Cracking the Case Writer

“A good business case is simple, poignant, and inexorably leads to a single, biased conclusion. Naturally, a good case writer harbors a simple, poignant, and inexhaustible cynicism about the body of their work.”

They never tell you about the cold winter rain. The case writer was driving south down Rt. 280, caught between an ugly February drizzle, a looming deadline, and scores of danger-loving lunatics who somehow slipped past California’s equally danger-loving Department of Motor Vehicles and received licenses to drive. He already witnessed a BMW M5 going twice his speed inadvertently reenact a scene from Transformers; based on the gesticulations of his fellow motorists, he assumed the driver was receiving similar reviews to Michael Bay’s version.

He stoically soldiered on, still searching for his exit amidst the rain. After a long hiatus, the case writer had returned to his erstwhile home of Silicon Valley, where the roads were paved with opportunity, ambition, and BMW debris. Silicon Valley was once a familiar place for him; he had learned and done much here, but all those memories were now as faded as the hilltops patched through the fog. Unfortunately, one of those memories was his proper exit.

Cursing, the case writer left the highway and yielded to his cellphone’s GPS. Like many residents in Northern California, he was headstrong to a fault, but would invariably relinquish his stubbornness if a piece of technology could solve his problem. So long as it wasn’t made by a competitor. Thankfully, despite his colorful career, he had stayed out of the navigation business.

Getting fog-lost in a place I once knew. If I were more literary I’d say that’s a pretty good metaphor for what I’m about, back here. The case writer wasn’t literary; he meant allegorical, but who cares? Case writers don’t write Great American Novels. They write business school case studies.

Exhibit: What’s a Business School Case Study?

Depending on who you ask, the business school case study is either the triumph of American managerial science or an evil proseplague bent on the destruction of independent, creative thought. As is usual with these sorts of things, the answer lies somewhere in the middle. Originally designed as pedagogical ammo for b-school professors, the creation and use of case studies has transformed into a veritable cottage industry (especially when considering the case studies on cottage industries). Though experts disagree on the relative merits of the case study approach to learning, a few truths are universally accepted:

1. Case studies convince readers that entire industries, business histories, and complex negotiations can be understood in under 20 pages. Under 15 pages if you skip the useless exhibits.

2. There are no “right” answers to the problems raised in a case study. Wrong answers exist, however, and they follow a simple heuristic: does your professor disagree with you? Yes? Then you’re wrong.

3. Like all smart capitalists, professors realize they must efficiently allocate their limited resources for the greatest possible impact. For them, that means researching and espousing crack-pot theories in a strategic bid to gain tenure before the head of the department realizes they’re full of shit. The other shit, as they say, trickles down, and the task of writing these case studies (which exist to validate said theories through anecdotes) lands on an army of outsourced case writers.

Exhibit: What’s an Exhibit?

An exhibit within a case study is a colorful, often useless aside that adds little value to the study’s central hypothesis but allows the case writer to abruptly interrupt the narrative.

As the case writer meandered back to Sand Hill Road, he reflected on the conversation that led him back west. It was a blisteringly freezing morning in Boston, still blasted with snowpiles on the sidewalks as the city recovered from a vicious nor’easter -- worse weather than here, to be sure, but at least they’re honest (the case writer surmised that Boston’s marketing budget was significantly less than Northern California’s, otherwise they would be better liars). He entered his worn-down office building and headed straight for the coffee machine, but before he could even visualize his fingertips warming to the touch of his thermos, his path was blocked by a rather large, rather tenured professor.

Oh crap, what now? Professor Bonhoeffer was a portly, aged professor imported from Berlin, and the director of the case writing program. His strange resemblance to Kris Kringle -- aided by his oversized red down feather jacket -- belied a sharp, easily displeased, and demanding disposition. The case writer caught his gaze and glimpsed a fire behind his eyes that could melt away the North Pole. Worse yet, he was tenured, which meant he could direct that fire at him with impunity, and he knew it.

“Interested in some warmer weather?” What kind of fire is this? The professor’s inquiry was surprisingly amicable, but the case writer was wary.

“It’s February in Boston. The only thing I’m interested in is warmer weather. And warmer liquids. So if you don’t mind...”

“Well, you’re clearly not interested in delivering quality cases, that’s clear. Professor Floyd sent you back to the drawing board on the McKinsey HR case twice, I hear. At McKinsey I’m told redoing work is grounds for dismissal, but sadly, the case study that would corroborate that hasn’t been completed.” The bite was back.

“Ah, well,, yes, quite so. I should probably get back to working on it then...”

“No, you shouldn’t. You would have done an awful job anyway. There’s another case that needs writing, and there’s no one more uniquely suited to the task than you. Are you familiar with the Dean’s ‘Understanding Failure’ initiative?” Oh boy, here it comes.

“Ah, I have to admit, I’m a bit behind on the interdepartmental newsletter. But it sounds like a meager attempt to appease wealthy donors who just witnessed hordes of our graduates bankrupt the economy.” He was hoping this professor’s well known disdain of the new dean would curry favor and get him the hell out of whatever he was about to ask.

Professor Bonhoeffer hinted at what an optimistic man might have called the slightest of smiles, but the case writer wasn’t very optimistic. “Your instincts are correct. And I’m sure in another year we’ll do a postmortem analysis to understand the failure behind ‘Understanding Failure,’ at great expense and with no results. But that inevitability has not yet come to pass, and I’m unhappily tasked with producing a flagship case study as the anchor to a litany of courses designed to teach failure.”

The case writer finally understood what Bonhoeffer meant by warmer weather, and he couldn’t say he was thrilled about the prospect. “So that means I’m tasked with producing a flagship case study on failure?”

“Right again. Who better to write a case study on failed Silicon Valley ventures than you?”

That old wound still hurt, but the sting was dull after so long. “Well, failure’s a bit of a strong word; some of my ventures were just ‘not successful’ while others were ‘a frivolous waste of investment capital,’ at least according to certain lawsuits.”

“We both know they were being generous. And we both know your current work has been lacking. You’re perfect for this project.” There was a hardness to his voice that made the critique and back-handed compliment seem strangely more palatable.

The case writer shivered in response, and started pleading. “Perfect is also a strong word. You know I’m no longer interested in the startup world...”

Professor Bonhoeffer was unmoved. “I’m afraid your interest and expertise are at odds. We write cases based on research dollars, and however stupid this initiative may be, we have the funding. You should be happy the Dean is funneling money into this, otherwise you might have suffered something worse. Be glad you don’t have to add another failure to your repertoire so soon. You’ll be flying out west by the end of the week.” With an air of finality, the professor handed him a nondescript manila envelope, turned on his heels and left the case writer standing in the hallway.

Well, that’s checkmate. Even if I decline, in a year I’ll get the axe when this whole “Understanding Failure” initiative goes to shit, as Bonhoeffer believed it would. Resigned, but at least warmer, the case writer returned to his desk, coffee in one hand and envelope in the other. While sipping his coffee, he opened the envelope gingerly, as if the contents might poison him. As he read his assignment, comprehension dawned, and he nearly choked on his coffee from laughter instead. I should give the professor more credit. Well, hell, if the music’s playing...

His mind snapped back to the present as his cellphone’s GPS announced that he had arrived. The apartment complex was a typical sprawling Californian affair; more buildings than you could count, low Spanish roofs, and an ambiance that screamed “we effortlessly waste space.” The case writer parked his rented car, grabbed his messenger bag and found the right building, surrounded by a completely purposeless (and entirely unusable) field of low-hanging trees and short-cut grass.

As he approached the building, he couldn’t help but smile. He felt the faintest touch of optimism, a feeling almost forgotten since his myriad of failed enterprises. As if to validate his rediscovered emotion, the rain stopped and the sun peeked through the clouds. Still smiling at his fortune, he knocked on the apartment door. Moments later, he was greeting the primary source for the case study that would get him fired.

Copyleft MMXIV Josh Cincinnati