HBS Cases: Developing the Courage to Act

Professor David A. Garvin offers a rare inside glimpse at how the case method is used by both faculty and students in classrooms at Harvard Business School.
by David A. Garvin
Harvard Business School professor David A. Garvin has studied the development of the case method of teaching at Harvard's law, business, and medical schools. Garvin wanted to see how the schools are similar and different in their use of cases, the strengths and weaknesses of the method, and how it may evolve in the future. His conclusions were put forward in a recent article for Harvard Magazine. Here is an excerpt focusing on development of the case method at Harvard Business School.

After Harvard Business School was founded in 1908, Edwin F. Gay, its first dean, wrote in the inaugural catalog that professors would employ "an analogous method [to the 'case method' used at the Law School], emphasizing classroom discussion, supplemented by lectures and frequent reports, which may be called the problem method." The reality, however, was quite different. In the early years, courses were general and descriptive ("Economic Resources of the United States," "Railroad Organization and Finance") and taught primarily through lectures from the economist's point of view.

The situation remained largely unchanged until the appointment in 1919 of a new dean, Wallace P. Donham, a graduate of Harvard Law School who later practiced law and had taught corporate finance at the business school. His background led him to see strong parallels between the two professions. In a 1922 article, he observed that the use of cases in law schools was made possible by "the vast number of published decisions, the thorough classification of the subject [by instructors], published case books, the elements in the typical law case, and the development of general principles from the discussion of individual cases. Of these elements, all, with the exception of the reported cases themselves, exist or may be supplied for teaching business."

Business-school faculty therefore needed to develop cases of their own. But Donham recognized that these cases would have to be different from legal cases. For businessmen, the primary tasks were making and implementing decisions, often in the face of considerable uncertainty. In keeping with the then-prevailing philosophy of pragmatism, cases should describe real problems and students should be able to practice sizing up situations and deciding on appropriate action. For this reason, he said, a business case "contains no statement of the decision reached by the businessman...and generally business cases admit of more than one solution...[they] include both relevant and irrelevant material, in order that the student may obtain practice in selecting the facts that apply." Much less time and attention would be devoted to underlying theories or principles, since in business "practices and precedents have no weight of authority." The particulars of each business situation were paramount; they had to be understood and analyzed in detail.

With these ideas in mind, Donham moved quickly on several fronts. He persuaded Melvin Copeland, a noted marketing professor, to change his planned textbook to a collection of business "problems." Published in September 1920, it became the first business casebook. Donham also orchestrated a series of informal faculty discussions about the school's methods of instruction. These meetings led to a broad commitment to case-method teaching and, in 1921, a formal faculty vote that officially changed the name of the school's approach from the "problem method" to the "case method." Most important, Donham established and funded the Bureau of Business Research, a dedicated group of scholars under Copeland's direction that, from 1920 to 1925, developed and wrote cases for multiple courses. (Once a critical mass of materials was developed, Donham disbanded the bureau and insisted that the faculty as a whole assume responsibility for developing cases.)

The best cases describe real, not fictitious, organizations and real business issues.

Within the business school, cases had become the dominant mode of instruction by the mid 1930s, and acceptance was equally swift outside. By 1922 casebooks had been adopted by 85 institutions. Harvard faculty members helped the dissemination process by publishing books on the case method in 1931, 1953, 1954, 1969, 1981, and 1991, and offering seminars and case-teaching workshops. The most visible was the Visiting Professors Case Method Program, funded by the Ford Foundation between 1955 and 1965, in which more than 200 faculty members from leading business schools spent entire summers at Harvard researching, writing, teaching, and improving a case of their own. Today, business schools around the globe teach by the case method.

The Case Today

Modern cases retain the same basic features described by Donham. Typically, they average 10 to 20 pages of text, with 5 to 10 additional pages of numerical exhibits. The best cases describe real, not fictitious, organizations and real business issues. "A good case," Donham professor of organizational behavior emeritus Paul Lawrence noted years ago, is "the vehicle by which a chunk of reality is brought into the classroom to be worked over by the class and the instructor." Most cases require students to assume the role of the protagonist and to make one or more critical decisions. The information is often deliberately incomplete, allowing for many possible options.

Students are normally assigned one case per class. Preparation is guided by assignment questions, which have become increasingly detailed over time. Thirty years ago, the focus was on action, and virtually the only question was, "What should Mr. Smith do?" Today, as management has become more sophisticated, with a wider array of technical theories and tools, detailed analytical questions are the norm. Students still come to class with a recommended decision and implementation plan, but also with extensive supporting analysis. Because of the workload—most cases take at least two hours to read and prepare, and two to three classes are scheduled per day—students often form their own three- to four-person study groups to share ideas and divvy up responsibilities.

Instructors prepare much as students do. They too read and analyze the case and prepare answers to assignment questions. But they attend equally to orchestrating class discussion most effectively. In this, they have help. All instructors who teach first-year courses, a mix of newcomers and old hands, are organized into teaching groups—collections of five to nine faculty members, led by an experienced professor, who teach the same subject and use the same cases. These groups meet regularly to analyze the cases and discuss classroom management. Detailed teaching notes present both the required analysis and likely discussion dynamics; most teaching notes even contain "blackboard plans" showing the best way to organize students' comments on the five blackboards in the typical business school classroom.

Classes begin either with a "cold call," as at the law school, or a "warm call," in which a student is given notice a few minutes before class that he will be asked to speak. The opening question—usually one from the assignment—typically requires taking a position or making a recommendation. Since as much as 50 percent of their grade is based on class participation, most students come well prepared. The opening student normally talks for five to ten minutes with occasional interruptions by the instructor. Once he is done, instructors typically throw the same issue or question back to the class for further discussion.

Throughout the class, a primary goal is to encourage student-to-student dialogue. For this reason, business school professors tend to pose broad, open-ended questions far more than their law school colleagues do, and to link students' comments by highlighting points of agreement or disagreement. They also are more likely to seek commentary from experts: students whose backgrounds make them knowledgeable about a country, a company, or an issue. Instructors are also more likely to provide closure at the end of a class or unit, with a clear set of "takeaways."

Building The Tension

In most classes, debate revolves around a few central questions that prompt conflicting positions, perspectives, or points of view. "There's got to be a plausible tension in the case," says W. Carl Kester, chair of the M.B.A. program and Industrial Bank of Japan professor of finance. "It's what allows me to build a debate and get the students to talk with one another."

Most teaching notes even contain "blackboard plans" showing the best way to organize students' comments on the five blackboards in the typical business-school classroom.

The best questions involve issues where much is at stake, and where the class is likely to divide along well-defined lines. At times, they bring a difficult choice to life: "This new business requires completely different marketing and manufacturing skills, even though the exact same customers will purchase the product. Do you want to set up an independent unit, or put the business within an already established division?" Questions like these force students to take a stand on divisive issues and try to convince their peers of the merits of their point of view.

That, of course, is how managers spend their time. They regularly size up ambiguous situations—emerging technologies, nascent markets, complex investments—and make hard choices, often under pressure, since delay frequently means loss of a competitive edge. They work collaboratively, since critical decisions usually involve diverse groups and departments. And they discuss their differences in meetings and other public forums.

Cases and case discussions thus serve three distinct roles. First, they help students develop diagnostic skills in a world where markets and technologies are constantly changing. "The purpose of business education," a business-school professor noted more than seventy years ago, "is not to teach truths...but to teach men [and women] to think in the presence of new situations." This requires a bifocal perspective: the ability to characterize quickly both the common and the distinctive elements of business problems.

Persuasiveness is valued—but not publicly changing one's own mind.

Second, case discussions help students develop persuasive skills. Management is a social art; it requires working with and through others. The ability to tell a compelling story, to marshal evidence, and to craft persuasive arguments is essential to success. It is for this reason that the business school puts such a heavy premium on class participation. Beyond grading, students also receive regular feedback from professors about the quantity, quality, and constructiveness of their comments.

The Habit Of Decision Making

Third, and perhaps most important, a steady diet of cases leads to distinctive ways of thinking—and acting. "The case system, " business school alumnus Powell Niland, now of Washington University, has observed, "puts the student in the habit of making decisions." Day after day, classes revolve around protagonists who face critical choices. Delay is seldom an option. Both faculty and students cite the "bias for action" that results—what Fouraker professor of business administration Thomas Piper calls "courage to act under uncertainty." That courage is essential for corporate leadership. "The businessman's stock in trade," wrote two long-time faculty members, the late Walmsley University Professor C. Roland Christensen and Abraham Zalesnik, now Matsushita professor of leadership emeritus, "is his willingness to take risks, to decide upon and implement action based on limited knowledge." Cultivating these attitudes is the raison d'etre of the case method.

But it also raises concerns. At times, courage is difficult to distinguish from foolhardiness. Competitive information may be unavailable; technologies may be underdeveloped; employees may be untrained or unprepared. Sometimes the wisest course of action is to wait and see.

The case method does little to cultivate caution. Decisiveness is rewarded, not inaction. Students can become trigger-happy as a result, committed "to taking action where action may not be justified or to force a solution where none is feasible." Class discussions can easily polarize. Persuasiveness is valued—but not publicly changing one's own mind. Few students do so in the course of discussion; if anything, positions tend to harden as debate continues. Skilled managers, by contrast, try to stay flexible, altering their positions as new evidence and arguments emerge.

Increasingly, the case method is being used to teach sophisticated techniques like valuation, forecasting, and competitive analysis. These techniques are essential to modern business literacy and are required for employment at investment banks, consulting firms, and large corporations. But they come with a price. "Too many of our cases," says Kester, "are turning into glorified problem sets. They have a methodological line of attack and a single, preferred, right answer. They are exercises in applied analysis." Diagnosis, decision-making, and implementation—the action skills the case method was originally designed for—receive much less time and attention. The challenge is compounded by the continued influx of Ph.D.s with backgrounds in economics, political science, psychology, and sociology into business-school teaching. That leaves some professors wondering: how do we continue to teach the art and craft of management?

About the Author

David A. Garvin is a professor at Harvard Business School.