A framework for frameworks

Key to frameworks

Let’s talk about the f-word of case interviewing.

Framework (noun): the basic structure of something.

So for case interviewing, a framework is a ‘basic structure’ for solving the case. Put simply, it’s your approach. It’s meant to make the case easier to solve by breaking a big, ambiguous problem into smaller, solvable parts.

Makes sense right?

Yet many candidates struggle to formulate an approach, and are subsequently given feedback that they “didn’t drive the case” or “used a generic framework.” Candidates I’ve spoken to talk about the stress of choosing the right framework because popular case prep resources coach them to

“Match specific case-situations to specific problem-solving frameworks.” 

They’ve been taught to think of the framework as something to get right. But the framework isn’t something to get right. It’s something to help you think. To exacerbate this, many candidates work hard to memorize frameworks. So instead of thinking, they are recalling. This is detrimental for a few reasons:

1. Interviewers are trying to assess how candidates think, not their recall, since consulting is all about problem-solving.

2. Research on the human brain reveals that memory functions are performed by the temporal lobe, while problem-solving, reasoning and social functions are performed in the frontal lobe. In other words, focusing on recall engages a part of the brain that doesn’t perform functions in thinking or in holding a conversation.

3. If none of the memorized frameworks fit or if the candidate can’t remember a framework, they experience an ‘oh crap’ moment like forgetting something during an exam. This is what medics call ‘acute stress.’ Studies show that acute stress leads to a biological response where neurotransmitters (e.g. adrenaline) are released, facilitating fast physical reactions but inhibiting the ability to handle social or intellectual tasks. Unfortunately, interviewers are not at all interested in physical speed but very interested in social and intellectual skills! Of course, well-prepared candidates know this even as they freeze up, leading to more acute stress, and voilà! We have a vicious cycle. It’s no wonder these candidates are blurting out generic frameworks and not driving the case.

It’s both unfortunate and ironic when a tool meant to help ends up hindering. So how can a framework be used as intended, to facilitate thinking?

The best candidates I’ve seen make terrific use of hypotheses as a precursor to a framework. Here’s what they do:

1. After listening to the case description, they don’t play back the case but shortcut straight to clarifying questions. In doing so, they indirectly confirm the case issue while engaging the interviewer in a conversation about the client and what could be causing their issue. This is efficient and inevitably leads the candidates to form a…

2. Hypothesis (noun): an idea or theory that is not proven but leads to further study or discussion.
They’ll say something like “I think the answer is probably X. To prove that, I want to look into
a) [e.g. break-even volume]
b) [e.g. possibility of cannibalization]
c) [e.g. impact on brand]

Notice how (a), (b) and (c) look a lot like a…framework! It takes a large problem and breaks it into smaller pieces. And unlike any memorized framework, it is both specific to the case and specific to a clearly stated hypothesis. Better still, there is now a clear path for the candidate to ‘drive the case’.

3. These candidates then gather data related to each part of their framework. This is in stark contrast to the data-fishing that often occurs when candidates don’t have a clear hypothesis. Interviewers are eager to provide relevant information, but can only do so when candidates have a rationale for the data they are requesting (this is exactly like working with clients in real life – they like to know what you are looking for and why before handing over sensitive data). Once the candidate has the data, they can analyze it for insights, circle back to the hypothesis and move toward a conclusion.

For an interviewer, the hypothesis-driven approach is a much more enjoyable conversation than the over-prepared-framework-matching-robot approach. It’s also much more informative, as it allows the interviewer to see how the candidate leads a conversation, thinks about a problem, works independently and applies business judgment – the core skills of a successful consultant.

So as you prepare for your interviews, try using the f-word a little less, and the h-word a little more. Good luck!

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