A Model for Case Analysis and Problem Solving

ABOUT THIS CONTENT

A good introduction to case analysis, containing the following material: - Why We Use the Case Approach - Your Responsibilities - The Six Steps for Problem Analysis 1. Comprehend the Case Situation: Data Collection, identify relevant facts 2. Defining the Problem 3. Identify the causes of the problem 4. Generate Alternative Solutions 5. Decision 6. Taking Action - General Reminders / Check List - Writing Tips - Final Comments
Source: Professor Edward G. Wertheim | Northeastern University
| visit original source   Subject: Case Work

Why the Case Approach

The most effective way for learning to take place is to actually be in real situations, make decisions, deal with the consequences of those decisions, and learn from our real mistakes. Nothing will ever replace learning from experience. Cases (which involve real situations although names may be changed) allow us to "simulate" real life situations when we don’t have the luxury of having years of experience. Cases allow us (to some degree) to live with real situations, make decisions, and feel the consequences. Like scientists in a laboratory, students of management use case problems and experiential exercises as "laboratory" opportunities to experiment with real organizations in the classroom setting.

Cases attempt to reflect the various pressures and considerations managers confront in everyday organizational life. By using complex real world problems as a focus, cases are designed to challenge you to develop and practice skills that will be appropriate to the practical problems you will face in your career.

The case method is based on the learning principle that learning occurs most when people teach themselves, through their own struggles. You will gain greater understanding and improved skills in judgment when you work through a problem than if you listened passively to a lecture. Similarly, there will be greater learning if you "use" a theory than if you just heard about it. Therefore cases have two basic uses:

  1. Helping us learn how to apply theories to real situations
  2. Helping us learn how to solve real problems

Like real situations cases center around an array of partially-ordered, ambiguous, seemingly contradictory and reasonably unstructured facts, opinions, inferences and bits of information, data, and incidents out of which you must provide order by selectively choosing which bits to use and which to ignore. In real life others won’t do this for us. As in real life situations, it is unlikely that any two people would assemble the data or make inferences identically. You will have to work within the limitations inherent in evidence and arrive at internally consistent interpretations. Experiencing the process of learning this way may be frustrating and confusing, but it is also practical and realistic.

Cases, as in real management situations, require you to work with the "as is" of reality, not the "should be" of theory. Like managers you will have to exercise judgment which can be improved by discussion and consultation with others. However, note that like the manager, you will seldom be sure before your decision is made and often after it is made, that you have made the right or "best" decision.
Like any manager, you will approach cases under time pressure, on the basis of limited facts, and in the face of many unknowns. You will approach cases along with other people who like you have idiosyncrasies and limitations, and different opinions.

In summary, cases have a number of benefits:

  • They allow us to develop skill in thinking clearly about ambiguous, unstructured situations using incomplete information;
  • They help us to develop skills at recognizing what information is important and what is missing
  • They help us to develop concise, reasonable, and consistent action plans;
  • Help you to identify implicit models and assumptions, values and goals you use every day
  • They provide an opportunity to develop skills in presenting (written and oral) our ideas to people and to groups; to influence and persuade others
  • Improve your ability to predict behavioral outcomes-yours and others

Your Responsibilities

Little can be learned from a case without preparing it carefully and discussing it with others. Cases are not designed to present you with a right answer which you can memorize in the hopes that you will remember it if you ever encounter a similar situation. Similarly you won’t gain much from listening to what others think is the right answer. The learning comes from actively participating in the search for solutions. Cases are the raw materials that permit simulation in the classroom of actual discussions carried on informally among managers.

Preparation: Cases require more preparation and active participation than most class activities. How much you get out of a case discussion depends heavily on how much effort you put into preparing it before class. Many students confronting cases for the first time are overwhelmed; they see so many factors that come into play. Facts are confusing and ambiguous and often incomplete. This guide is intended to help you walk through the critical steps.

Informal Discussion Groups: After preparing a case by yourself, it can really help to meet with a group of other students to talk about a case before class. This will give you a chance to test your ideas on others and learn about other perspectives about the case.

Participating in Class Discussions: The purpose of the class discussion is to test others ideas so that together students can reach a richer and deeper understanding of the case. The role of the discussion is to moderate and create an environment in which contributions of individual students build on one another to understand the problem more fully. The instructor’s role is not to answer. The instructor may highlight, synthesize the issues and help shape the discussion.

The quality of the class discussion depends on the quality of the students’ preparation and participation in class. The class should be considered a team of colleagues that has been asked to work together to solve a challenging problem. This requires good team members to push ideas and support them. Good class also requires an emphasis on listening; others will raise ideas you hadn’t thought of and you should be prepared to change your mind and incorporate new ideas when you find them persuasive.

Try to have your ideas build on the comments of others. Don’t be afraid to be challenged or to be wrong. Sometimes students leave a class discussion discouraged because many issues and arguments that were raised that they had not considered before class. Remember that no case would be worth discussing if it were simple and straightforward enough for you to have figured it out on your own.

The classroom should be a place where you can test ideas and learn from each other. Finally enjoy yourself. There should be a lot of satisfaction in struggling with a complex problem and through your efforts, coming to a better understanding of it.

Preparing a Case: Six Steps for Problem Analysis

The checklist is presented as a framework for diagnosis, problem-solving, and managerial action taking. Note that few if any situations that you will experience will require that you consider every element listed here. Management is a dynamic, ongoing process that never takes place as sequentially or rationally as this list would imply. In most real-world situations, as opposed to case discussions in class, you already know a great deal about the people and prior experiences that are relevant. In addition, events never turn out exactly as you anticipate them.

Step 1: Comprehend the Case Situation: Data Collection, Identify Relevant Facts

Most cases require at least two readings, sometimes more; the first time through should involve familiarizing yourself with the basic situation; you may be given some guide questions to help you and you also might think about why the case was assigned now. There are some standard questions that you might keep in mind as you read the case:

  • What are the key issues in the case; who is the decision maker in the case; is there a critical decision?
  • What is the environment in which the key people operate; what are the constraints on their actions; what demands are imposed by the situation?
  • Are solutions called for?
  • If you had the chance to talk to critical people in the company, what would you want to know?
  • What are the actual outcomes of the current situation-productivity, satisfaction, etc; how stable are present conditions?
  • What are the "ideal" outcomes; what is an ideal "future" condition?
  • What information is lacking; what are the sources of the available information?

Managers and students rarely have complete information and must rely on inferences. Be prepared to make creative assumptions; good analysis goes beyond identifying the relevant facts in the case. If some facts aren’t given, figure out what you can assume they are.

Rereading: After the first reading, try to formulate several plausible courses of action and explanation for the data in the case. Imagine yourself as various key people in the case and figure out why you (as the person in the case) might have acted as he/she did, or what you would do. Think about the consequences if you are wrong.

Using evidence and numbers: One of the most difficult problems in preparing a case is sorting through the mass of information and evidence. Often cases involve considerable background information of varying relevance to the decision at hand. Often cases involve conflict with different actors providing selective information and courses of action to support their claims. As in real life, you must decide what information is important and what isn’t and evaluate apparently conflicting evidence.

As in real life, you will be faced with a lot of information but perhaps not exactly the information you need. It is not uncommon to feel paralyzed by all the available information; it is difficult to identify the key information after the first reading. You should be slightly skeptical about the information presented or the interpretation placed on it by various actors in the case. You won’t have time to question all evidence in the case but if the evidence is critical, you might ask yourself what it really implies and whether it is as compelling as it seems.

As you read the case keep in mind:

  • remember that all behavior is caused, motivated, and goal-directed; behavior may see strange, or "irrational" but you can assume it makes sense to the actor
  • separate fact from opinion; distinguish between what people say vs. do
  • it might be possible to get more information about the case (eg. the industry) but for the most part you will be asked to do your best with the information available
  • separate symptoms from underlying causes
  • avoid judgments; avoid premature solutions

Step 2: Defining the Problem

What is the critical issue or problems to be solved? This is probably the most crucial part of the analysis and sometimes the hardest thing to do in the whole analysis. Perhaps the most common problem in case analysis (and in real life management) is that we fail to identify the real problem and hence solve the wrong problem. What we at first think is the real problem often isn’t the real problem.

To help in this stage here are some questions to ask in trying to identify the real problem:

  • where is the problem (individual, group, situation) why is it a problem; is there a "gap" between actual performance and desired performance; for whom is it a problem and why
  • explicitly state the problem; are you sure it is a problem; is it important; what would happen if the "problem" were left alone"; could doing something about the "problem" have unintended consequences?
  • what standard is violated; where is the deviation from standard
  • what are the actual outcomes in terms of productivity and job satisfaction; what are the ideal outcomes
  • how do key people feel about the problem and current outcomes
  • what type of problem is it ?(individual, relationships, group, intergroup, leadership/motivation/power, total system)
  • how urgent is the problem? How important is the problem relative to other problems?
  • assess the present conditions:
  • What are the consequences; how high are the stakes; what factors must and can change?
  • for the organization (costs and profits; meeting obligations; productivity)
  • for the people (personal and financial rewards; careers; satisfaction and growth)
  • How stable are present conditions?
  • What information is lacking?
  • What are the sources of the available information?

Traps in this stage:

  • suggesting a solution prematurely-stating a problem while implying a solution
  • stating problems in behavioral (personal) terms, not situational terms
  • not explicitly stating the problem-assuming "your" problem is "the" problem
  • blindly applying stereotypes to problems; accepting all information at face value; making premature judgments; multiple causality
  • most crucial at this step is to avoid suggesting a solution
  • confusing symptoms with causes; differentiating fact from opinion; prematurely judging people and actions
  • stating the problem as a disguised solution (eg. Hardesty’s failure is due to his not visiting purchasing agents)

Step 3: Causes

Once you have identified the key problem(s), try to find the causes here. Most critical here is avoiding solutions, and avoiding blaming or judging people. Also

  • don’t quit at the most obvious answer-try playing devil’s advocate; put yourself in the other person’s shoes
  • accept the multiple causality of events
  • there may be a number of viable ways to fit the data together; explore as many as you can; go past the obvious
  • there is a great tendency to evaluate behavior as good or bad; I care about why it occurred; judgments leads to a poor analysis focusing on justification for the evaluation
  • the concern is not whether behavior is good or bad but why it occurred and its consequences
  • be careful about hindsight; actors in the case usually don’t have access to outcomes when they act so avoid "Monday Morning Quarterbacking"-consider what actors in the case are reasonably likely to know or do
  • as before, avoid premature solutions and premature judgments

Step 4: Generating Alternative Solutions (not all assignments will call for this)

In thinking about a context for generating alternatives, think about:

  • what are the decision-maker’s sources of power in the situation? (legitimate, reward, punishment, expert, referent)
  • what are possible leverage points (changing technology such as machines, processes, product designs; changing organizational structure; changing reward systems, job descriptions education, changing personnel, changing culture)
  • can individual behavior be changed (education, training, reward systems, job description, etc.)
  • what are the constraints on the solution? (time, money, organizational traditions, prior commitments, external realities, legal etc)
  • what are the available resources (time, money, people, existing relationships, power)
  • should others be involved (in problem definition, data collection, generating alternatives, implementing solutions, monitoring and assessing realities)
  • In this stage it is important to avoid reaching for a solution too quickly; be creative here and put yourself in the case. Try living with various alternatives that you are thinking about; what would be the impact on you and on others. Be sure to think about the costs and benefits of each alternative.

Step 5: Decision (note that not all assignments will call for a solution)

In considering the alternatives generated above you need to be clear on the criteria you will use to evaluate them. Some possible criteria include:

  • does the alternative address the critical aspect of the problem? What are your objective? Be specific.
  • what are the intended consequences; what are some unintended possible consequences; how will your decision improve the situation
  • what is the probability of success; what are the risks; what happens if the plan fails
  • what does the plan depend on? What are the costs? What power and control is needed?
  • who would be the "change agent" Does he/she have the power, skills, knowledge to be successful
  • is the "solution" consistent with organizational realities

Remember that there is no one "elegant" solution; all solutions have costs and benefits; identify pros and cons of each alternative; evaluate relative to goals; look at main and side effects you may have to make inferences and judgments; do this as long as you have good reasons for your inferences Choose alternative which best meets the criteria. The decision might not be accepted by those involved so you may have to choose a more acceptable one. You might want to rank order your alternatives according to how well they meet the criteria used. as you think about action, put yourself into the case; try to project living with the consequences

Step 6: Taking Action and Following Up

In thinking about implementation you want to think about these areas:

  • what are leverage points for change-technology, reward systems, work relationships, reporting relationships, personnel changes
  • what are the decision maker’s sources of power: legitimate, reward, expert, referent, etc?
  • what are the constraints on a solution: time, money, organizational policies, traditions, prior commitments, external realities
  • does culture have to change; what historical relationships must be respected
  • implementation-will people resist change; is change being reinforced; is a new stability developing
  • monitoring changes-are further changes necessary; are costs and benefits of changes as expected
  • make sure you have thought about the ramifications of implementing the plan; how will you address them

Action Plans: provide options for meeting specific objectives should include: a brief description of the plan, costs, benefits, drawbacks

Some simple models are helpful in thinking about implementation. One involves thinking about implementation as involving three stages:

  1. Unfreezing: Making sure those affected feel the need for change
  2. Change: introducing the change
  3. Refreezing: Reinforcing the new behaviors

General Reminders/Check List

  • remember you will never have enough information!
  • the most critical aspect of case analysis may be "identifying the problem"
  • you will never be sure you have identified the real problem
  • there is rarely one "right" answer-different answers may be somewhat right

Accept that cases and managerial situations involve:

  • ambiguous situations multiple causality inadequate information
  • no elegant solution
  • acknowledge that personal values play a role in case analysis
  • no one (including the instructors) can "solve" the case
  • try to imagine "living" with the problem and your recommendations

Try to avoid:

  • blindly applying stereotypes to problems accepting information at face value
  • confusing symptoms with problems making premature evaluations
  • judging behavior-we assume no one is "good" or "bad"; labelling people as such is an easy way to dispense with problems of trying to figure out why someone does what he does
  • don’t assume you are so much smarter or better informed than managers you observe or read about that you can readily solve problems they have been dealing with for years
  • managers involved may understand their problems better than you do and act the way they do for reasons that are sound to themselves

Writing Tips

  • while it is critical to follow the above advice on case analysis, much of this analysis may not appear in your paper. The analysis is required to generate material for your memo but may not necessarily appear in it
  • think carefully in your writing who your audience is
  • assume your reader is a little dense; write in a form that is easy to digest-good introduction, subheadings, manageable paragraphs, clear topic sentences, clear transitions
  • provide a strong introduction; give your reader a reason to read the analysis; give the reader the "benefits"
  • in a memo, you can only convey one or two main points; make sure the reader knows what they are; make sure your introduction provides a clear "road map" for where you are going; reinforce this in the conclusion
  • use models/theories in your analysis, but you may not necessarily "leave" these "tools" in your document.

Final Comments

Case teaching is a lab experience. It is low risk and participative. It does not provide "how to" or surefire techniques. Students sometimes express dissatisfaction with cases. "Information is ambiguous, redundant, irrelevant; the issue isn’t stated clearly; the instructor isn’t directive enough; we never know the "right" answer; the instructor should lecture more."

These comments are legitimate. But for the most part the difficulties associated with case teaching stem from real situations themselves. These are the same dilemmas you will face as managers.

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