Every winter, The Fisher College of Business holds an Internal Case Competition for the 1st Year MBAs. It is a typical case competition for the most part. Students form teams of four (typically between half and three-quarters of a graduating class participates, or between 60 and 100 students). Students arrive on campus early Friday morning and are given a case, or a 10 to 20 page document describing a business, its current industry conditions and a decision faced by management. Cases can either be traditional (a past business situation that has since been resolved) or live (a business situation the company is facing today). Teams have approximately 24 hours to formulate recommendations and prepare a presentation to be delivered to a panel of judges the following morning. Judges tend to be alumni or professionals selected because they hold some expertise and/or knowledge of the case industry and its challenges. The Fisher Internal Competition is sponsored every year by Ernst & Young so many of the judges are consultants. The teams deliver a 25 minute presentation during which they are challenged by the judges with critical questions. The judging panel then decides upon a best presentation, best presenter and best Q&A award.
Last week I had the chance to be involved with the Fisher MBA Internal Case competition for the 2nd time, this year as one of the competition time keepers, which was quite a learning experience. Having competed in 3 case competitions last year (including the Internal), I wish I would have had the opportunity to be a timer before competing in any of them. Timing a room allowed me to listen to the deliberations the judging panel had after each presentation, as well as the final discussion when they selected the award winners. Many points arising in these discussions took me by surprise…
First was the discrepancy between what students believe to be important to win Case Competitions and what the judges emphasize in their evaluations. For example, in my experience during competitions, I remember being fairly worried about finishing all of our presentation within the time limit. While timing this year, only one of the four teams was able to complete their presentation, a result of the judges interrupting their progress with questions (and this team was not the final room winner). During the evaluation period, I was surprised that the judges placed little emphasis on whether or not a team finished. In fact, in one instance, they blamed themselves for a team’s inability to finish their presentation admitting that “they asked too many questions.”
Additionally, students tend to think that having four strong presenters is necessary to win a competition. However, it was evident during the presentations in my room, and during the judge’s deliberations, that the teams that worked collaboratively gave stronger presentations. And the teams that appeared to work the best had complimentary skill sets. There might be one or two very strong presenters on these teams, but there was also at least one team member who had very strong quantitative and analytical skills. That team member may not have even had a specific role in the presentation but might have stepped up to answer some of the more technical or numerically oriented questions.
Lastly, I was very intrigued when observing the judges deliberate over who would be the overall room winner. A handful of judges gravitated immediately to the team with the strongest presenters, or those members with the most poise, clarity, eye contact, etc. However after 10 minutes of discussion, the judges shifted their focus to the specific recommendations or strategy presented by each group. They discussed the feasibility of each presentation and which strategy they agreed with. At one point, one of the judges said “if I were the CEO of this company, which of these teams would I want to hire to address this decision?” This question eventually swayed the other judges to vote for a team that did not deliver the best presentation, but had the soundest strategy.
In conclusion, if I were to compete in another case competition, I would have spent more time researching the backgrounds of the judges to better predict what they would emphasize in their evaluations!