the most innovative companies and their best practices.
The pernicious mistake made by consulting firms
It is often little known that consulting firms such as McKinsey, BCG and so on rely on specialist firms when they need to conduct a study in a certain area. These specialist firms will have access to network of resources and people. For instance, suppose a major consulting firm wants to do a business case study on retail banking in Peru. In such a case, it will contact a specialist firm and ask for best practices in retail banking in Latin America in countries such as Peru and Colombia and would then ask for a specialist (e.g. a senior VP at a bank) who can help with such a project. There is big business supplying consulting firms with these experts.
The consulting firm will identify the three best retail banks in Peru. The specialist firm would find 3 senior experts who understand these banks and they will speak to the consulting firm for an hour or two at an agreed upon hourly rate. The consulting firm will use the advice of the specialist to arrive at a set of recommendations and best practices that they can use to guide their consulting engagement or use them as a set of recommendations for the client.
Now, one of the things we have found over the years is that a lot of companies that claim to be successful at certain things are actually not that successful at what they do.
For instance, during the LAB study, a lot of experts suggested companies that seemed to be the ‘hottest’ topic among consulting firms. In that the firms were conducting case studies about them. If you were to Google these suggested companies or read their annual reports you would have found that they were indeed profitable. Now, since Google, annual reports and other people have told you that these companies are successful, one is more inclined to believe the claim. And one of the biggest mistakes you can make is follow that information without checking if it is in fact true.
Working with experts
What you have to learn is that you must not rely on experts. When you speak to any so-called expert, don’t ask them what are the successful companies in my area. Don’t ask them what makes the company successful. Instead, get a shortlist of companies and determine whether they are successful or not.
The meaning here is that when you do business case study research, your starting question should be is this company actually successful at what it should be successful at? And if the answer is yes, then the next question becomes under what conditions are they successful?
For example, we were advised to conduct case studies on Grameen bank and so on because many experts said that these companies were successful. As a lead partner, Michael (one of FIRMSconsulting partners) responded by saying something along the lines of, “I don’t want you to tell me why they are successful. I want you, since you are in the case study stream, to tell me if they are successful.”
That actually shocks people because people mostly are not trained to ask deep questions. Instead, we are trained to just create some glossy reports and extract some best practices.
Case studies only work if they are truly interrogated to identify the real insight and true impact on the client.
Business case study examples
You have to ask yourself what is success and how do we define success? In the LAB study, success was defined as being able to profitably offer micro loans to a market in a sustainable way and scale that business. And what we found was that every single company or bank that people said was successful at micro-finance was not actually successful, which is quite shocking.
Although those micro-finance banks were successful and profitable, they were not successful and profitable at micro-finance.
Microfinance, as you probably know, is the provision of small-scale loans to lenders. These banks, although they originally started with this goal of providing small-scale loans to micro-finance lenders, over time realized that was unsustainable so they started drifting into offering loans to medium and large-sized borrowers. These micro-finance banks were very profitable and successful but they’re not very profitable nor successful at issuing loans to micro-finance borrowers. This is the key distinction to make.
Herein lies the importance of strategic thinking and asking the right questions. If one was to ask the question which are the successful micro-finance banks, the experts would have given our team a list of five banks and he/she would have then gone ahead and figured out why they were successful. But if you flip the question around and ask, are these banks successful and what are they successful at, you would have realized that micro-finance banks are not necessarily successful at micro-finance.
The one bank that was found to be successful at micro-finance was Grameen Bank. However, it doesn’t have a banking license in the United States. This means that if it had a banking license, the Federal Reserve would ask it to keep a capital reserve on its balance sheet. And if Grameen Bank did that, they would basically become insolvent. That is another finding of the team.
Another issue is with Grameen Bank’s model. They give you just enough money to survive through things versus growing you into the middle-class/upper class. Of course, people who read about them and like them will deny that this is true. But if you were to actually analyze them and speak to the operations manager, former CFO etc., you’ll understand that is their strategy, no matter what they say in the glossy brochures. And yet another finding of the team.
This is the key lesson when it comes to doing case studies. Make sure you ask the right questions in a business case study as it is easy to ask the wrong ones. If you were to think about the micro-finance banks not being successful at micro-finance despite their profitability, you would realize that this is a deep insight. This is because now we know that we can’t actually take much lessons from these banks except the lesson that they have never been able to crack the code for sustainably offering loans of a very small size.
We then had to figure out why they were not successful. One of the results of the study was that it’s not about delinquencies and it’s not about default rates. It’s about the size of the loan and the interest rate cap. We had to model this relationship and improve the economics of the product.
Trap of following “best” companies
In summary, when conducting business case study research don’t fall for the trap of just asking a few experts about the best companies in the sector. Instead, figure this information out yourself by asking the right questions and benchmarking their practices. You have got to really figure if they truly are the best. And about nine times out of ten you will be surprised to realize that people and companies that are recommended as being the best are actually pretty bad at what they do. Also, make sure that the company and the practice you are highlighting as successful is actually successful for its intended purpose.
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