An Ode to the Case Method: The Beauty of Engineering Disagreement

By members of the Harvard Business School Case Research & Writing Group

A Harvard Business School case study with a hand turning the front page

The first Harvard Business School case study, The General Shoe Company, came out in 1921. One page; a written piece of art. Like many cases since, it describes a problem: workers stop being productive toward the end of their shifts. What, oh what, should managers do?

As we approach the centennial of its publication, let us pause to appreciate the educational and learning opportunities the case method offers students.

Through its mix of rigorous analysis and deep discussion, the case method is a pedagogical approach to foster productive disagreement among participants. Rather than seeking consensus or guiding students to a “right” answer, it forces students to humbly engage with the wisdom and skepticism of fellow learners.

The case method goads 80 people reading the same material to form camps with totally divergent opinions. And that’s ok. In fact, it’s good — and essential to the method’s efficacy. The group learns with and from each other. Some of the most effective cases see students challenging one another to revise and rethink their initial analyses, embracing new and fresh solutions that are more adapted to the context.

In this process, the faculty is instructor and moderator — but also learner.

This approach supports the School’s mission — to educate leaders who make a difference in the world: ones who listen, learn, speak, and grapple seriously with others’ opinions. The case method, at its best, encourages us to advance the conversation by proposing different viewpoints and coming to a more nuanced and comprehensive view of the situation. It hones our ability to accept or challenge ideas on their merits — without ad hominem considerations — by setting the expectation that we can harness diverse thought toward better solutions to pressing problems.

Foundations of Case-Based Learning

Case studies describe managers facing complex decisions and grappling with the thorniest and most wicked problems for individual leaders, businesses, organizations, and society. As in “the real world,” a case study discussion may include more than one “right” approach to solving a management dilemma. And, as in the real world, the case method demands that participants try to arrive at solutions both independently and in relationship with one another. It’s an opportunity for students to discuss multiple valid, possibly contradictory, explanations and plans of action in the process of settling on their own respective views.

The aim is not for all participants to agree at the end of class. Instead, the case method is a discipline — a way of thinking that allows individuals to become better informed and arrive at a more nuanced perspective.

Case-based classes give students the chance to take part in various modes of learning, including Socratic discourse, simulation and role play, and lesson-based instruction. First, students spend about 30 to 90 minutes on average reading the case and analyzing the problem independently. Then, students work in small groups for perhaps an hour or two to prepare analysis for class. Finally, they participate in 80-minute faculty-facilitated discussions with a larger group of peers during class.

The empirical content in case studies covers specific organizations and industries, management concepts, technical and social-emotional skills, and other information related to managerial decision-making and organizational leadership. Cases deliver valuable information about functions, industries, countries, business phenomena, ideas, startups, and more.

Today’s cases are around 11 pages of text, plus several exhibits (a far cry from the brevity of The General Shoe Company). They can take about 160 hours to research and write, and the better ones have the virtue of being wonderfully specific. Yet, over the course of a master’s or executive program, the case method introduces students to the staggering breadth, variation, and idiosyncrasy across the world’s businesses and organizations.

In the real world, managers have the benefit of their own experiences to inform decisions. They bring with them the key lessons they’ve learned on the job and understand how to get things done in their specific departments. They know what the boss is expecting, what Jemila said to Steve at the staff meeting last week, and the things that went wrong when the company tried this four years ago. Case studies try to capture the essence of these realities through detailed descriptions and quotations from case protagonists and other “characters.”

But the real feeling of making decisions as a manager remains elusive, difficult to capture in a relatively short piece of prose and a few exhibits. Case method instructors often abstain from using traditional textbooks. On occasion, they may supplement a case with a separate note on a technical concept, social phenomenon, or industry.

These data — consumed and discussed over the course of a few hours in a classroom — can hardly replace a career’s worth of specific knowledge and experience. What the case method allows, though, is for students to practice the art of collaborative learning as they rigorously analyze genuine management challenges.

The process can help them develop empathy, too. It challenges them to remain authentic to their values and principles while appreciating and welcoming other people’s opinions — whether or not they ultimately change their minds and embrace those differing perspectives.

Deep Learning for Fast Times

Traditional case studies are in many ways anathema to today’s modes of information consumption. They are a complex and nuanced package designed to contain sufficient information to elicit constructive disagreement, engagement, and learning. At times, though, case studies can contain too much industry background, too much company history, too much of the protagonist’s biography. Of course, case writers include such information to give students a shot at effectively simulating the decision-making scenario — and to practice sifting relevant information from intriguing-but-ultimately-unhelpful details.

Still, overstuffed or overbroad cases are a slog and hamper the student engagement needed for effective learning. To thrive in the no-attention-span age, case studies need to evolve to deliver information in bite-sized chunks. These chunks have to be maximally engaging because they are not ingested and judged as units of useful information for solving specific problems — they are another form of “content” in a world increasingly swamped by it.

People learn from content, but they don’t consume it for learning. They consume it because it captures their attention. Engaging content includes short bursts of text, photos, videos, and other media types found in social media timelines and private chats. It also includes professionally produced media, including television and movies, music, short-form videos, video games, and more. Content can mean the next Instagram post in the feed, a funny listicle sent by a friend, or the next trendy show. Engaging content can also include prose — although less and less of it seems to be long-form.

In joining the content battle for students’ attention, case studies and teaching plans must evolve. Rather than trying to contain myriad types of information for many uses within 12,000 words and 12 charts, should cases deliver key insights in 12 bite-sized, modular chunks? Rather than conveying information in a densely-packed bundle, how can they distribute information in various ways, utilizing a wider array of media and formats? Rather than laboring to weave a tightly-knit tapestry containing all the necessary context, they can deliver relevant facts and developments at a staccato pace through a number of different channels.

Yet the case method must retain the best parts of what made the format valuable to begin with — the multiple ways of learning, the attempt to capture the specific context of the working environment and decision scenario, and the power of a group of erstwhile strangers, now learning together in a community and engaged in a journey of discovery and exploration.

Going forward, case studies could combine traditional text with mid-class text messages containing critical new information needed to make the case decision or solve the business problem. They can come with an accompanying podcast as readily as a supplemental reading or Excel model. They can gamify and become more iterative so that students must solve the issue and then solve it again when the facts change and competition adapts.

A Consistent History of Adaptation and Change

Over their hundred years, business case studies and the case method of pedagogy has evolved constantly. From the concise brevity of The General Shoe Company to today’s longer cases to innovative formats like multimedia cases, asynchronous online formats, and live cases, the case study format has shown itself to be consistently adaptable. No doubt, more innovations arrive daily, and the case will surely evolve to thrive as the information environment continues to constantly and rapidly change over the coming hundred years.

While cases themselves change — and teaching plans with them — the case method continues to offer a uniquely powerful way of learning to lead and make managerial decisions.

Like members of a family and citizens of a democracy, the case method succeeds when people listen to each other, accept different opinions, and build on one another’s views. Cases remind us of our interdependence and encourage intellectual and personal humility by encouraging us to look beyond our ego and our own limited view of the world.

At its best, when engaged with a cohort of fellow avid learners and problem solvers, the case method allows students to become better decision makers and, ultimately, better leaders.

For more on the case method, visit Harvard Business Publishing:



Carin-Isabel Knoop (on Humans in the Digital Era)

Harvard Business School Executive Director, passionate about improving lives at work. Pragmatic optimist devoted to helping those who care for others.