Wednesday, December 19, 2012

The 24-Hour Case Competition

Overnight case competition? Yes, it is exactly what it sounds like. A case competition that starts the first day at 4.30 pm and ends the following day around 3 pm. While 24 hours seems like ample time, the hours pass by quickly when you’re rushing to finish at a decent hour so you can get some sleep (if any).

I won’t reveal the firm behind the overnight case but it was sponsored by a top consulting company, which alone was a compelling reason to participate. The afternoon started off with an introduction to the team, the hypothesis-driven approach, and the case itself. The company provided guidance on how to approach the situation and structure our thoughts. Then each team was on their own for the rest of the night to come up with a proposal and compile a visually appealing powerpoint deck to present the following morning. At 6 pm, it seems like you have a lot of time, but before you know it’s 9 pm and you’re still sifting through piles and piles of data and charts. You have access to more information than you could possibly need or use, which mimics a real-life consulting case very well. You need to avoid the temptation to boil the “ocean” and instead focus on the key pieces of information that will support your proposal.

At 10 pm, the consultants were generous enough to provide us with pizza and soda for a study break then we were back to it into the early hours of the morning. At times, we would each work quietly on our own, while at other times we would discuss each piece of data as a group. It was a balance trying to figure out where to direct our focus. We eventually started putting together our powerpoint, though perhaps in hindsight, maybe we should have waited until our thoughts were more fleshed out. But we wanted to get something down on paper. We tried to include a good mix of supporting data, including graphs, numbers, charts, and visuals.

When we hit a roadblock, we would take a quick break and regroup. This late (or rather, early), our energy was waning and we were about 95% done. At this point, it is important not to let the perfect become the enemy of the good (also known as the 80/20 rule) – you don’t have a lot of time so you may need to choose wisely where you focus. Each incremental minute you are awake is taking away from sleep. If you spend 10, 20 or 30 more minutes, will your presentation really be that much better?

We ended up finishing around 5.30 am and had to be back for our presentation at 9.40 am. We met at 8.40 am so we could run through our presentation out loud. The next 30 minutes were a blur of presenting and Q&A. The consultants were tough but fair. The whole presentation was akin to a real client case jammed into less than 24 hours. At lunch, we found out that we did not make it to the next round but we did receive personalized feedback from the three consultants who watched our presentation. The feedback was the most valuable part of the entire experience and made the competition worth it.

I leave you with my takeaways:

  • Participate in as many case competitions as you can but know that they are competitions and you may not win them all. Even if you do not win, they are still very valuable learning experiences. As they say, you often learn more from failure than from success.
  • If you participate in one that is “overnight” try to at least get a few hours of sleep (or at least go home, shower, and refresh yourself). You do not want to be tired for the presentation.
  • Before diving into the case, take a few minutes to individually brainstorm and really think outside the box. Throw out lots of random ideas, the crazier the better. It’s easier to narrow down ideas than to try to go broad later on.
  • Keep it light and have a sense of humor. Do not get too caught up with winning.
  • Choose your team wisely (if you have the option). You will be spending a lot of time with them. You also want to have a good mix of strengths and skills.
  • Take breaks, especially if there seems to be tension among the teammates.
Have fun! If you do not enjoy case competitions, then consulting may not be for you.

Beth Lovisa, Forté Fellow

MBA 2014, Stern School of Business at NYU

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