Case Interviews: When to Be Creative

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I have been following your blog at and using your video for my case interview practice. You mentioned in a couple of posts that better consultants are those who are hyper-analytical/linear thinkers.

Creative/lateral thinkers may make the person to communicate in a non-client-friendly way -- hard to follow. I did exactly this in one management consulting interview with XXXXX and got dinged -- the biggest feedback I received was I lacked creativity (which I intentionally supressed to make sure that I was not jumping around).

Now, the question becomes how can I be linear and analytical (so that I have neat structure and the interviewer can follow me easily) and also show some creativity as well? Do I emphasise creativity at specific part of the case process?

Look forward to hearing your comment on this.

My Reply:

This is an interesting question and is an advanced topic that I did not cover in my videos.

There IS a time to be creative in a case interview. Let me elaborate.

When you first learn to use frameworks, it's very mechanical. It's like you're forcing yourself to use a checklist and you just hope you don't forget anything.

After you get good with the frameworks and internalize it's use, I found that I would switch frameworks on the fly as needed, use frameworks within frameworks (like a supply /demand framework within a business situation case, or a profit/loss framework within a business situation case).

You indicated that you deliberately tried to avoid jumping around which you interpreted as suppressing your creativity.

Creativity is most appropriate in certain parts of a case.

When you've analytically and linearly isolated the problem (which is really 80% of the case generally) and it's time to come up with ways to solve the problem, it can be appropriate to come up with ideas (e.g., hypotheses on potential solutions that can then be tested and vetted in an analytical way).

Sometimes if you go down a particular linear path and it's analytically a dead end (e.g. the data says the problem is not located in this branch of analysis.... such as in a profit case where profit = sales - costs... and you keep delving into cost analysis, when all the data suggest the problem is a sales one, some interviewers might describe that scenario as the candidate not having creativity in problem solving.

I would personally call it something else like not being sufficient data-driven. So this is possibility as well.

Another time where creativity is a hugely important is in figuring out HOW to get data. So if you ask for X data, and the interviewer say we don't have that data. The next question (stated or unstated) is to figure out if there's another CREATIVE way to approximate that data.

This is definitely a creative exercise as often there is no linearly obvious solution.

I'll give you an example, I had a case with Bain where I was the one being interviewed. The interviewer was Theresia Gouw Ranzetta who is now a venture capitalist at the venture firm Accel Partners. (Amazing the things you remember)

The case had something to do with advising some cell phone company in 1980 when cell technology first came out. The question was would the cell phone market take off. At the time the client/company had only 3 years of sales data, and as you might expect sales were fairly modest.

So the question was, how could you determine if the cell phone market was going to be an attractive on in 10 - 20 years and worth say investing another $3 billion to pursue it. And the client wanted to know specifically when the demand would likely reach 500 million units sold per year.

After hemming and hawing about it, I didn't see an obvious linear answer sticking out.... and certainly nothing in any of my frameworks covered this unusual case.

So I sort of thought creatively a bit and said, you know given we do have 3 years of initial sales data, I wonder if we could compare the sales trend with other technologies like radio or TV in their first 3 years of existence.

I'm assuming this was a real case for a real client because she said, "Yes, that's exactly what we did." And she whips out a chart (or maybe she drew one by hand) and mapped out the revenue trends over a 50 year period for tv, radio, fax machines, microwaves, and a doze or so technology.

It turns out the shape of the revenue growth fit into the pattern of being on pace (based on only a few years of data) to be a highly adopted and widely used technology. The 100 million unit mark had a definitive year, etc...

So bottom line, none of my frameworks would have got me to that answer. That was strictly a creative solution (with a bit of numerical orientation to it).

That was my the last interview of my final round at Bain and Theresia was the one who ended up giving my offer - though I did ending up declining for personal reasons as I had to be in NYC and Bain did not have a strong presence there (and McKinsey did).

Hope this helps.

To summarize, the ideal role of creativity is to be creative in how you apply analytical and structured thinking... in particular how you get hard to get data and in coming up with hypotheses AFTER you've analytically isolated the underlying cause of a more visible business symptom.

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