What I learnt about business case studies

Lessons from interviewing 60 executives and writing half a dozen case studies over 4 months.

I’m writing a blogpost after a 5-month gap… but I was gone for a good reason: writing a few case studies for a client.

It involved conducting extensive interviews (about 60 of them), ranging in duration from 30 to 90 minutes each. Then, putting together everything I’d heard into a coherent stories, spanning about a decade of time.

It has been an immensely enriching experience and I feel like summarising some things I learnt on the way.

When collecting source material…

1. Audio-recordings or typed notes?
For most interviews, I got permission from the speaker to audio record. But for some, I opted for hand-written notes. Later, when I went back to this source material, the difference between the two was stark. The audio recordings contained vastly more information, even the pauses quite revealing about how the speaker felt about the issue. On the other hand, whenever I took notes, I tended to record only the most important information as I was unable to keep pace with the speaker. Apart from the obvious loss of detail, what I choose to record reflects my own biases. So, there’s no doubt about it: If your interviewer allows it, go for audio recordings. They yield superior material, in both quantity and quality.

2. Unfamiliar subject?
At the start of the assignment, the business and its terminology were unfamiliar to me. Most speakers told the story in words they were used to, and this made it difficult for me to make sense of it. Though it is possible to ask interviewees for clarifications, doing too much of this tends to break their train of thought and leads to unsatisfactory conversations.
What helped were ‘follow-up’ interviews with other people, conducted with the express purpose of seeking clarifications. For instance, after I interviewed the CIO, who wasn’t likely to grant me time again, I met another senior manager in his department twice, over the next few days, with the express purpose of ‘decoding’ the first interview.

3. How closely spaced should interviews be?
Should you accept back-to-back interviews or allow large time gaps between them? Well, I experienced both, so I have a view. On occasions when I had sufficient breathing time between interviews, it allowed me to listen to the audio files and digest the information. Armed with that enhanced understanding, I could go beyond the basics in the next interview, ask more probing questions, cross check facts and so on. Back-to-back interviews only look efficient, but aren’t. It’s like drinking from a hosepipe, without imbibing much.

4. Bringing balance to the narrative
I learnt this one the hard way. In one of the case studies, I happened to interview all the right people… those that were in the thick of the action. From them, I got an impressively coherent set of mini-stories. The problem surfaced when the case study faced its first real test… being discussed in a room full of people from various backgrounds. They pointed out that the case study was a narrow, one-sided account of events. The lesson: there are multiple sides to every story, and ‘bystanders’ see things differently from those in the thick of the action! An interviewer needs to broaden the base of people used as sources.

When writing the case study…

5. When do I start writing?
If you have 10 interviews lined up, should you start writing after all 10 are completed, or sometime earlier? This one can swing either side, but I’m tending to say… write as you go. It offers the advantage of having a skeletal structure to ‘fill in’ with subsequent interviews. Second, discovery of gaps in the story occurs early on, and you can use the later interviews to fill those in. Third, it allows you to show people early drafts, seek feedback and make course corrections… a ‘fail fast’ approach. But do be mindful of this trap: missing out on other significant angles to the story, because you got too fixated on just filling in the gaps in the first narrative.

6. Chronological or Theme based?
Say, you want to chronicle the building up of a business over a 10 year period… you could give a year by year account; or you could describe the same events thematically (team organisation, product building, marketing, distribution, price-value decisions). Which is better? I got my answer when I had people read early drafts of the case studies I wrote… people grasped the chronologically written stories much better. Themes ‘look’ organised, but are harder for people to piece together in their mind… in hindsight, I suppose its because there’s no thread running through themes, whereas a chronological account has a “this happened, due to which that happened and then…” kind of flow.

7. To Quote or not to quote?
It’s always possible for the writer to re-cast what was said, in his/her own words. But something is lost…. the emotion, the drama and the directness. As far as possible, and at the risk of the case study sounding more like a movie script, I found that case studies with liberally sprinkled quotes commanded more attention from readers. Some of them said things like, “While reading, I could almost see that face from 5 years ago”. I think an engaging classroom contributes much to the enthusiasm and quality of discussions, and any device (like quotes) which engrosses readers (while staying true to facts) is valuable. In the cases I’ve written, verbatim quotes have occupied anywhere between 15% (typical) to 30% (one extreme case!) of the total word count.

8. Opinions versus facts?
As a stakeholder proof-read an early draft, he came to a sentence which went: “The department adopted the unique approach of …”. He immediately exclaimed “I don’t think that approach was unique. I know of some others who have done it the same way”. His sharp eye had latched on to the offending adjective ‘unique’, which was my interpretation from what I was hearing. One way to avoid such errors creeping in is to quote people verbatim, if they allow it. The other is to go over the draft with a fine tooth comb and root out adjectives/adverbs inserted inadvertently… For example, replace “Sales grew impressively thereafter at 25% YOY” with “Sales grew thereafter at 25% YOY”. That way, you let the readers make their own conclusions about whether this rate of sales growth is impressive or not, given industry benchmarks.

These days, as the tail-end of the writing assignment approaches, I am watching these case studies ‘in action’. Watching them being read by critical eyes, discussed threadbare in enthusiastic classrooms and critiqued by people who say “I was there. I have a different view of what really happened”. All of these inputs enrich and enlarge the case studies: new facts, nuances and opposing points of view get inserted. I feel like a painter getting to ‘touch up’ his creation every night, once the chatter of art aficionado has faded away. What fun!