Guide and Template for Business Cases
Table of Contents
Cases attempt to reflect the various pressures and considerations that professionals of all varieties confront in the workplace. Using complex, realistic open-ended problems as a focus, cases are designed to challenge you and help you develop and practice skills that you may need in your future careers. Cases are also an excellent way to see how abstract principles learned in class are applied to real world situations.
Remember that case assignments involve a different kind of learning than other assignments. There is no one single answer and sometimes even the issue is deliberately not stated clearly.
Why Instructors Use Case Assignments
- Real-life Scenarios – Cases allow you to apply classroom principles to real situations.
- Solve Ambiguous Problems – Few problems in the real world are as clean cut as those in a textbook. Cases can help you develop skills to analyze the more complex problems you may encounter later.
- Sort and Analyze Ambiguous Data – Case studies can help you learn strategies for sorting out seemingly unconnected bits of data and organizing them to understand the problem.
- Communication Skills – Both group discussion and writing an analysis of the issues can improve your writing and speaking skills.
- Learn Different Perspectives – Group discussion can help you understand how others might view an issue and what valid points they “bring to the table.”
- Identify Your Own Assumptions – Learning what your core assumptions in life are can help you understand what emotional reactions you may have to certain issues and help you consider whether they are valid or not.
Analysing The Case: The Seven Steps to Success
To analyse successfully and effectively use the following seven steps and the Case Summary Table below:
• Step 1 – Familiarize yourself with the case
• Step 2 – Define the Problem /Opportunity
• Step 3 -Identify the company’s internal strengths and weaknesses (SWOT analysis).
• Step 4 – Brainstorm Solutions
• Step 5 – Select Solution
• Step 6 – Develop an Action Plan
• Step 7- Implementation
Try to read the case at least two times, maybe more; the first time through should involve familiarizing yourself with the basic situation. You will be given some focus questions intended to help you and should think about why the case was assigned now.
Some Questions to Consider
Here are some standard questions that you might keep in mind:
- What is the current status quo? Sometimes identifying where you are can help you figure out the path to where you need to go. What are the forces driving change? What forces are maintaining the status quo? Do they originate externally or internally? What will the firm’s probable future environment look like? What are the implications for the firm? Your analysis must be supported by the facts in the case along with whatever reasonable assumptions you make.
- Who are the key people? Who are the decision makers?
- What are the constraints on the actions of key people? What demands are imposed by the situation? Are they economic, personal, professional or due to some other factor? Remember, not even a president is all powerful, but must usually answer to a board or an electorate at some point.
- What documents, data or testimony have been given to you? Will you be able to find them in the future? What additional data would you like to have? Can you get it?
- What information is lacking? If you had the chance to talk to interview the critical players, what would you want to know? Who would most likely have the information you need?
- Do you know the timeline of critical events? This can be important down the line.
- Can you define the critical problem yet? Sometimes the immediate problem is only a symptom of a deeper problem. You should identify what you believe are the key management issues. In identifying the key issues you need to compare the opportunities and threats arising from the firm’s present and probable future environments against its strengths and weaknesses both current and in the future.
- What information is there in the case, as tables and annexes? Look carefully at all the tables, annexes and appendices. Why are they there? What information is the casewriter trying to get you to get out of them?
Discussing the Case
After reading a case, it can really help to discuss it with other students in your group and/or class. This will give you a chance to test your ideas on others and learn about other perspectives related to the case.
If you are part of a case team, you will not only need to discuss the case, but brainstorm solutions and propose a final solution or action. You should consider yourselves a team of colleagues that has been asked to work together to solve a challenging problem. This requires well-prepared team members to push ideas and support them. Other members will mention ideas you hadn’t thought of and you should be prepared to change your opinions and incorporate new ideas when you find them persuasive. Try to build up your ideas based on the comments of others.
Don’t be afraid to be wrong or challenged. Remember that no case would be worth discussing if it were simple and straightforward.
What is the critical problem? This deceptively simple question is actually one of the most difficult parts of the analysis. Perhaps the most common problem in case analysis (and in real life management) is that we fail to identify the real problem and as a result solve the wrong problem, and leave the original problem unfixed.
In the beginning, what appears to be the problem may be just as symptom and not the REAL underlying problem. Here are some tips to help identify the underlying issues.
Some Diagnostic Questions
- Explicitly state the problem. Are you sure it is a problem? Is it important? What would happen if the “problem” were left alone? Could attempts to solve the “problem” result in unintended consequences?
- Where is the problem? Is it an individual, relationships, group, intergroup, leadership/motivation/power, total system?
- Why is it a problem? Is there a “gap” between the actual performance and desired performance? For whom is it a problem and why?
- Can the problem be solved permanently or will it occur again? Is this problem masking a deeper systematic problem?
- What standards are violated? Where is the deviation from the standards?
- What is the current situation? What are the ideal outcomes?
- How do key people feel about the problem and current outcomes?
- How urgent is the problem? How important is the problem relative to other problems?
- How high are the stakes? Factors for the organization include costs and profits, meeting obligations and productivity. Factors for people include personal and financial rewards, career satisfaction and personal satisfaction and growth.
- How stable are present conditions?
- What information is lacking?
Some Traps to Avoid
- Not explicitly stating the problem in the first place.
- Stating problems in terms of personalities (e.g. “this person is flaky”) instead of situations (e.g. “it is difficult to keep in touch”).
- Blindly applying stereotypes to problems. There is a great tendency to evaluate behavior as good or bad. These kinds of judgments can lead to a poor analysis. Instead focus on why the problem exists. Why are people acting in a particular way?
- Equating “your” problem is “the” problem.
- Accepting all information at face value.
- Making premature judgments.
- Failing to consider the possibility of multiple causes.
- Confusing symptoms with causes – is there something else going on to make the problem appear or make it worse?
- Failing to differentiate fact (e.g. “profits are down” or “complaints have risen”) from opinion (e.g. “this isn’t working”).
- Avoid second guessing decisions after the fact. Instead of saying what players should have done, consider what the case actors are likely to know or do in the future.
- Prematurely suggesting a solution.
- Stating the problem as a disguised solution (e.g. “we need more…”).
Most importantly, avoid suggesting solutions until you have the problem defined.
Identify the company’s internal strengths and weaknesses (SWOT analysis) plus Fishbone Analysis. Examine each of the value creation functions of the company and identify the functions in which the company is currently strong and currently weak. Some companies might be weak in marketing; some might be strong in research and development. Make lists of these strengths and weaknesses. The SWOT checklist gives examples of what might go in these lists.
The key objective of conducting a SWOT analysis is to determine how to position the firm so it can take advantage of opportunities, while simultaneously avoiding or minimizing environmental threats. Results from a SWOT analysis yield valuable insights into the selection of strategies a firm should implement to achieve strategic competitiveness.
Fish Bone Analysis
It helps us understand activities/events/policies/situations that created the existing situation. This part should include only elements from the Article of the case (external research is NOT necessary).
Be creative here and put yourself in the case. Write down anything that occurs to you, no matter how odd it may first appear. Try exploring various alternatives that you are considering. What would be the impact on you and on others? Be sure to consider the costs and benefits of each alternative. What’s important in this stage is to avoid reaching for a solution too quickly
When thinking about a context for generating alternatives, think about the following:
- What can be changed?
- new methods and standards?
- educating workers, customers or citizens?
- new hardware? equipment? software?
- new product or design?
- new incentives?
- bring in new people?
- improved public relations?
- increased opportunities for others to provide feedback?
- What are the available resources at your disposal (time, money, people, existing relationships, authority)?
- Can individual behavior be changed (education, training, reward systems, job description, etc.)? Should it be changed?
- Should others be involved (in problem definition, data collection, generating alternatives, implementing solutions, monitoring and assessing realities)?
- What are the restrictions of the solution (time, money, organizational traditions, prior commitments, external realities, legal, “politics” and so forth)?
- What is the cost-benefit for each of your alternatives?
Take a look at the link below to learn more about cost-benefit and see some examples: https://www.projectcubicle.com/cost-benefit-analysis-example/
Step 5 – Select Solution
In most assignments, there is usually no one “flawless” solution. All solutions have costs and benefits. Identify pros and cons of each alternative; evaluate relative to goals and objectives; look at main and side effects. You may have to make inferences and judgments but as long as you have good reasons supported by data from cases and relevant external sources for your inferences, they will be as sound as possible.
In considering the alternatives, you need to be clear on the criteria you will use to evaluate them. State your recommendations in sufficient detail to be meaningful get down to some definite nitty-gritty specifics. Avoid such unhelpful statements as “the organization should do more planning,” or “the company should be more aggressive in marketing its product.” For instance, do not simply say “the firm should improve its market position” but state exactly how you think this should be done. Offer a definite agenda for action, stipulating a timetable and sequence for initiating actions, indicating priorities, and suggesting who should be responsible for doing what.
Some evaluation criteria may include:
- Address the Problem – Does the alternative address the critical aspect of the problem? What are your objectives? Be specific.
- Improve the Situation – How does this solution improve the situation? How much? How long – permanently or temporarily?
- Will it work? – What is the probability of success? What are the risks? What happens if the plan fails?
- Does it fit? Is the change consistent with the organizational culture? If not, will it still be viable?
- Remember the Consequences – What are the intended consequences? What are some unintended possible consequences? How will your decision improve the situation?
- Think of Resources – What does the plan depend on in terms of money, people, authority, equipment? What are the costs? What power and control is needed?
The Case Realities
- You will often not have all the information you would like.
- There is rarely one “right” answer – more than one solution may be possible.
- One of most critical yet most difficult aspect of case analysis may be identifying the problem, BUT you may never be sure you have identified the real problem.
- Accept that cases and actual management situations often involve:
- ambiguous situations
- multiple causality
- inadequate information
- no one elegant solution
- Acknowledge that personal values play a role in many situations
- Some problems may have “no solution”, but it’s important to do the analysis.
- Try to imagine “living” with the problem and your recommendations. Would this be what you would want someone else to do?
Do the best that you can and make a reasonable proposal on what you do know.
Many case assignments require a proposal or recommendation, including an action plan. The action plan or proposal should include a brief discussion of specific actions both short-term and long-term that will be taken to solve the problem(s) identified in step two of the case analysis process. Begin with a brief description of the short-term plan, including costs, benefits, ease of implementation, safety, legality, practicality, and sensitivity to the needs various parties and individuals.
The alternative strategies examined should include all major strategic options open to the organization that can be considered reasonable in the context of your analysis. Your objective is to define possible actions in response to problems you have identified that will create a sustainable competitive advantage for the organization. In general, a good course of action should have the following characteristics:
- be ethical – it should be compatible with the values of management, of its implementers and of society.
- create a sustainable competitive advantage – it should be a long-term solution rather than a short-term fix.
- be feasible – it can be implemented at a reasonable cost; infeasible alternatives can be discarded immediately; others must be formally evaluated using specific criteria. Be realistic about constraints imposed by the situation. For example, if the president is incompetent but owns 80% of the stock, don’t recommend firing him unless you also provide a strategy for doing it successfully. Also be sensitive to constraints imposed by key customers, major suppliers, competitors, or the government.
- be effective – it should solve the stated problem(s).
- be timely – it should be completed within a reasonable time frame.
- be cost-effective – it should cost less than the problem.
- be non-disruptive – it should not cause more problems than it solves.
You should now be able to recommend a course of action. What is the best combination of alternatives given the available information and resources? This is the solution that should be adopted. Be sure your analysis supports your choice. Propose specific recommendations. They may be an addition to or a substitute for the firm’s current strategy and/or mode of organization. Be sure that you offer analysis and evidence to back up your conclusions. Do not rely on unsupported opinions, over-generalizations, and platitudes as a substitute for tight, logical argument backed up with facts and figures.
- Recommendations should address all major problems/issues you identified.
- Recommendations should follow logically from your analysis and the problems/issues identified.
- Recommendations must be feasible and desirable to the key stakeholders.
- Recommendations have considered the availability of resources to carry out your proposed plan.
- If your analysis involves some important quantitative calculations, use tables and charts to present the calculations clearly and efficiently. Don’t just tack the exhibits on at the end of your report and let the reader figure out what they mean and why they were included.
- Obviously, your recommendations for actions should offer a reasonable prospect of success. High-risk, bet-the-company recommendations should be made with caution.
Once you develop strong alternatives, you must evaluate the set to choose the best one. Your choice should be defensible and provide benefits over the other alternatives. Thus, it is important that both alternative development and evaluation of alternatives be thorough. The choice of the best alternative should be explained and defended.
Step 7- Implementation
The final step is implementation. A solution is not complete until it becomes operational. In strategy, as in invention, success is 5% inspiration and 95% perspiration. You must provide a specific implementation plan–a reasonable plan of action for carrying out your solution. Be sure to consider all factors necessary for successful implementation–what, who, when, and how much.
Tips for Creating a Plan
Ask yourselves these questions when drafting an action plan.
- What are the best arguments for your plan? Will you need to convince others of your proposal? If nothing else, you will need to convince your instructor.
- Who will implement the change? Does he/she have the power, skills, knowledge to be successful? The larger the change, the more formal authority a person generally needs.
- Will other rewards be offered for those involved in implementing the change? People will be more likely to agree to an action plan if they see a tangible benefit for themselves.
- Will there be resistance to change? How can you relieve anxieties? Do people need to be educated? Most action plans encounter resistance from somewhere.
- What is the timeline for the change be implemented? Gradually or instantaneously? Mandatory or optional? Will there be rewards or penalties? Do you need to grandfather people? Gradual transitions are generally better, unless your situation is a true emergency or the change is so systematic that only a quick transition will work.
- Will the new way provide any disadvantage over the old way? What are the workarounds? These need to be explained.
- What kinds of training or education, if any, are needed? If the plan involves a new technique or strategy, then training will be needed.
- How will you monitor progress? If nothing is monitored, nothing may get done.
- What are the possible negative consequences of implementing the plan? How will you address them? Almost all plans have some negatives, but usually the positives outweigh the negatives in a successful plan.
References for Template
Detrick, Glenn, 2002, “Russell Ackoff”, Academy of Management Learning and Education, 1(1): 56-63
Rasiel, Ethan M., 1999, The McKinsey way, New York: McGraw Hill
Penn State, Student Tips for Solving Case Problems, http://tlt.its.psu.edu/suggestions/cases/studenttips/doit.html
Prof. K. Thomas Chandy, Case Writing Guide http://www.geocities.com/orgscience/case.htm
University of Westminster Business School, Houghton Mifflin, Case Studies http://college.hmco.com/business/resources/casestudies/students/analyzing.htm
University of Westminster- Westminster Business School, Analyzing a Case Study http://www2.wmin.ac.uk/haberba/4mbs601.htm#_Analysing_a_Case_Study
South-Western College – Preparing an Effective Case Analysis http://www.swlearning.com/management/hitt/hitt_student/case_analysis.html
McGraw-Hill, Guide To Case Analysis– http://www.mhhe.com/business/management/thompson/11e/case/prepare2.htm
How to Use the Fishbone Tool for Root Cause Analysis-https://www.cms.gov/Medicare/Provider-Enrollment-and-Certification/QAPI/downloads/FishboneRevised.pdf