(This article is part 2 of the series “The 5 ways to be MECE”, to go back to part 1, click here)
You know the dream: creating a custom structure for any case, in less than a minute, with the interviewer staring at you, in one of the most anxiety-ridden moments of your life.
If someone told me that was possible when I was preparing for case interviews the first time, I would’ve said they’d gone bonkers. “Everyone struggles to master even the simplest frameworks”, I knew back then. I had tried to learn some of the frameworks from Case in Point and probably stopped at number four or so. It was too much memorization. I couldn’t show my creativity if I limited myself to that.
Yet, when went through the process the second time, I had mastered the skill of creating a unique structure to any case, no matter how uncommon. In fact, I had learned to create many unique structures for any case.
I had learned how to never run out of structures.
How did I do that?
At the time I didn’t know that, but I had mastered 5 techniques every consultant masters sooner or later. Most people who joined McKinsey with me were skilled in these methods, even though no one really knew that. Back then, you had to learn to structure if you wanted to get in, but no one knew what different ways to structure a problem there were. You had to wing it.
It was only when Julio and I started coaching candidates throughout the process that we started noticing patterns. When our coaching clients learned and practiced these patterns, they had unlocked their own ability to create a unique structure to any problem.
Like a musician who learns scales to unlock her creativity and compose her own music, you can set yourself free from the chains of standardized frameworks by learning to apply these patterns and create your own structures.
The best part? Learning these won’t be as boring or take you as long as learning musical scales.
In this nine parts series, I’ll guide you through each one of these 5 patterns and show you how to use them effectively in your case practice and your case interviews.
You’ll grow from a mindset that structures are scarce and hard to create to one of abundance. Instead of struggling to come up with one structure for a case (and not really know if it’s actually good), you’ll be able to choose from many structures that pop into your head. You’ll have choice, and you’ll know how to choose.
Welcome to a world of an abundance of structures.
Imagine you enter interview room and the interviewer quickly shoots this question at you:
“Nespresso’s market share in the coffee capsules market has dropped in the city of London. The management of the company is worried about it. What are possible reasons you can think of that led to this drop?”
As a seasoned candidate, you control the urge to start listing random hypotheses. You know you need a structure or you’re out of the process. It’s a simple enough question. But can you find a structure?
Better yet: how many structures can you come up with to structure that problem? One? Three? Six? Try it on a piece of paper now.
Here’s how many structures I could come up with:
That’s 13 structures!
Clearly some are better than others. Most are pretty simple, and some are not even good. We could make even better structures by combining these techniques to create custom issue trees (as we’ll see how in Part 8 of this guide).
I’m not showing these many structures to show off or anything. I’m doing this so you can realize that for any given problem, you can create MANY structures that fit. All of them MECE, many of them good enough to impress your interviewer. If you can do that, you’ll never run out of structures again. As a true musician never runs out of great music to make, a real consultant never runs out of ways to look at a problem.
And you can learn this skill by understanding and practicing five simple patterns, which I have nicely grouped in the image above.
I have dedicated a whole article for each technique so you can get a deeper understanding of their usage and challenges, but before we go into that, let’s take a bird’s eye view into them.
There are three core techniques that you must learn. These are “Algebraic structures”, “Process structures” and “Conceptual frameworks”. The other two, “Segmentations” and “Opposite words” are easy to learn and will help you get out of tricky situations, but they aren’t as important. Conceptual frameworks are by far the toughest technique to master. You should expect to spend quite a bit of time working with them because they’re also the most versatile tool out there (especially for strategy cases).
Most candidates are used to using one Algebraic structure, the “Profitability framework” and one type of Conceptual framework, the “Business situation framework”. These are fine, but they’re very generic. To master structuring is to learn to craft a custom structure for each case. Nowadays, when everyone’s so prepared, this is the only way to virtually guarantee an offer from a top firm.
I’ve called the three most powerful MECE structuring techniques core techniques. You’ll use them over and over again.
The first group of structures are “Algebraic structures”. These are math equations. Many problems management consultants face are related to optimizing a certain metric. If this is the case, finding equations to that metric is one way of breaking down the problem. The most famous Algebraic structure is “Profits = Revenues – Costs”, but you can create equations for just about any metric, as I did for Nespresso’s market share problem.
A second group is called “Process structures”. You can look at some problems as a process with a beginning, middle, and end. Each step of the problem is a part of your structure. A coffee capsule market share problem, for example, can be seen through the eyes of the journey your customer goes through to choose your capsules in the store. A drop in your market share should be an issue in at least one part of that process.
The third core structuring type are “Conceptual frameworks”. Many call these “qualitative frameworks”. These are categories of ideas. One example of these are the 3Cs of strategy (Customers, Company and Competition). Another example are the 4Ps of marketing (Product, Pricing, Placement, and Promotion). It is much harder to build a MECE list of qualitative categories than to verify if an equation adds up or if a process has all the steps, so these structures are the hardest to use.
One way you can do that is to borrow models from academia (such as the 3Cs and the 4Ps) and adapt them to your specific problem. I did that for the Nespresso’s case, but it will only take you so far. Unless you spend hundreds of hours studying obscure frameworks from business textbooks (as I once did), you’ll be caught off-guard when you get a strange business problem or even a public sector problem in a case interview. These cases are getting more common every day. A reaction to the spread of candidates using standard structures that interviewers hate.
Another way is to learn to create your own conceptual frameworks from scratch. It is tough, but we can help you with that.
Memorizing frameworks may have helped you to get a sense of cases when you first started but it won’t help you get an offer. Riding a bike on training wheels is fine if you’re learning, not if you’re doing the Tour de France.
They’re hard, but conceptual frameworks are the most flexible technique you’ll always learn. They’re also key to developing strategy. That’s why McKinsey used the 3Cs for so long and also why we developed the Landscape Technique to help you create your own structures.
These three core techniques are the ingredients of building custom issue trees. (We’ll see how to create those in Part 8 of this series, after going through each technique). They’re also basic knowledge before you can learn a couple more advanced techniques to build structures from scratch.
Two more techniques render a MECE breakdown: segmentations and opposite words.
These techniques aren’t core techniques because they don’t stand-up on their own. You can solve a whole case (though not any case) by using any one of the three core techniques. But there’s no single case you can successfully solve by using these two, even if you combine them. I mean, you might get to the answer, but not to the next round.
These two techniques cannot give you enough insight to solve whole problems because they never bring you close to the root cause of a problem. Insight is all about getting closer to the real, underlying nature of a problem. These techniques get you no closer.
But they have their uses.
Segmentations are slices of the problem. Just like slices in a pizza, the parts you segment aren’t necessarily that different from each other. This is why they won’t get you to the root cause. But they are useful to help you get a feeling of the problem and create tentative hypotheses.
Let me use the pizza example to show what I mean by “getting a feeling”. Suppose only half of your pizza tastes good and you had to find out why. Say you segment your pizza into eight slices and four of them, all neighbors to each other, are burned. The other half are good. You probably have an issue with your baking process. You could rule out problems such as inferior flour quality or rotten tomatoes. The segments aren’t the root cause, but they may very well help you get a feeling of the problem.
Same with Nespresso’s market share problem: if your share is only dropping on the corporate segment, and not on restaurants or consumers, you probably have an issue with sales or pricing. You still have to fact-check that.
Segmentations are also the key to the “mix effect”, an issue you’ve got to keep in mind because it appears in about 50% of all case interviews and is the cause of many rejections. More on that in the specific article on segmentation.
So far so good. Three core techniques that enable you to break down any case interview into a structure that gets your interviewer delighted. Add to that segmentations as a great add-on to help you get a feeling for the problem and find “mix effect” types of problems. What, then, is the role of the “Opposite words” technique?
It is to get you instant structure on demand.
Opposite words as a way of structuring are never powerful. Any parrot can say “external vs. internal” or “supply vs. demand”. Really, you’re never going to impress any interviewer doing that. They can teach their 6-year-old nephew do that.
But opposite words are a powerful way to generate instant structure when you most need it. And it takes five minutes to master. It’s like using good olive oil in cooking: it makes the food better with almost no effort, even if you’d never call anyone a good cook just because they use tons of it.
Master these 5 techniques and you’ll NEVER run out of structures again.
I mean it. Never ever.
Even if you get a weird case. Even if you’d never heard about the industry before. Even if you’re so nervous you can’t even speak to your mom. (How could you ever be nervous if you can structure any case, by the way?)
These techniques will enable you to create simple structures to any problem. Eventually you’ll want to learn how to create more sophisticated structures, of the kind that gets a “wow” from even the most senior partners. To do that you’ll need to learn three techniques: issue trees, context-driven structures (unique conceptual structures you can create via the Landscape Technique) and objective-driven structures (the holy-grail of structuring a problem, the best of both worlds).
If you learn these three more advanced techniques (which require the mastery of the 5 techniques I’m showing you in this series of articles), you’ll never run out of GREAT structures again.
It’s not an easy path, but it’s a sure one into great firms like McKinsey, Bain and BCG. Most candidates feel their biggest problem is on structuring and nothing is surprising with that: we’ve learned math in school and most of us have learned business concepts and tactics in university or even daily life. But how many of us have been taught how to break down complex, interdisciplinary problems to make unique decisions?
It’s a difficult way, but it’s worth it. So roll up your sleeves and let’s get to work.
The next article in this series is on Algebraic structures. These are one of the three core techniques to structure any problem, and they leverage a skill you already have (math). I’ve seen coaching clients getting vast leaps of improvement in their structuring skills just by teaching them this.
Let’s get this going! It feels awesome never to run out of good structures to solve your cases.