TKS Session Reflections

POV: You’re Getting an HBS Education for Free

The Thought Patterns Behind a Harvard Business School Case

Photo by Cloris Ying on Unsplash

Harvard Business School–already popular and internationally-acclaimed–is well known for its instructional method dubbed “The Case Method.” Business cases are also used by major companies around the world as an effective approach to problem solving.

But what is the Case Method? How does it work?

According to the HBS website…

“[A] case is a 10–20 page document written from the viewpoint of a real person leading a real organization. In addition to background information on the situation, each case ends in a key decision to be made. Your job is to sift through the information, incomplete by design, and decide what you would do.”

Let that sink in. You have to read about this company’s intricate problem, sift through all of the information you’re given, and come up with suggested courses of action. What do you do? How do you give good advice?

These are all excellent questions…and you’re in luck! Through The Knowledge Society, I recently had the privilege of going through a simulated HBS case. Stick around to learn about my reflections on this experience, and how you can begin to problem-solve like a HBS student.

Source: unDraw

1. Crunch the Numbers. Then Crunch Them Again. 💯

If you’re anything like me, you’re probably scared silly by the idea of advising a large corporation on its next business move. But, the antidote to fear is preparation. When faced with the sorts of intricate problems proposed in HBS Cases, or even in real-life, it’s important to ground yourself in the facts and the data.

But how do you do that? What does “crunch the numbers” mean, anyways?

First of all, looking at the numbers ≠ crunching the numbers. The whole goal of crunching the numbers is to provide context to what those numbers mean: statistics like $4.5 billion revenue, 1 million users, and $1.5 million initial investment mean very little without a reference point. Tools like the CAGR formula and charts that show revenue growth/decrease over time allow you to begin understanding patterns and trends that give a fuller picture of how the business is doing. Check out this article to learn more about number crunching!

2. Show Your Work. 📝

After reading #1, you probably thought something along the lines of: “Okay…I guess I’ll just take the derivative of the annual revenue in order to find an equation that represents all of my answers???

I know numbers can feel daunting, but they don’t have to be. That’s where Tip #2 comes in.

HBS cases are designed so that you spend more time understanding the problem and less time curating the solution. So take that time. Digest the information, and highlight important statistics or values. When you present your line of thought to someone else, be prepared to detail what information you were looking at, how you processed that information, and why it maters to the larger case issue.

3. What Assumptions Are the Least Risky to Make? 🤔

When making recommendations based off of past experiences, it can be easy to base your assumptions on the best-case scenario. I’ve done this a million times, and each time, I set myself up for failure because life is not a series of best-case scenarios.

What will you do when things don’t go according to plan?

When using past data to inform future actions, it is vital to be aware of the assumptions you are making. Are you assuming the best-case scenario or the best possible outcomes? What does the worst-case scenario look like?

Often, your solution lays somewhere in the middle.

4. Make Apples-to-Apples Comparisons. 👯‍♀️

In order to detail action items for a large corporation, it is always useful to compare its business model to the business model of its competitor. Try to look for comparable data across the same time frame, similar conditions, similar target populations, etc.

Similar to Tip #1, comparison allows you to gain a new perspective on the situation at hand. It allows you to see what other people have done to solve an issue similar to the one you’re trying to solve. That said, DO NOT fall into the pitfall of comparing numbers or results that are incomparable. Comparison, when done incorrectly (across different time phrases, different contexts, etc.) can skew your perception of the situation and lead to misleading conclusions.

5. Back Your Recommendation with Facts. 📊

Instead of delivering solutions with phrases like “It seems to me like…” or “I’m not sure, but…” or “Off the top of my head, I think the solution is…,” I want you to try grounding your solutions in tangible facts. What numbers–percentages, monetary amounts, etc.–support your point of view? Can you clearly trace the logic that led to your current recommendations (see Tip #2)?

Asking yourself these questions–out loud or in your head–allows you to be confident that your solutions are sound and well-thought-out.

Source: DrawKit

Next Steps

Now, you might be wondering: How do these tips help me? It’s not like I’m going to Harvard Business School, anyways…

But these tips are generally applicable to life. It is only through analyzing the successes and failures of the past that we are able to better engineer the future.

So, the next time you have a tough problem to solve, or your friend needs advice for a seemingly unsolvable dilemma, try applying these mindsets and questions in order to streamline the problem-solving process!

Main Takeaways:

  1. Crunch the numbers
  2. Show your work.
  3. Make the least risky assumptions
  4. Make apples-to-apples comparisons.
  5. Back your recommendation with facts.

One Last Thing–

I sincerely hope you got value out of this article! For more, check out the other articles my medium page. Have more questions or thoughts? Let’s connect on LinkedIn!

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Aminah Aliu

Aminah Aliu

Aminah Aliu is an Innovator at The Knowledge Society and a senior in high school. She enjoys conversation with others, writing poetry, and learning about STEM.