What do you get when you combine a real-life HR business problem, a room full of PepsiCo products and snacks, and brainpower from 8 of the highest-ranked HR Master’s programs in the United States?
The 2018 HR Invitational Case Competition!
Every February, the Fisher College of Business invites teams from 7 of our peer schools to participate in the “External HR Case Competition,” giving students an opportunity to stretch their problem-solving muscles against students from other HR master’s programs across the country. This year, we had teams representing Cornell, University of South Carolina, Texas A&M, Rutgers, Minnesota, Illinois, and West Virginia University– and competition was fierce! (okay, friendly, but fierce)
The case competition is structured such that the business problem is presented by the sponsoring organization at 8:00am on Friday morning and teams have 24 hours to generate a solution, organize a pitch, and prepare to defend their ideas in front of a panel of judges from the sponsoring teams. This year, PepsiCo and Eaton co-sponsored the competition, providing both a challenging, real-life HR problem and a variety of Pepsi and Frito-Lay treats to keep teams sufficiently sustained over the course of the weekend.
The case is kept top-secret until the big reveal the morning of the competition to ensure no team gets an advantage. This year, the challenge turned out to focus on compensation. Specifically, Eaton wanted ideas for how to structure compensation for a new branch of the business which was home to mostly software developers and engineers. These folks did not fit into the traditional compensation structure, and they needed a compensation system to match and reward innovative product development. It was a doozy!
A variety of solid and creative ideas surfaced with the ultimate goal of driving innovation and retaining tech talent at Eaton. Some of my favorites include Hackathon, training simulations, and spot awards for extraordinary ideation. All of these were strategies to appropriately reward employees for innovation and to ensure they felt that the company invested in their success. Competition was tough and I am proud to report Ohio State took third overall.
Last year, I had the honor of representing Ohio State on the external team, so this year was all new for me as an observer. Although I wasn’t judging the competition, I sat through all the presentations and was able to glean some insight into what judges look for in a winning teams. A few of my takeaways are below.
Are you answering the question? But really, are you?
1. Answer the question. I recall a piece of general feedback from the judges last year. I remember it so vividly because it was both shocking and accurate. He said, “You’d be surprised how rare it is for us to see an answer that actually answers the question.” Thinking back on the day prior when we were prepping our presentation, it was so easy to lose sight of the “why.” You get caught up in wanting to be different, or creative, or edgy with your idea that you lose sight of the reason for the Ask in the first place. I cannot stress the importance of returning to “why” in every step of the ideation process, and especially when organizing your pitch.
2. Give them a road map. If this problem made it to the case competition in the first place, you can bet it’s complex. You can also bet on the fact that the organization has likely tried most of the obvious solutions. So think about it: the last thing you would want after having pored over an issue for months is an idea you can’t wrap your head around. So, your role as a consultant is to find the intersection between simple and clever. You want the judges to walk away with a clear understanding of the idea, and an even clearer understanding of how to go about implementing it. Give them a road map.
3. Don’t be something you’re not. People think that in order to win, you have to have all the answers (or at least convince the judges you do). This just isn’t true–at least not anymore. It is refreshing to see a team present with humility and authenticity–to be thought partners rather than parents telling them what they should do. Offer your recommendation, and what you believe are the positive consequences that will result from it. The best consultants built trust and buy-in by solving the problem with their client.
These are just a few of my musings after reflecting on last weekend. As always, I was impressed with the respect and graciousness of all teams that attended. Not only was it a robust learning experience for students, but I think Eaton got some exceptional ideas for solving their challenge.