In his popular book Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking author Malcolm Gladwell discusses one famous case of art forgery. The Getty Museum of Los Angeles reportedly paid more than $7 million for a stunning piece of Greek sculpture, the “Kouros,” a previously unknown work said to be from the 6th century BC. The problem was, it wasn’t. It was a fake. And, many experts interviewed after the discovery of the forgery said, “well… I had my doubts. The minute I saw it, it seemed off, wrong. You know… you could just tell.” Oddly, the more the Kouros sculpture was discussed, prodded, and scientifically examined, the more it seemed real.
Good writing, like good art and like the faces of friends, can be recognized. Good writing flows. It has rhythm. Seeming without effort, good writing conveys good thinking, and reveals the ideas behind the writer’s words.
To be “A” level material then, a written exam – whether it is an essay, a deposition on a question, or a case analysis – must reflect good writing. Good writing is a basic requirement of “A” level work. And after 30 years of reading student papers off and on, I think I know it when I see it.
It is often said that good writing makes for good thinking. The philosopher Heidegger was of this view. Heidegger (whose own works translated from the German are ponderous at best) argues that our being and the act of thinking are inextricable, and that words are essential for thought. Language is part of our being and our existence. Whether you admire this kind of high philosophy or call it mumbo jumbo, the fact is that your professor can’t know your ideas and your thinking, without seeing (or hearing) your words.
A well written case analysis has a few salient points:
- An executive summary captures the main question or issue, and prepares readers for what they are about to experience in detail in the pages that follow.
- The analysis pulls apart the facts (look up the definition of the root word “analyze”), and applies various rules and tools to the situation.
- The conclusions (or recommendations, as appropriate) flow logically from the analysis.
- The facts of the case are not restated endlessly. After just a brief review, the analysis begins.
The last point is a particular pet peeve of mine. Many student teams have presented 20, 12 or (even worse) 8 page case write-ups that begin with a 6 page recitation of the facts. After a page of introduction and 6 pages of facts (for a case that I likely wrote myself), I am left with maybe two pages of discussion. Not exactly room for deep thought or compelling arguments.
Some professors like a dramatic “reveal” of the big conclusions or recommendations at the end. I prefer knowing where I am going. Stating the problem and its solution upfront can prepare the reader. This will bolster your logic, and (I believe this may be a psychological trick in your favor) a reader will “fill in” small gaps or holes in your thinking, making his or her own connections between the facts and your recommendations. By telling me first where you are going I will “see” these connections as you move along the path. A beginning statement of the issues or problem should only be a few sentences, a half page at most. Save the supporting arguments for the heart of your work, the analysis.
Analysis is truly about pulling apart and dissecting the case. Obviously this requires knowing the facts, the history, the timeline and the various players. Save those factual details to support your analysis as needed – don’t repeat facts just in order to establish a timeline. And do not make the mistake that somehow repeating the facts, with an idea or two thrown in as a reaction here or there, counts for solid analysis.
The analysis should be logical – using the kind of syllogism you learned in high school geometry. Keep it simple, and fairly direct. “According to our projections Acme Corp. needs $500,000 to start. Professor Bloviate has shown angel investors are most likely to provide that level of funding (Source: Bloviate’s Book). Therefore, we recommend finding an angel.”
Cases are messy and complicated. So there are some natural decisions to be made on taxonomy and order. What do you label the issues you are discussing? How do you organize the issues? Do you react to the timeline in the case; organize by business discipline (finance, management, marketing, etc.); or list topics by some other priority (smallest minor issues, then major problem)? If you take the time to outline your analysis and your conclusions, you will likely see alternative ways to organize the case. And, a given case can be organized correctly in different ways. The “Nantucket Nectars” case can be about the elements of success in a startup, the financial valuation of an emerging firm, or the go vs. no- go decisions of an IPO. Does financial valuation go at the beginning, the end, or not at all in those respective write-ups? That’s where your thinking comes in.
Your ability to identify the problem is what is being tested. Lawyers call this “issue spotting.” Unlike a Scantron exam, life doesn’t present us with a neat series of questions. The business world is a stream of continuous, interlocking events that present murky challenges and fuzzy opportunities to those of us in it. So the diabolical (at least in the minds of students) case method used by business schools is a way to get you to come up with the questions. Picking the right rules and tools to apply to the case is your fundamental challenge.
A large part of the American MBA is a set of analytical tools, many in finance and in related numerical investigation, used to understand economics and commerce (read: business). Some of the tools are essential (time value of money; net present value; branding); some are shopworn (Porter’s Five Forces); others come and go (approaches to strategy such as MBWA and 6-Sigma). All have some value, when used in the appropriate setting and to think about a suitable problem. Not all tools are relevant for all problems. A start-up company with a new technology does not need Porter’s; there is no rivalry when there is no industry. NPV could be used when valuing a private home in real estate; comparable listings will do the trick in 1/10 the time (and will be more accurate). Picking among the technical tools is an important part of your analysis. Correct application of the tool, it should go without saying, is always necessary.
So for a case analysis to be “A” material, the student must use his or her tools, but sparingly and only as appropriate and applicable.
Outside sources of research will bolster your arguments. So, if you do cite Porter’s Five Forces, a quick reference to one of Michael Porter’s original works is valuable. Citations to articles, news reports, and even websites (with a caution on citation style) will all add to the credibility of your words. And a note on wikis, of any kind: don’t cite them. Use them, but don’t quote them. Wikipedia is, in some part, written by fifth graders. Not many youngsters and tricksters, but a few. The problem is that you don’t know if your subject was recently touched by such a young scholar. Use wikis to help guide you to sources that are either published by reputable authors (usually in print form), or peer reviewed (as in academic journals). Use common sense here, and use a simple test: Would your very demanding paying client be happy to see this? Telling the CFO of BB&T bank that you saw it on a twitter feed may not exactly win you kudos.
Students complain that the MBA culture seems to be highly numbers driven. I agree, but I do not complain. Numbers, including outside research, focus groups, statistical surveys and solid sources of data are objective ways of examining the world around us. I won’t quote the philosopher Karl Popper here, but take my word for some of his conclusions: fairly or unfairly, numerical analysis (when applied correctly) can bolster your conclusions about the world out there.
Details matter. Spelling and punctuation matter. Again, a simple rule: If I can hand the student’s work to a paying client of mine (I have a separate consulting business in the ‘real world’ with clients like MITRE, University of Miami, and the U.S. Census Bureau) and know that my client will be happy, then the student’s work product deserves an “A.”
Good writing is precise. It’s brief. It is entertaining, to a degree. All of this matters because good thinking is also precise, to the point, and entertaining in the sense that it is interesting.
Lastly, I encourage students to stop all this doing, and to just sit. Sit without the internet, the phone and the twitter feed, and think. Editing a written work is the best way to improve the product and improve your academic grade. The best approach (if there is time, and I know there is not always) is to finish up a day early, and then sit to think. Set your case aside for a day, and do nothing but think about it for a few minutes, or even an hour if you can. Only then go back to edit your answers one last time.
My students have complained over the years – sometimes bitterly – because I say there is typically no correct answer to a case. One student (after rating me the worst teacher he or she ever had) wrote on the course evaluation, “I don’t know what his answer is – I don’t know what the professor wants.” Well, it’s not my answer I’m looking for. There is no one right answer – and students with opposite conclusions will receive equally high marks if the paths to their answers are clear.
One of Heidegger’s better books I read in graduate school is titled What is Called Thinking? Thirty years later I’m still not sure, but I would say that when my students do it, thinking is definitely an “A.”