Imagine if I could teach you, in less than 30 seconds, a way to structure any case interview question. Too good to be true, right?
Then let me share a story.
When I was a kid, I loved Tic Tac Toe. I was a competitive kiddo, so I was always playing to win. Then I found out a way to never lose again. It’s a simple algorithm, and it guarantees you either a victory or a tie. It took less than five minutes to learn, and now I could win every single time.
And suddenly the fun was ruined.
My friends quickly realized what I was doing, and they started doing the same. All matches would end in ties, so we stopped playing the game altogether. I had great power, but I didn’t use it with responsibility.
No simple algorithm guarantees success in any case interview. If there were, I’d be out of business. But by using opposite word pairs, you guarantee MECEness in answering any question.
Supply and Demand. Financial and Non-financial. Strategic issues and Operational issues. External and Internal factors. Short-term and Long-term. Make and Sell. There are dozens of pairs of words that mean the opposite. Because they mean different things and consider the whole problem, they provide a way to break down the problem that has no gaps and no overlaps. They guarantee MECEness.
Many candidates who stumble upon this method take this wildcard of opposite words as a blessing. They can now structure any case and never fear another case interview question again. The best part? You can learn this in thirty seconds.
And so can everyone else.
You will never get an offer if you rely too much on these opposite word pairs to structure your cases. One reason why is that any person can do it. It’s not good recruitment practice to select based on what anyone can do. Another reason lies in the reality of the consulting work…
Imagine a consultant who structures everything using opposite word pairs. A risk assessment project quickly becomes an assessment of External and Internal risks. A client in search of higher performance needs to think Strategically and also look for Operational improvements. A merger study soon becomes a study of Financial and Non-financial reasons to merge. Soon this consultant will be making Supply/Demand studies, lists of Pros and Cons and discussing the different implications of a decision in the Short-term and the Long-term. This consultant will have a structure to any problem, but absolutely no depth, no insight.
Structuring problems using opposite word pairs is a bit like cheating. You may feel smart at first, but soon interviewers realize what you’re doing, and you’ve just lost all your advantage. In the case of my Tic Tac Toe matches, my friends started using the same technique against me, and the game got boring. Had I used the algorithm less often, they’d never find out, and I’d win more often. In case interviews, using opposite word pairs to structure your problems is the lazy way out. Your interviewer knows it. It feels tempting to use regularly, but you won’t bring insight nor depth to the table.
So, am I suggesting you should never use this structuring technique?
Of course not!
Use opposite words, but use them wisely.
Two appropriate times to use it are when you need a quick structure just to organize speech and when you can’t find another type of structure to work with.
Using opposite words to structure communication can make your interviewer perceive you as a more structured candidate. You can use these quick structures to improve your communication when structuring is a nice-to-have and not a must-have.
But beware, this seldom happens in case interviews.
Almost every question you get asked requires structure. “What are a couple of reasons this company lost profits” needs structure. “What would you consider doing if your competitor dropped prices and stole your market share” needs structure. Any question. So when’s a good moment to use opposite word pairs? As a deeper layer of another structure.
Say you have a 1-layer or 2-layer structure to answer a question. You can always add an extra layer with little effort by using opposite words. This extra layer is a nice-to-have, and it’s really nice to have it. You should use all resources at hand to improve the interviewer’s perception of how structured you are.
Another situation to use opposite words as your main structure when you can’t find another structure. This is akin to doing my Tic Tac Toe trick: it’s ok to pull it off once in a while, but don’t use it too often – others will notice you’re a one-trick pony.
. . .
Opposite words are the last trick of the arsenal.
And they’re a lovely trick. Being able to generate instant structure is not only useful, it also helps with anxiety. You’ll never fear getting stuck again.
In this series we’ve seen the 5 techniques you need to master if your goal is to create MECE structures on demand. But that’s not your real goal. Your real goal is to impress your interviewer so much they’ll be thrilled to be interviewing you. You want to be so good they can’t reject you.
And to do that, you need not to create MECE structures on demand, but to create amazing, customized structures on demand. The easiest way to do this is to create customized issue trees, and I have good news for you. Creating a customized issue tree that delights your interviewer is no harder than to tie these 5 techniques together.
You’re already 90% of the way there. And the final 10%, how to tie there techniques together, is in the next part of this series.