The HBS Classroom Experience

I haven’t written down the mechanics of what HBS is like day-to-day so far. I wanted to share this as context for some other pieces I’m going to write soon. (To be honest, I explain this at least once per day, so this should save me some time, too!)

The Cases

An HBS case is like a long story. Overtime, you get familiar with the format. The introduction almost always includes a sentence like:

<Protangonist> sipped their <beverage> and contemplated what to do next. <Ponderous Question>.

The question relates to what you’ll be learning during the rest of the case. It’s colored by the class the case is for.

Finance-y: “Should Bob take the financing offer or hold out for something better?”
Operations: “Justine wondered, was now the right time to outsource, or would another year of experience help?”


I really enjoyed this lego case — just wanted to show what the page looks like & the opening sentence, but you can get the full case here.

Then the case jumps backwards in time to explain the history. The history starts from the founding of the company, progresses from there. This provides context for how the dilemma arose, and the company culture.

The background also contains a lot of other industry context. If the case is about Tesla, you don’t just think about Tesla. You think about all the Electric Vehicles.

In my opinion this alone makes reading the cases worth it. My only industry context was tech. Before coming to HBS I couldn’t even name many other industries. There are a lot: Pharma, consumer packaged goods, finance, air travel. Other industries face different challenges, or approach the same challenges in different ways.

The case isn’t just a story — there’s a lot of data, too. While reading the text you’ll be expected to notice (and remember) how many banks shut during the Great Depression. You’ll learn about the gross margins of used cars, not just how used car dealers buy cars.

For me, reading the case feels a lot like trying to solve a puzzle.

If you’ve done a cryptic crossword it’s the same feeling. You try to hold a bunch of pieces of information in your head at once to figure out which ones are important, why, and how they fit together.

There’s not one “answer,” but there’s often something interesting lurking beyond the surface. I enjoy the cases. It’s nice to read something that feels like a puzzle instead of a “takeaway.”

The Assignment

Along with each case is a set of assignment questions. They start simple: a calculation, something to summarize what you read. The last question is usually the same as the one the protagonist is facing.

Some people opt to read the questions before the case. I read the case without looking at the questions. I often read all the cases on the weekend and then do the questions the night before class.

I focus my preparation to be prepared for the Cold Call.

The Cold Call

My favorite part of every class is the famed/dreaded “Cold Call.”

Most professors open class by asking someone to start. The “someone” doesn’t volunteer. Some professors use a random number generator, others go based on participation of experience.

The individual will be asked to do one of two things:

1) Lay out an action plan of what the protagonist should do (and why).
2) Provide a summary of the case.

The latter is more popular in subjects like Financial Reporting and Control (accounting). That allows everyone to learn the mechanics before getting to the answer.

So why is this my favorite part?

1) It raises the energy for the entire discussion. The second before the professor says the name is usually one of the most tense parts of class. The tension at the beginning helps get the energy up for the rest of the discussion. I’ve noticed that classes that don’t start with the cold call seem to lag more.
2) It saves time. The cold call gets a bunch of facts on the board quickly. That leaves more time for interpretation later on.
3) You get to see (or show) a whole thought process. Most of the time in class things are quick comments — one more fact, one more idea. Rarely do you get the chance to hear or make a complete argument. It’s fun to hear someone’s plan.

The Rest of Class

After the cold call, class usually shifts away to continue the discussion. People add supplementary factual points. Someone might present a counter argument to the original proposal. There’s some back and forth conversation.

The heart of this is that ~93 people sit in a room and discuss the topic for 80 minutes. Most classes only 30–40 people get to speak, meaning you talk every 2 or 3 classes. You can raise your hand, but there’s no guarantee you’ll called on. The class often moves quickly past the point you wanted to make.

As I’ve mentioned, it’s hard to balance adding quality and quantity. You want to add something unique. Last week, I had three cases in a row where I wanted to say something specific, but it didn’t fit.

The overall discussion depends a lot on the professor. Some classes are fascinating to watch and fly by. Some classes I stare at the clock and draw on my case packets. More on that in another post.

After class

The case has a short life. After class, it’s done. I might talk to a friend over lunch or break. Mostly the case just gets tossed on a pile on my desk so I can move to the next one.