The Harvard Business School Case Method builds effective leaders

Harvard Business School’s Case Method is a unique, rigorous teaching method where MBA students tackle a complex business case together. In this article, we explore the case method process, how it prepares students to be effective leaders, and what kind of environment HBS cultivates for its MBA students in order to thrive.

In short

What is the Harvard Business School Case Method?

In a nutshell, the case method at Harvard Business School is a rigorous exercise in which MBA students must solve a complex problem together with a group of classmates.

Cases vary across sectors, roles, cultures, and types of challenges. In one case, you might be finding solutions for a young CEO of a Turkish bank who wants to experiment with a new way of doing business. In another case, you might be asked to address race and mass incarceration in the United States.

By plunging them into leadership positions facing time-sensitive decisions with limited information, every case method is designed to help students develop their communication, listening, analysis, and leadership skills.

HBS MBA student Ronnie Wimberley says, “Jumping into the arena [and] using your brain to come to the best hypothesis and conclusion that you can – given the data that you have – is a task leaders have to do every day. How do you use limited information to make a decision and do that in a way that forces you to flex that muscle of dealing with ambiguity?” (07:00)

You can feel the energy of a case method session at HBS, with exciting back-and-forth discussions, detailed debate, and fast decision-making. Ronnie describes the case method sessions as “dynamic, fast-paced, there’s a ton of energy, [and] everyone’s really excited to jump in and contribute.” (01:52)

HBS instructors help cultivate this electric atmosphere. “The professor kind of facilitates like an orchestra,” recalls Lailah Thompson, another HBS MBA student. “They kind of direct the music, but they’re not necessarily playing it.” (02:02)

Why HBS fosters an environment that celebrates risk-taking, failure, and diversity

A huge part of the HBS Case Method is working with other students with different backgrounds, opinions, and perspectives.

Tuka Rentsen, an HBS MBA student from Mongolia, says, “If you allow your perspective to be constructively challenged by other people, then it is just fascinating how your position or your perspective can shift.” (03:01)

Will Chavey, a fellow MBA student at HBS, adds, “The debates become more and more fun because that’s when you get to uncover views that you hadn’t thought of and when you get to push your own thinking and hopefully make your own thinking much, much better.” (02:51)

One-third of the cases students will explore are international. Combined with an incredibly diverse student body, every student will be challenged to examine their cultural differences and perspectives in order to solve the case and, ultimately, learn from those differences.

“Your perspective is not enough to figure out the answer to a question,” HBS MBA student Claire Branch declares. (04:09)

This is very much a reflection of the professional world, which Harvard Business School strives to recreate – and amplify – for its students. “It’s scary to be vulnerable in the working world, so you’re oftentimes taught to put up a shield,” says Nick Ornitz, an HBS MBA student from Connecticut. “But [at HBS], you’re given an environment that supports you to take those risks and actually celebrates failures or celebrates diversity of thought when you don’t agree with someone.” (06:45)

How does the HBS Case Method change its students?

Throughout the intense, methodical experience, students undoubtedly recognize a shift within themselves.

“In the first month or couple weeks of class, I was hesitant to participate,” student Lauren Buchanan admits. “But over time, I’ve gotten rid of all of my barriers and don’t really have any qualms about participating – but a lot of that is because of the support of my classmates, and not only do I see it changing in myself, but I see my classmates making better points over time, which then also pushes me to be better.” (04:45)

In line with Lauren’s experience, Tsedal Neeley, Professor of Business Administration at HBS, emphasizes, “We push students to take a position or to take a stand because it forces students to think deeply, to take risks, to think about weaknesses in their ideas, and to also be open to influence. I want them to set high standards for themselves. I want them to be challenged, I want them to challenge others.” (08:05)

It takes a specific kind of student to embrace the HBS Case Method; one who is more than eager to learn, to inspire, and to change. “Once I got [to HBS, my] priorities completely changed,” says Alejandra Martinez, an HBS MBA student from Mexico. “What inspires me now is really having super engaging discussions with my peers. I don’t think I’ve ever been that intellectually stimulated on a day-to-day basis as I am here, and…that’s inspiring, and it just wakes me up every day with excitement.” (08:41)

For Claire Branch, a student from North Carolina, HBS helped her confront and overcome her areas of improvement. “I think I recognized that I wasn’t pushing myself to think differently or to lead differently,” she says. “I wasn’t going to do anything extraordinary. And I thought maybe if I came here, I would be pushed in a way that would lead me to develop into someone who could change something. At HBS, there’s just no one here who wants to come out the same way they came in – and that’s really exciting.” (09:04)

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