Q&A: Marc Cosentino on the art and strategy of case studies

Marc Cosentino | Courtesy of casequestions.com
Marc Cosentino | Courtesy of casequestions.com

Marc Cosentino has built a career out of case studies. Viewed as an authority on case questions and case interviews, Cosentino has helped thousands of students and professionals by tutoring them in the case study, a popular teaching and interviewing technique that requires people to assess and respond to a given business scenario.

Cosentino has written more than 100 case studies, and he’s author of the book “Case in Point,” a guide to help prepare people for case interviews.

When Cosentino started his business, he says, only a handful of industries gave case questions as a part of the interview process. Over the course of his career, he’s noticed the tactic expand to other industries.

Cosentino was in Columbia earlier this month to speak at the University of Missouri’s Robert Truslake College of Business. Missouri Business Alert caught up with Cosentino to discuss his career, how he looks for inspiration and some of the more interesting case questions he’s seen companies use on prospective employees.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Missouri Business Alert: What originally got you into case studies?

Marc Cosentino: I used to be manager of branch and product development for Fidelity Investments, and one day I got laid off with 1,400 other people and I saw a job listing for business counselor in career service at Harvard College. So I applied and got the job. All the major consulting firms came to recruit the Harvard undergrads, and they gave these things called case questions. And at that point no one really understood them. I don’t even think the consultants who were giving them fully understood what they were supposed to be looking for. So I interviewed the consultants, I interviewed the recruiters. I sat in on some interviews, debriefed the students and started gathering all this information. And it turned out I was the only one on all of Harvard’s campus to have any idea of what this was about. …

I wanted to write a book, but when you work for the faculty in Arts and Sciences at Harvard, they own everything that you write. … So I went over (to Harvard’s Kennedy School) and wrote the book within five weeks. And then within two years I started making more money off of book sales than I was off my Harvard salary. So I stayed there for two more years, because I liked the dual income coming in, and then I went out on my own and haven’t looked back.

MBA: Why is the work you do important?

MC: I like to think that I teach (students) to approach things a little differently. So case interviewing is really kind of critical thinking and problem solving all rolled into one. And a lot of times people will hear a problem, but they don’t know how to start. Or they don’t know how to approach it or go beyond shooting from the hip. A lot of times you’ll hear a question and you know what the answer is or you have a pretty good idea. But unless you do the analysis, the answer really isn’t worth much. I get pleasure out of teaching people how to think a particular way and getting them to look at things and analyze things.

MBA: How have your philosophies evolved over the years?

MC: Well, the first six editions of the book, chapter four is the Ivy Case System. They’re used to be 12 scenarios in there that they could look at. Entering the new market, increasing profits, that sort of thing. And I realized that even though there were 12, they were really only learning four. So I took the 12 and condensed them to the four most popular ones. And I didn’t lose any information because there was so much redundancy in the 12 that it just kind of streamlined their thought process.

MBA: Since you’re in such a niche business where do you draw ideas or inspiration from for all this?

MC: I read a lot. In fact, my reading list is The Wall Street Journal every day. It’s the McKinsey Quarterly, because that’s cutting-edge stuff written by practitioners who you can learn a lot just by reading. And also Businessweek, which kind of reports on problems companies are having and how they turned them around.

So when I write a lot of my cases, they basically come through two sources. One is I have this army of students out there — many of which I’ve never met personally — who send me the cases they get in these interviews. They basically send the initial problem. And then I’ll write a case based on that. I also rip through the headlines and write cases based on things that are going on. And then I sometimes just make them up.

MBA: What are some of the more ridiculous cases you’ve seen through your job?

MC: There are things called market sizing questions. And those tend to be the more ridiculous ones. (There) are two types of market sizing. One is kind of encompassed in a larger case where we’re trying to figure out the size of the U.S. television market or how many cars are driven around the United States. But then there are also the ‘who makes this stuff up?’ kind of questions. Like, how many feathers are on a chicken or how many jelly doughnuts fit inside the Leaning Tower of Pisa. How many pizzas would it take to reach the moon? I would be shocked if you got one of those from a consulting firm. But there are more companies and industries giving cases now.

MBA: Is there a certain type of case you like to write more than others, or do you try and diversify yourself with it?

MC: I try and mix it up. Right now I’m trying to work on a case on barriers to exit. Everyone thinks about barriers to enter a market. Well, there’s also barriers to exit most people don’t think about. So I’m trying to craft a case that focuses on the decision but then they realize there are some barriers to exit they need to consider before they make this decision. And one of the things that consultants like is that they don’t look at just one thing to make a decision; they focus on everything. And so this case will get them thinking about that.

MBA: Do you ever get writer’s block from writing cases? If so how do you deal with that?

MC: Well, I also like to write fiction. And I came across something that I discovered on my own, on how to never get writer’s block. So if I’m writing a chapter, I never finish the chapter. If I’m going to be done for the day, I never finish the chapter even if I know what’s going to happen at the end of the chapter. That way when I come back the next day, I reread what I wrote the day before and it gives me momentum because I know where I’m headed, and it allows me to jump into the next chapter. So I never sit down to a blank sheet of paper. I always have a running start when I see that blank sheet. Once I realized that, I’ve never had writer’s block.

Now with writing cases it’s different, because you’re not doing chapter to chapter, but you do the research. And being able to research a lot gives you those ideas.

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