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10.05 - The Harvard Case Study Method

Harvard Case Study Method - Overview

The Harvard Case Study Method is logical step-by-step approach to problem solving. It does more that help solve problems – it will also help you to organise your thinking processes and provide an outline for presenting your analysis and conclusions. More information can be found in the book “How to make it Big as a Consultant” by William A. Cohen, ISBN: 08144 5821 1.

The stages of the Harvard case study method are shown below:-

  1. Define the central problem
  2. List the relevant factors
  3. List the alternatives
  4. Analyze the alternatives
  5. List the conclusions
  6. Make recommendations

Define the central problem

Defining the single central problem in a particular situation is the most difficult and most important task in consulting-problem solving. If you can correctly identify the main problem in a situation, you can find many different approaches to solving it. But if the wrong problem is identified, even a brilliant solution will not correct the situation. We are well advised to take all the time necessary so we are sure we are looking at the central problem.

One of the major errors made in this area is to confuse symptoms with the problem. For example in a business low profits is not the problem – it is a symptom of something else that is the main problem. The object is to locate the one major problem in the situation. If you find more than one central problem you should handle each one separately.

Once you have identified the central problem write an initial draught of what the problem is. Keep this statement as short and simple as possible. A single sentence is ideal. Take care not to word the problem as if it were the solution, by assuming one particular course of action is correct before analyzing it.

Try to define your problem statement as a question using one of Rudyard Kipling’s “six honest serving men” – “What”, “Why”, “When”, “How”, “Where”, or “Who”. Alternatively start with an infinitive such as “To determine the best source for borrowing £10,000.”

List Relevant Factors

This section uses two key words “relevant” and “factors”. Relevant – because there will many different factors in any situation and your job is to determine and list only those that are relevant to the central problem under consideration. You will be listing “factors” not just pure facts. You may include guesses, estimates, computations and assumptions in addition to facts. If any of the factors is not a fact then it should be labelled as such so as not to mislead anyone – including yourself!

List Alternatives

Here we list every alternative, solution or course of action that could possibly solve the central problem. Then list the advantages and disadvantages of each one. This usually means frequent iteration and re-addressing of the central problem. So the central problem may get modified to reflect the alternative courses of action. Each alternative solution or course of action MUST potentially solve the central problem. Although it is theoretically possible to have an alternative with all advantages and no disadvantages, this is highly unlikely. If it were the case then the solution would most likely be self-evident and there would be no need to employ a problem solving technique.

Analyse the Alternatives

In this section you will analyse and discuss the alternatives thoroughly in the light of the relevant factors you have listed. This analysis will usually reveal other relevant factors. These need to be added to the list. The main purpose of this section is to compare, contrast and discuss in some detail the relative importance of the advantages and disadvantages of each course of action. Be aware that as you conduct this analysis certain conclusions will occur to you. Do not be tempted to discuss them here – leave them to the next section.

List your Conclusions

In this section just list the conclusions that you arrive at through your discussion and analysis. Do not add any explanations – that should have been done the previous sections.


In this section state explicitly the results of your analysis and your recommendation on what should be done to solve the central problem. Do not include recommendations that draw on factors outside of the discussions and conclusions conducted previously.

Each consulting assignment should be defined with a Terms of Reference (TOR).
  • Background
  • Objective
  • Scope
  • Constraints
  • Assumptions
  • Reporting
  • Deliverables
  • Reporting
  • Estimates

If the client does not write one on engagement it would be wise to write it for him, usually in the form of a proposal, and get his agreement to it so that the terms of the engagement are clear. Each work package in a project should be handled similarly.

“I keep six honest serving-men”

I keep six honest serving-men

(They taught me all I knew);

Their names are What and Why and When

And How and Where and Who.

I send them over land and sea,

I send them east and west;

But after they have worked for me,

I give them all a rest.


I let them rest from nine till five,

For I am busy then,

As well as breakfast, lunch, and tea,

For they are hungry men.

But different folk have different views;

I know a person small-

She keeps ten million serving-men,

Who get no rest at all!

She sends 'em abroad on her own affairs,

From the second she opens her eyes-

One million Hows, two million Wheres,

And seven million Whys!

- by Rudyard Kipling

Further Reading