Top 10 Case Interview Frameworks: Beginner Mistakes

“Which framework to use?” is probably among the most common questions popping up in a candidate’s mind when confronting a case.

This definitive guide will not only answer that question by introducing a few common frameworks, but also tell you HOW to use those frameworks more effectively during case interviews, and what pitfalls you should be aware of.

Case interview frameworks – Overview

What are case interview frameworks?

Case interview frameworks are templates used to break down and solve business problems in case interviews. A framework can be off-the-shelf or highly customized for specific cases; it can also be tailored for certain functions/industries, or versatile enough for general problem-solving.

Common case interview frameworks include:

  • Profitability Framework
  • Business Situation Framework
  • McKinsey M&A Framework
  • 4P and 7P Frameworks
  • Porter Five Forces Model
  • External vs Internal
  • Qualitative vs Quantitative
  • Cost vs Benefits
  • 2×2 Matrix (e.g.: BCG Growth-Share Matrix)
  • SWOT Analysis

All of these frameworks will be discussed later in this article.

During a case interview, you use consulting frameworks to break down the problem into smaller pieces through an issue tree and test each branch to see if the root-cause is in there. If a branch indeed contains the root-cause, you break it down further. Rinse and repeat until the root-cause is identified.

The big part of problem solving is about breaking down the problem in almost every step of the case.

So in simple language, consulting frameworks provide templates and suggestions to break down problems and branches!

What should I keep in mind when using consulting frameworks?

Templates should be treated as guidelines, and not strict rules. The same applies to case interview frameworks.

In the past, case interviews were much more predictable, and frameworks were more applicable. However, nowadays, case interviews are more similar to real business problems, where frameworks need a lot of customizations (you’ll see this word repeated a lot in this article) to be useful.

In fact, the whole consulting industry exists on the basis that consultants can customize theory to real, difficult business situations and produce positive results; nobody pays hundreds of thousands of dollars for them to recite a textbook – any college freshman can do as much.

That’s why in my Case Interview End-to-End Secrets Program, I don’t teach candidates to use frameworks – instead, the focus in on the fundamentals of case interview (problem-solving and business intuition) as well as the tips and techniques for instant performance improvement.

How can I use consulting frameworks effectively?

Here’s a problem with case interview beginners – they tend to go straight for the frameworks, before even knowing the basic mechanisms and principles of case interviews.

If you are one of those beginners, you must first grasp the basics of case interviews – the fundamentals of case interview problem-solving, the issue tree, and the MECE principle. I have written extensive, separate guides on these topics, but for starters, I advice you to read this Case Interview 101 comprehensive guide. 


Busting case interview framework myths

Myth 1: “The more frameworks I know, the better”

Before we proceed with the popular frameworks in consulting and case interviews, here are four huge myths about frameworks you should steer clear of.

Spend your time learning to draw customized frameworks/issue trees instead. Case interviews are getting progressively more realistic and less conforming to specific frameworks, so trying to memorize dozens of frameworks is of no use.

Additionally, you should attend to the qualitative side of things, to deeply absorb each framework and its use; skimming the surface will come back to bite you later.

Myth 2: “There must be a framework out there that fits this case”

Ready-made frameworks CANNOT cover all kinds of situations. Even regarding the ones covered, existing frameworks are often “okay-fit”, but not perfectly fit.

Just create a framework/issue tree yourself. Nobody deducts your points for not using a ready-made tool, they even give you points if you can customize it.

Myth 3: “The fancier the framework, the more impressed the interviewer”

You are definitely not wooing anyone by being fancy-schmancy here. Nobody cares about your shiny frame if it does not fit with the picture.

Consultants are very practical and result-oriented people; what impresses them are candidates who really know what they are talking about, and actually produce good results.

What’s worse is that you also run the risk of appearing superficial; it’s not difficult for consultants with years of experience in the field to fully expose your bluffing. If that happens you may as well say goodbye to your chance of getting hired.

Myth 4: “Knowledge of frameworks is irrelevant in interviewer-led cases”

The assumption underlying this myth is that in interviewer-led cases, the candidate is not the driver of the case, so he or she does not need to actively break down the problem.

This cannot be further from the truth. Many questions in interviewer-led cases are about frameworks/issue trees (“What factors would you consider to solve this problem?”).

Even with other question types you still need to structure answers like a mini-case. Appropriate knowledge of frameworks, as such, is still a MUST.


Five common case interview frameworks

Profitability framework

Profitability is the most common problem type in case interviews – that means the Profitability Framework is the first one to master for every prospective consultant. You have to absolutely nail it every time, there’s no way around it.

In case interviews, the Profitability Framework is used to mathematically break down the problem, before switching to more qualitative frameworks to devise solutions.

Most of the time, the framework looks like this:

What’s so good about it?

  • Firstly, the Profitability Framework is a surefire way to draw a structured issue tree, as the framework is fundamentally MECE.
  • Secondly, this framework is grounded in a simple mathematical basis – there’s no confusing qualitative concept to get lost in; heck, “revenues minus costs equal profits” is common sense. That’s why the Profitability Framework may as well be the easiest framework ever devised by humankind (or consultant-kind).

Are there any shortcomings I should be aware of?

  • The Profitability Framework is generic; it may not reflect the nuances within the business enough to draw insightful conclusions. In businesses with wide price ranges, for example, just the total sales volume and average unit price do not tell you much.
  • To extract more insightful information, either drill down quantitatively by introducing revenue/cost components not expressed in the basic framework (e.g.: revenue by product), or combine it with a qualitative framework.

Business situation framework

This is an extremely versatile template you can use in nearly every case, so make sure to learn it well. It’s not even a “should”, but a “must”.

In my video, I referred to the Business Situation Framework by the more tell-tale “3C & P”, based on it being derived from the famous 3C Framework. These four letters stand for “Company, Customers, Competitors, Products” – areas that the framework analyzes to yield solutions.

What’s so good about it?

  • The one big advantage of the Business Situation Framework is its comprehensiveness – covering four crucial internal and external factors in business strategy.
  • This framework is quite flexible – you can use it as a template to draw customized issue trees for all kinds of cases. In our video, I demonstrated this by applying it to solve an HR problem.

Are there any shortcomings I should be aware of?

  • The very same comprehensiveness making the Business Situation Framework flexible, also makes it generic, hence the need for extensive modifications; in many cases (the one in our video, for example), not all four components are relevant.
  • It is not a beginner-friendly framework – it does not explicitly state which factors to consider under each main branch; newbies often end up in awkward situations, not knowing what to do next and thinking in a bottom-up manner.

How do you avoid that situation then? I’m inclined to say “practice”, but that much is obvious. A less obvious solution is to equip yourself with some “ninja tips” by learning how each C and P is usually segmented, although again I have to emphasize that it’s vital to maintain a flexible mindset.

McKinsey M&A framework

I absolutely love this one because it works in almost every single M&A case.

There isn’t an official name for this framework, but since it is used by McKinsey consultants when confronting an M&A issue, I’d just call it the “McKinsey M&A Framework”.

The framework assesses a proposed M&A on three dimensions: the stand-alone value of each involving companies (values, strengths, weaknesses, etc.); their synergy, i.e. will the two companies combined be greater than the sum of its parts; and other factors, such as feasibility, culture, legal issues, etc.

What’s so good about it?

  • Firstly, the segmentation of stand-alone values and synergy is intrinsically MECE, helping the candidate cover all possibilities – every value of each company must fall into one of these categories.
  • Secondly, the framework prompts the user to actively look for “Other factors”, increasing its suitability in unique circumstances.

Are there any shortcomings I should be aware of? 

  • The framework does not tell you what to look for in each branch, especially in the “Other factors” branch; this ambiguity shouldn’t be too much of an issue for experienced consultants, but might prove troublesome for candidates.
  • Again, as with the previous Business Situation Framework, having a few ninja tricks up your sleeves should help you avoid getting stuck, just don’t rely on them too much.

4P / 7P Marketing Mix

This one is perhaps the single most popular framework in marketing. In case interviews, the 4P/7P Framework is used to formulate and implement marketing strategies for the supposed client, such as in competitive situation or market entry cases.

The original Marketing Mix covers four aspects – Product, Price, Place, and Promotion – thus, “4P”; note that “Place” does not pertain to any physical location, but the channel used by the company to deliver its products to its customers.

When services are involved, the mix becomes 7P; the new additions are: People – those performing the services; Process – how those services are delivered to the customers; and Physical Evidence – the visible, physical clues about the services (think of decorations inside a restaurant).

What’s so good about it?

  • The best thing about this framework is its sole focus on marketing, making it very efficient for situations where marketing is the primary/only concern.

Are there any shortcomings I should be aware of?

  • Both the 4P and 7P variants are inherently narrow in scope; candidates must always be mindful that they are not covering the big picture with this framework. Only use them to develop marketing solutions.
  • The 4P Marketing Mix, specifically, is not even comprehensive enough for some tangible products, such as high-end fashion, where People, Process and Physical Evidence make huge differences.

Porter’s five forces model

Porter’s Five Forces Model is best used when candidates ask for the case context surrounding the client company; this framework helps them know what to ask.

Michael Porter’s model analyzes how a company’s Competitors, Suppliers, Customers interact with it, as well as how New Entrants and Substitute Products might threaten its place in the industry; it produces a snapshot of the relative power the business holds over its industry environment.

What’s so good about it?

  • The model’s coverage of the industry landscape is extensive, giving the candidate a vivid picture of the industry surrounding and interacting with the client in the case.

Are there any shortcomings I should be aware of?

  • This framework doesn’t give a clear answer as to what to do – that is its primary drawback; Porter’s model is not “deep” enough to answer such questions.
  • The framework is not comprehensive enough for certain industries where political and legal issues, as well as complementary products, are major factors.
  • Another thing to keep in mind: Don’t ever analyze a company with the Five Forces Model – the Five Forces Model describes the industry around that business, not the business itself.

Five mini-frameworks – All-purpose tools

These powerful mini-frameworks are probably the most under-appreciated problem-solving tools ever existed.

Mini-frameworks, like the larger frameworks, are also templates to break down information in a top-down, organized fashion.

Unlike their big cousins, however, these are almost never a primary or upper-most component of an issue tree. Furthermore, while common case interview frameworks are, to varying degrees, business-oriented, mini-frameworks are universal.

In this section, I’ll introduce you to five mini-frameworks I find most helpful in consulting case interviews. They feature prominently as supplements for larger frameworks in candidate-led cases, or stand-alone templates to answer questions in interviewer-led cases.

External vs Internal

This is a quick and easy method to segment information about a particular entity. The internal branch concerns the inside of the said entity, such as functions within a company; the external branch describes anything outside that entity.

Here’s an example of this mini-framework as an adjunct to the Profitability Framework:

South Sea – a company specializing in bottled sauces – has found its profits going down badly for the past few years. They want you to find out what’s causing the problem.

You split their profits into revenues and costs; from the data provided, it seems like a revenue problem so you’re going into that branch first. How do you proceed?

Here, a quick check can be performed by splitting the factors causing the decline into two groups – external and internal, then ask the interview if the declining profits are also experienced by other American airlines; “yes” suggests an external root cause while “no” suggests an internal one.

Qualitative vs Quantitative

This method of segmentation is primarily used in evaluations. By dividing items into two MECE groups, it reduces confusion and minimizes the risk of missing an important item.

For illustration, we again look at the packaged food company in the previous example:

Turns out, South Sea has quite a few internal problems, in both their production and sales functions. Coincidentally, Wilhelm International is looking to acquire South Sea. Wilhelm controls an extensive distribution network, so the South Sea management is quite interested in the deal.

It’s your task to assess whether South Sea should accept Wilhelm’s offer of acquisition or not.

For this task, I recommend using the McKinsey M&A Framework to break down the analysis into three branches: (1) South Sea’s stand-alone value, (2) its possible synergy with Wilhelm International, and of course (3) there must be an “Other factors” branch as well.

Within each branch, it’s possible to group items into quantitative (profits, growth rates) and qualitative (brand name, capabilities). This combination makes the analysis more MECE, and easier to work with.

Costs vs Benefits

This decision-making tool is pretty straightforward – if the benefits outweigh the costs, you go with that option. Otherwise, you’d be better off keeping your money under the mattress.

The Costs-and-Benefits analysis is a somewhat-business-centric twist of the omnipotent Pros-and-Cons. Both of these approaches work even better with weights attached to each evaluating criterion to reflect its impact.

Now, let’s check up on South Sea:

The acquisition is proven to be beneficial for both sides. With the sales problem solved, South Sea turns its attention to the production issue. The management considers replacing some technologies to improve product quality, but they are not sure if the investment will pay off.

How do you know if the investment is worthwhile?

A simple Costs-and-Benefits breakdown would suffice.

For benefits you have the financial gains to consider, as well as non-financial benefits such as improved brand image (because surprisingly, people love good food!).

2×2 Matrix

The 2×2 Matrix is a decision-making tool where options are examined using two criteria, each of which forms an axis of the matrix.

How do you apply this matrix in South Sea’s case, then?

Wilhelm International, after acquiring South Sea, is looking to push the sales of South Sea’s products using its distribution chain. However, South Sea’s product portfolio is quite large, and each product line differs greatly in terms of sales, branding, and market growth rate.

You must select which product lines to focus on.

The 2×2 matrix most famous in the business world, and also suitable for this case, is BCG’s Growth-Share Matrix, which uses market growth rate and market share as decision-making criteria. The position of a business on this matrix suggests whether to invest in, maintain, or discard that business.

SWOT Analysis

SWOT stands for Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, Threats.

This mini-framework is seldom used in case interviews and consulting work because it’s very generic; however, for a quick and easy evaluation of a company’s positioning within the industry context, the SWOT analysis works just fine.

In most case interviews, this is where you usually turn to the Marketing Mix or the Business Situation frameworks, but even a SWOT analysis may yield some insights.


Other case interview frameworks

Besides the ones we have covered, there are some other case interview frameworks and mini-frameworks worth looking into:

  • Six Forces Model: a variant of Porter’s Five Forces, introducing “Complementary Products” into the analysis.
  • Lauterborn’s 4C Framework: a more consumer-oriented variant of the 4Ps, designed for niche marketing.
  • McKinsey 7S Framework: a framework used in McKinsey for analyzing organizational effectiveness.
  • Ansoff Matrix (Product-Market Grid): a 2×2 matrix, designed for product-market strategizing.

Applying frameworks in case interviews

Here are my five rules to effectively implement frameworks in case interviews; if you follow these rules closely, you will absolutely nail the case.

Of these five rules, the first three are about getting the right framework, while the last two are about looking smart during interviews.

  • Getting to know the case: “If you know your case and know your frameworks, you need not fear the result of a hundred case interviews” – always gather as much information as possible before and when you draw your issue tree.
  • Bending the frameworks: don’t ever bend reality to your frameworks; bend your frameworks to reality; remove, add, or modify elements if necessary.
  • Allying with the interviewer: ask the interviewer to help you break down the problem if you get stuck. How do you get him on your side then? By displaying overwhelming consulting traits.
  • 13 Reasons why: “Why do you break down the problem that way?”, “Why do you want this piece of data?” – explain all your questions and decisions as if you stand before the US Congress, and before the interviewer asks you; consultants love accountable people.
  • Frameworks-which-must-not-be-named: don’t ever explicitly say the names of the frameworks (“I’m going to use the McKinsey M&A Framework”); you would sound very rigid, bookish, or worse, arrogant; consultants don’t like big words without substance.

I’ll give you a brief case sample to see how these rules work in practice:

Interviewer: Our client today is a restaurant called BurgerQueen, located on US Highway 66. The restaurant has found its profits going down last year, your task is to find out the problem and give them a solution.

Candidate: Thank you for the very interesting case, I’m quite excited to solve it. Now, before we dive in,, I would like to playback the case to make sure that we perceive it the same way, ask a few questions for clarification, then announce my approach. Does that sound good to you?

Interviewer: Okay, carry on.

Candidate: Well, let’s see… Our client is a restaurant, on a highway, specifically, Route 66. Their profits have been going bad. I am to find the cause, and solve the problem. Am I getting it right?

Interviewer: Yes, you’re right.

Candidate: Thank you. Now I’d like to clarify the case, so I have 3 questions:

(1) I assume from the name that our client focuses on burgers, and probably other kinds of fast food. Am I right? (2) Does this restaurant have a specific target customer, like truck drivers? And (3) Is it part of a rest stop?

Interviewer: I’ll answer your questions: they sell burgers, but there are many other dishes as well – although mainly fast food; the restaurant does not have a specific target customer, their customers are drivers and travelers on the highway in general; they are part of a rest stop, but they do not own other facilities in the stop, just the restaurant.

Candidate: Great, thanks for the information. Now that we’re all on the same page, and the case has been clarified, I’d like to inform you of my approach. To eliminate this problem in the long run, I think it’s best to break down the problem using an issue tree, isolate the root cause in one of the branches, and gather information until we can draw an actionable solution. Is that approach okay to you?

Interviewer: That sounds good. Continue.

Candidate: To analyze this problem, I’m breaking it down into two sides: Revenues and Costs. Unless we have information pointing in the other direction, I’ll first hypothesize that the problem comes from the revenue side. May I have some data on the restaurant’s revenue during the past year, to prove this hypothesis?

Interviewer: Well, this year their revenue went down by about 40%, but the monthly revenues followed the same pattern as the previous year.

Candidate: Thank you for the data. It’s quite a sudden decrease. I think we can confirm that at least part of this problem comes from the revenue side; I’ll come back to check on the cost side later, now I’d like to go deeper into this revenue branch. Is that okay to you?

Interviewer: Okay, go on.

Candidate: Usually, revenue is divided into sales volume and unit price, but it wouldn’t make much sense for a restaurant with many different items on the menu. My limited knowledge of the food service industry is not exactly helpful, so to draw a more spot-on issue tree, may I ask how they segment the revenue in this restaurant?

Interviewer: Okay, here’s the answer: another way they segment the revenue in a restaurant is into “number of customers” and “average ticket size”, the latter being the purchase value per customer.

What are the key takeaways here?

You can see the candidate tried to gather information on the case through the playback and clarification steps; as a result, he correctly decided that the Profitability Framework is suitable for this case.

However, he quickly found out that the conventional “revenue = volume x price” isn’t too insightful, so he knew he needed to bend the framework.

Unable to find a good way to segment, he asked for help from the interviewer – note how he showed a relevant purpose for the request, and demonstrated that he at least made an effort – these are what we call “consulting traits”.

You should also notice that throughout this brief opening part, the candidate never explicitly mentioned the name of the Profitability Framework, and he always explained his choices before being asked.


Let's practice!

EXERCISE: Develop a 2-level issue tree for this case

The Megapolis City Council is looking to solve a major problem in the city’s traffic – for the last decade, the number of traffic accidents has been rising steadily.

Which factors would you look at, to tackle this problem?

This question apparently can not be answered using any aforementioned framework. In real life, consultants rarely use pre-defined frameworks to solve their client’s issues. Rather, they create unique frameworks based on the MECE principle specific to their problems.

There are few things you should bear in mind to shortcut the way to your own framework:

  • Be as MECE or structural as possible.
  • Use the issue tree to sketch your framework.
  • Break down your problem in a top-down style.

Practice this step-by-step with any real-life issues.

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