“It is a capital mistake to theorize before one has data. Insensibly one begins to twist facts to suit theories, instead of theories to suit facts.”
If you have not read the above words before, you could easily assume them to have been spoken by a consulting guru who is outlining how best to solve a client problem. Of course, data and hypothesizing are the two foundations of any consulting solution. And how often have you heard of a consultant beginning his answer to a vexing question with the following words –‘It depends, can you give me more data?’
You might be surprised to know that the quote at the commencement of this blog post was in fact spoken by that great master of the art of observation and deduction, Sherlock Holmes. It comes from his famous case, “The Scandal in Bohemia.”
Now let me give you another nugget from Holmes, this time from ‘The Adventure of the Cardboard Box” –
“Let me run over the principle steps. We approached the case, you remember, with an absolutely blank mind, which is always an advantage. We had formed no theories. We were simply there to observe and to draw inferences from our observations.”
Prescient words before recruitment season, aren’t they?
My larger point is, if ever in life you want to feel like Sherlock Holmes and challenge your power of deduction and reasoning, come to business school and enroll yourself for some case competitions (that is before you sit for recruitment interviews, when the deductive calling can get a bit overwhelming). During my first quarter at Kellogg, I sat for three such competitions, discovered sadly that I was more of a Watson than a Sherlock, found that my JV had more creativity in suggesting solutions than I did, met some great “casemates,” found despair in sufficient amounts but joy only in little, and came out on the other side of it only to discover that all my insights had already been articulated by Arthur Conan Doyle and his brilliant detective more than a century ago.
Tales from the Trenches
So here I am, mumbling along with nothing better to do two days before Thanksgiving with Kellogg as my only audience for my case competition tales from the trenches.
Before you label me as a cribber, let me shed some light on the positives though. The case competitions are fantastic prep for those looking to understand how consulting works real time. Not only do they present you with a live problem but they also challenge you to think out of the box and use quantitative analysis and qualitative judgment to come up with the best solution amongst alternatives. Oh and yes, just to make sure the experience is like real life consulting, you get to play Sherlock, only for a limited amount of time. In my case, it was one week in the first competition (as an ex-consultant I can tell you that’s a lifetime), four hours in the second (in a way that is helpful because it makes you focus on “bang for the buck” core issues) and two days for the third. Case competitions are team events. Much like a consulting project, you are working in a team of three or four. The key is to leverage individual strengths, find adequate levels of participation and then present together with a credible face.
So what did I learn from the case competitions? For starters, two out of the three cases were based on the liquor industry and so now I can not only hold my glass but also hold an intelligent conversation about the state of the US liquor market. On more than one occasion those cases tempted me to uncork the bottle and let it tipple. So you see, it was an exercise in self-control as well, apart from the problem solving. More importantly, my last few assignments in consulting before coming to Kellogg had been one or two-person shows, and the case competitions allowed me to get back into the groove of discussing and solving real problems with a set of highly intelligent classmates. Whatever the outcome of the competition, the thing I relished the most was the brainstorming. We discussed ideas, slaved over slides, bounced theories off each other, and then finally stood together to present and get grilled by the judges.
Some of my key learnings? Three major ones I guess:
- Data crunching counts and whatever you suggest, have the numbers to back it up.
- When the time is short, focus on the one big picture idea and blow it out credibly.
- And this came more from my JV than from formal feedback, be a little creative and act like you are not in office. No partner is going to call you stupid for presenting an out of the box idea.
In some sense, I realize this was a precursor. The bigger battle lies ahead in internship recruitment. On average, each consulting firm tests you with three to four cases. Plenty of time to play Sherlock again, but with much higher stakes. In the meanwhile, I plan to savor my experiences. I am no case expert by any means – the only result I have to show for my efforts is a 3rd place spot in one of the competitions. I am richer though, in experience, having never done a case competition before. I am also richer in insight and prep for my interviewing. More importantly, I am richer in relationships – never once did I feel inadequate or lose confidence in the ability of my teams. Almost always, I felt lifted higher by them and almost always, when I fretted, I heard one of them say those golden words – ‘We will be alright.’ Ha! I bet you Sherlock never had Watson say that to him.
Aftab Khanna is member of the Class of 2015. He is from New Delhi, India and is currently attending the MBA program in close collaboration with his Joint Venture Yashika Khanna, who he credits solely for keeping him safe from FOMO, having him well-fed and prepared for school and being his best sounding board. Aftab is a bit of a social media addict, loves to watch any kind of sport and shares his thoughts on Twitter at @aftabkhanna.