How to Develop Insight in a Case Interview

Question:

My question is on how to develop insight in a case interview.

I've heard some consultants say that they want interviewees to have insight. I am not sure what they mean by insight.

Do they mean background knowledge of the industry? and if you have any recommendations on how to develop the 'insight,' it would be of great help.

You are always a great help and I really enjoy reading your emails.

Thank you always.

My Reply:

Yes, this is an important skill especially as you get in more competitive environments (like final round).  Being insightful is analyzing the data and noticing an important relationship that would be significant to the client/CEO.

To over generalize, there are three kinds of insights:

1) Positive

2) Avoid a Negative

3) Problem Re-definition

A "positive" insight is basically noticing an opportunity that was not apparent before.  So maybe the client says, "I am concerned we might need to lower our prices to match our competitors. Please analyze the situation and tell me ifthis is necessary."

A basic conclusion would be, "No, the price decrease is not necessary based on the price sensitivity of consumers vs. the value they see in your product." A positive insight would be, "and we discovered the degree to which they value your product is amazing--much more than we were expecting."

"They are downright fanatical. Not only is lower the pricing not necessary, but you really ought to consider raising the price instead."

The last half of the last sentence is an insight with positive benefit.

An "avoid a negative insight" would be a client asking you if they should lower prices, and in the course of that, you realize that customers love the product but hate the service.  So the conclusion would be, "A price decrease is not necessary, as research indicates that customers actually like your products."

"However, our research shows an alarming dissatisfaction amongst customers with customer service issues. Bottom line, your customer service experiences needs significant improvement and threatens your ability to support premium prices."

So this is helping the client avoid a problem, or keep a problem from getting worse.

And the final insight, which is probably the one most valued internally amongst consulting firms, is the "we are focusing on the wrong problem" type of insight.

So an example of this would be a client asking what they should do with pricing. And in analyzing the market, you realize that there are huge competitors with large fixed costs (that produce a lot of volume cheaply), and the profit in the industry has just evaporated.

And you might come back to the client and say, "I know you asked us to help you decide on your pricing strategy, but given the profitability of the industry and the structural reasons why this would not change, it may not make sense to even be in this market at all."

(And this is where the partner thinks... and we should talk about analyzing that hypothesis in the Phase 2 of this project).

These examples are a little over simplified, but hopefully you get the general idea. Being insightful is seeing the meaning and implications in the data that others often did not notice because they either did not see the data, or didnot notice the connection between the data that would lead you to this insight until you pointed it out.

This is not to say all insights are "positive," "avoid a negative," or a "re-definition of the problem." When I think of insights, I always think of the phrase "connecting the dots" between known facts, where the connection was not obvious to the client.

Let me give you another example.

A client says, "Our customer service satisfaction rating has skyrocketed. How do we fix this problem? Should we hire more customer service agents? Do we need a loyalty program? Do we need better training?"

"Calls have skyrocketed and our on hold time is enormous... and customers are complaining online left and right that our customer service stinks. What should we do?"

In analyzing the situation, you might discover that the root cause is that resellers are confused about the product's capabilities, so they are over promising in their marketing.. customers are unhappy... the resellers have a no-refund policy.. so they are overwhelming customer support.

So the insight is the long hold times is not the problem. The problem is your resellers are over promising what the product can do, and in comparison, your product is under-delivering. That is the real problem.

This is when a client says, "Oh,.. I didn't realize that." Or,"I didn't realize it was that bad..." Or, "Oh, that's an interesting point, I hadn't considered that."

If you want more examples of something insightful, pay attention to my emails and how I explain how to tackle case interviews. When I am saying something "insightful," I tend to want to emphasize the point.

And since I can't do that via voice inflection, I do so by writing certain words and phrases in ALL CAPS or italics.

Part of the reason so many people like reading my emails (other than the fact that I'm actually willing to write them), is they learn something each time they read it.

Many times, the topic I cover is not new or something someone is completely unaware of (especially if they have been reading my emails for awhile), but rather I emphasize a subtle distinction about the topic that the reader didn't fully appreciate or didn't fully appreciate its importance.

That's being "insightful."

Okay, now to your real question about how exactly do you become more insightful.  After giving this much thought, I think it is a very hard skill to teach or to develop in yourself.

I am tempted to say you either just see the insight, or your just don't notice it. To some extent, being insightful crosses the bridge between trainable skill vs. natural talent.

That being said, I think there are some people who have the underlying talent to notice the insights, but lack the awareness, habit and skill to recognize that the insight is in fact significant, and therefore fail to mention it.

Noticing an insight but not saying anything about it is no better than not noticing the insight in the first place.

The purpose of this email is to bring awareness to the idea that when you notice an interesting connection between data, say it out loud.

Very, very, very often when a candidate makes an insightful comment, it is preceded a few minutes earlier with an, "Oh, that's interesting..." remark, either verbally or through body language.

That last sentence is very significant and worth re-reading a few times.

In other words, a very high percentage of candidates recognize when they get a piece of data that is different than what they were expecting.

When they recognize such a situation, they almost all instinctively pause to notice it, say "Oh that's interesting..." or say, "Oh, really... hmmm...".  Something along those lines.

Now the candidate who performs at an extremely high level will suddenly perk up, and starting trying to understand why the data is what it is. In other words, they recognize there is some qualitative aspect of the case they do not yet understand (which is why the data was surprising vs. their expectations).

And the strong candidate will keep asking questions until they figure out what the heck is going on.

In comparison, a candidate that ends up performing poorly will at some level notice the unusual data... pause for a moment... and then just move on with the rest of the case... often just asking the next framework question, being a framework robot.

It is that moment, when I as an interviewer know the candidate is not going to solve the case.. because they stumbled upon the key piece of data, that if explored would eventually reveal the key insight that solves the entire case.

You will see several examples of this in Look Over My Shoulder® -- mostly Cases 2 and 3 (I think).

Both the poor performing candidates and the high performing ones noticed the unusual data.

The difference is the high performing one knew to deviate from the framework temporarily to figure out WHY this data conflicts with his/her expectations.

(Hint: When data conflicts with your expectations, it means one of the two is wrong.  And given that in an interview, it is reasonable to assume all data is accurate... then the candidate ends up concluding that his/her expectations are wrong... but the candidate does not yet know why they are wrong... and they focus on figuring that out before moving on to the rest of the case.)

And once the candidate is able to answer the "Why" question, that is usually when they figure out the "insight"... and if they are smart about it, they will say the insight out loud in the form of a sythesis.

So I can't think of a way to train you to notice the unusual data that would then hopefully prompt further investigation, which then leads to making an insightful comment.

But, what I think is trainable is:

1) When you notice something unusual, it's very important you figure out what's going on... so knowing to do that is a learnable skill (and quite frankly, not doing this is a very common mistake, as you'll see by just how often many of the poorer performing candidates did this in LOMS).

2) Once you figure out what is going on, knowing you're supposed to say it out loud in the form of a sythesis is also a learnable skill.

Fortunately, I found the majority of the candidates I interviewed for LOMS did instinctively notice the first step in the process to being insightful, but simply were not accustomed to following the remainder of the steps resulting in an insightful comment -- and therefore when I assessed their performance, I concluded they were not insightful.

The next time you go through LOMS, I would encourage you to pay special attention to when each candidate uncovered that unusual piece of data (that is the beginning of unraveling and solving the entire case) and see how they handle it.  It is almost always two or three key moments in the entire case, usually lasting for 3 - 5 seconds.

If you only read the transcripts, you might miss the moment.

In person, I could read the body language and noticed the shift in body language at the moment (the facial expression shifts from whatever it was to being temporarily puzzled... not a "I'm stuck" kind of puzzled, but more of an intriguing/curiosity kind of puzzled).

In audio, you hear the unusually long pause when they hit this moment (and in the transcript it is hard to tell the difference between short pause and long pause) -- which is the sign that the entire case will either be solved (generating insights to be communicated) or be missed completely or missing a major piece of the case.

To nail a case, you absolutely, positively must notice that moment!

The other tip is once you do notice that moment, you want to slow down.  All the candidates who noticed the moment subconsciously but did not consciously do anything about it were just cranking through the framework questions like a robot quickly... and were eager to move to the next question in the framework.

This is Wrong, Wrong, Wrong!

Do not be a framework robot.  That is not problem solving. That is called "reading from a list of questions." Consulting firms do not bill out their consultants at $600,000 a year for their ability to read questions from a list.

The entire point of the framework and the framework questions is to stumble upon "the moment."  That is the sole purpose of the framework.

Once you find and communicate the insight, very often your understanding of the case has evolved such that you are able to form a more reformed hypothesis. From that new hypothesis onwards, sometimes it is not appropriate to continue with the original framework, as the data derived from the next set of framework questions are all secondary drivers... instead of primary ones.

Very often, you need to selectively filter the remaining parts of the framework, skipping the secondary drivers and just jumping to the most important elements.  Or sometimes it will make sense to change the framework, or quite commonly create a custom issue tree to test the refined hypothesis.

This is how it is supposed to work, not just continuing to ask framework questions.

And incidentally, in looking back on my practice case interviews with friends, my live case interviews, my McKinsey client work, and my current client work, I can honestly say I have never missed "The Moment" in my entire career.

Not a single time ever.

When I have stumbled a little on live case interviews, it was for other reasons - I misunderstood something, I got confused by the terminology, that kind of thing... but in terms of noticing "the moment" that leads to insight, I have never missed one that someone later pointed out or that I later discovered I made a mistake.

Don't get me wrong, I do make mistakes, but never a mistake in not noticing that moment.

Let me also elaborate on why Engagement Managers and Partners value consultants who have this skill.

They never have to worry about whether you "missed" something in your part of the client engagement.  This is one reason why in my 13th month into McKinsey, I would be able to work entirely on my own, no supervision from an engagement manager for a week.

And when I did have contact once a week with my manager, it was for all practical purposes not necessary in terms of meeting the client's needs... and more just for my personal coaching, fine tuning of my skills, and reconnecting with my team at a social level.

For the clients I have today, including the one I was working with in San Diego this morning, the value add to them from this skill is that I'm able to "see" opportunities where they and others see none.

So the way clients characterize these skills is they use words like: "you always 'see' my business differently than I do (or anyone else does)," or "you have such a different 'perspective'."

For some reason, they all use visual words like "see", and "perspective"... who knows why.

It is also one of the keys to building a trusted advisor type relationship with clients. They know you see and notice things that they do not, so they develop this tendency to want to run a lot of decisions by you to see what you think.

From a client's perspective, it is very addictive.  One of my clients said to me a year ago at the start of our relationship, "Victor, it seems I have gotten in the habit of asking you a lot of questions, and really looking forward to the answers... so I guess that means I've decided we should be working together this year."

In any case, it is useful to improve aspects of this skill that are trainable so you get the most out of your natural talent.

The easiest way to do that is simply through awareness. It is my hope that this post has helped you become aware of this skill, how it is triggered by "the moment," and the cascade of events that lead to "insight."

The initial ability to notice that a piece of data is counter to your expectations is just talent.

The rest of the process can be honed through:   1) a lot of awareness   2) a fair bit of reinforcement   3) some live practice to top it off

For #3, do some live case interview practice with a practice partner.

For #1 and #2, see the examples of the poorer performing candidates in Look Over My Shoulder®.

In this case, I think it is much easier to notice "the moment" by trying to see if you can notice when someone else misses the moment.

Try to pinpoint the exact 3 - 4 seconds that encompasses "the moment."

In contrast, if you only listen to the best practice candidates, the moment seems to pass in a matter-of-fact kind of way and doesn't really jump out as glaringly as it does for a candidate that notices the moment and promptly ignores it.

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