Many case interviews include a section requiring the candidate to brainstorm a variety of ideas. These could include identifying new product ideas, ways to improve profitability, risks to consider, causes of cost increases, etc.
When asked to brainstorm, it’s important to do more than shoot an idea or two from the hip. Here are some tips on how to best approach the brainstorming section.
1. Build a Comprehensive Framework
When interviewers asked me to brainstorm ideas, I would always ask for a moment to organize my thoughts and build a framework. I would then make as comprehensive a framework as I could, and identify as many specific ideas as I could under the framework.
For example, if an interviewer asked me to brainstorm ways to improve the profitability of a company in decline, I might have three categories: (1) fix the declining product, (2) amplify the star products, (3) introduce new products. These 3 categories cover just about every possible idea.
Having a comprehensive framework will improve your creativity, ensure that you don’t miss any ideas, and show the interviewer that you’re an organized thinker.
2. Stay Organized on the Fly
Some interviewers will not allow you to take a moment to organize your brainstorming. Even if you have to shoot quickly, you shouldn’t be shooting from the hip. Stay organized even on the fly.
When this happens, you will usually be asked to brainstorm on an issue that doesn’t require lots of time to come up with a decent framework. For example, if you’re asked to brainstorm general ways to improve the profitability of a company, you should be able to instantly realize that finding ways to increase profits or decrease costs is a reasonable break-down. Profitability questions are particularly easy since you should also know that revenues break down into product mix, quantity sold, and price, while costs can be broken into fixed costs and variables costs (which can be broken into labor, materials, and overhead).
Even if you don’t instantly know a decent framework, try to think about how to categorize your initial ideas as you say them and build a framework from the bottom up. You might say a couple of ideas, and then point out that they both belong to some sort of category, which brings you to a second (third, fourth, etc.) category of ideas you can play with. Do whatever you can to appear organized and logical while letting your creativity shine through.
3. Be Specific
Everyone will say “improve marketing.” Not everyone can tell the interviewer how to improve marketing. Your ideas should be more than just identifying the components that need higher numbers. You should identify interesting methods for making those number higher. The devil is in the details, and it’s your job to go to the details and kick the devil out.
4. Be Plentiful
Sometimes an interviewer will ask for just a few ideas, but often an interviewer will say something like “tell me all the ideas you have for…” If they ask for all the ideas you have, then you should try to have lots of them.
In my final round of interviews at BCG, one of my interviewers asked me to tell him “all the ways we could improve the profitability of this business.” I took a quick moment to build a framework, then proceeded to spend 5-7 minutes stating idea after idea. I got some feedback from him, and he told me that “although none of [my] ideas were particularly creative, [I] was comprehensive and came up with just about everything [he] could have thought of, so [he] had to give it to me.”
I didn’t spend that 5-7 minutes explaining each idea in detail either. I would state the idea, state what would need to be true for the idea to be good, and move on to the next. For example, I might say “we can increase revenue by lowering the price. For that to work, our demand would need to be relatively elastic and result in a lot more quantity sold as a result of the dropped price. If our demand is inelastic, we could try raising the price.” Two ideas in three sentences/46 words. That’s quite enough for most ideas.
Your mind is an everlasting fount of ideas spilling a mess of creativity all over the place. Don’t dam up those floods for the interviewer; if the interviewer hands you a crowbar, release the halted potential in your reservoir.
5. Prioritize for the Interviewer
After you’ve given a bunch of ideas, you should tell the interviewer which one you think is most likely to be effective. If you plan on doing this, it can help you overcome any hesitancy against stating ideas that might not work, and show the interviewer that you can not only think comprehensively, but rule out unimportant parts.
Extra: Some Tools To Improve Creativity
Usually, candidates are most concerned about their ability to be creative. Consulting attracts a lot of logical minds, but many logical minds have had creativity beaten out of them in the name of structure and organization. Here’s how you can rejuvenate your spring of creative juices.
Constrain your thinking
You’ve probably heard that “Creativity Loves Constraints,” and your framework should be designed to help constrain you. As you channel your framework deeper and deeper, you impose new constraints on what to think about. For example, when people try to think of ways to improve profitability in general, they will often only give me ideas that either increase revenues or decrease costs. Whenever someone breaks profitability into revenues and costs, they will come up with ideas in both categories. The further down that your framework goes, the more specific your constraints will be and the better chance you have at being creative.
Making constraints also makes it easier to think outside the box because you’ll have a better idea of where the box begins and ends. It’s easy to think that you’re hopping out of a box when you’re just stepping around in a larger box. If you can find the edges, you have a better chance at getting out.
Make odd comparisons
I’ve heard rumors that the creators of the Apple “Clickwheel” that you find on iPods got the design idea when thinking about how easy and fun it is to spin a combination lock. Whether or not the story is true, making comparisons with otherwise unlike objects can spawn creativity.
This is easiest to conceptualize when trying to think of new or improved products, but with some practice it can help you come up with unique ideas in other realms as well. This technique isn’t necessary to nail a case, but it might give you an edge in coming up with ideas that your fellow applicants don’t think about.
Get familiar with the topic
One way to become innovative is to be very observant of the world around you. You should foster this skill in your everyday life, but spend time becoming familiar with business in general. The more you know about how things work, what ideas have been tried, and the attributes of successful companies, the better equipped you are to know how to think creatively.
You might think that becoming more familiar with the topic might put your brain in a rut, doomed to do nothing besides copy others. Although this happens to some, if you keep an active mind–questioning what you observe and thinking about how you would solve problems differently–familiarity can become a great benefit.
Familiarity can at least give you ideas of what to make your “odd comparisons” against. The more details you can draw from in the main topic, the more likely you are to think of a way to fix or improve it.
Brainstorming is not a time-filler in a case, but an opportunity to show that you can be a clear and original thinker. Performing well on the brainstorming section can go a long way toward differentiating yourself from an army of case-interview robots. Consulting firms want flesh more than machines, so show that you can put plenty of heart alongside your skin in the game.
Keep seeking truth.
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