It is quite common for Firmsconsulting to receive the following emails, questions or comments from clients and readers. When reading the comments below, try to think about why a reader would have these questions. In other words, what are their underlying assumptions?

When should I use a structure versus explaining the thinking of my approach?

When do I use the should, could and would approach?

I presented my structure and hypotheses but the McKinsey interviewer wanted something else. How do I handle that request?

Why does the 4P’s framework not work in this case when this case is the same as other cases where the framework was used?

When someone asks questions like this it is fairly obvious they are using the technique, most commonly taught in books and blogs, to use structures or broad frameworks to solve a case. Mainly, they are trying to force-fit an approach/technique/methodology on the answer.

The problem with this approach is that interviewees are being trained to approach cases as if the interview is solely about solving the initial case presented to them. They are obsessed about understanding, dissecting and completing the case. That is an incorrect approach. The correct tactic is to approach the case as if it is an evolving problem controlled entirely by the interviewer.

Consider the following evolution of a case:

• 00:30 seconds: The case is entirely determined by the initial written or verbal case question presented, since the interviewer has not had much time to change the direction of the case by adding new information in the first 30 seconds.

• 03:30 minutes: The case is determined by both the written/verbal case question and more so by the data, additional clues, emphasis and additional facts provided by the interviewer.

• 07:30 minutes: The case is almost completely determined by the data, additional clues, emphasis and additional facts provided by the interviewer. The new case information presented by the interviewer exceeds the initial case question information by a factor of 3 to 1.

• 12:30 minutes: The case has been so heavily adapted by the interviewer that it bears no semblance to the initial question. In other words, the initial data about the case provided at the beginning has now been supplemented by new information from the interviewer and that new information makes up >80% of the case information. If that is the situation, which it usually is, clearly most of the attention must go to the majority of new information, which is mainly provided by the interviewer over the duration of the case.

This evolution of the case explains the importance of paying attention to, and following the interviewer. You need to follow the interviewer and not assume the case is fixed from time 00:30 seconds. Most candidates are obsessed about solving the initially case presented and routinely ignore the interviewer.

We present a useful 3-step process to integrate the initial question, your insights and the interviewer’s advice.

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2 responses to Ignore the case interviewer at your peril

  1. Hi Anit, actually a lot of people make this problem so it is fairly common. The phrasing will not change the dynamics, since the main issue is paying attention and that is not going to change if the interviewer phrases the question differently.

    There are a couple things you can do here:

    1) Assume the case question is made up of two parts: the original question AND the additional responses from the interviewer as he guides you. This forces you to pay attention to collect more information.
    2) Treat the interviewer as a client or the audience. Imagine you are solving the case for them.
    3) This is the main one, forgot about case books. They are one dimensional and at most two dimensional. In other words, do not think this is a McKinsey case and it must be done in x or y way. Work in the moment and do not pre-suppose you can plan out what needs to happen.

    Ultimately it is a sign of disrespect to a partner/interviewer when someone ignores what McKinsey/BCG is saying in the interviewer to follow the advice of what they read in a book by someone who presumes to know what McKinsey/BCG wants.

    To be blunt: its like reading a book about what your wife wants in the marriage despite her being right there and telling you what she wants.

  2. This is a very interesting and simple problem that I’ve identified within myself over the last month. I find it particularly frustrating because I don’t think I behave this way when I am working through a problem with a friend or colleague. Only when it’s a case interview. Built bad habits in that specific setting, I guess.

    I’m starting by trying to reframe how I think about the Case Interview. Instead of trying to “solve the case” I’m trying to tell myself to “solve the interviewer’s problem.”

    I think one of the artificialities that makes it difficult for me is that the interviewer is an intermediary, and not actually the person who’s problem it is. I would be very curious to know how it changes interview dynamics if interviewers opened with “Suppose I am the VP of…” instead of “your client is…”

    I don’t mean to state this as an excuse, because it we’re all going through the same process. Nonetheless, I’m curious as to how it changes interview outcomes with that small change in framing.

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