The Pros and Cons of Case Studies

Developing Case Studies for Product Managers

When Sequent delivers workshops, they tend to draw upon a lot of personal observation, insight, and experience, and we encourage others to do the same. Part of this body of knowledge will include case studies of what other companies have successfully (or not so successfully) achieved.

However, we tend not to overly rely upon using formal case studies to guide our teaching because we believe there are some significant shortcomings in taking this approach.

The First Issue

First, formal case studies often lack the essential insights of what was actually going on inside the company in question. Case studies that include unbiased critical analysis are usually written from the outside looking in without the benefit of a true internal perspective of the situation. These observations, by the way, maybe no more or less valid than your own.

Meanwhile, those case studies that are written from an internal point of view have more than likely been thoroughly sanitized through company legal departments, corporate communications groups, and sometimes even public relations firms. Yes, there is something to be learned from these types of reports, as long as their content is put into its proper context.

The Second Issue

The second issue with formal case studies is that they are often used to represent either the “right way” or the “wrong way” of doing things. Although it may be tempting to apply such a clear definition, doing so will almost certainly force you to ignore the nearly infinite number of unique inputs and circumstances that surrounded any given situation; all of which helped contribute to the final outcome.

Repeating any given case under ever so slightly different conditions may yield dramatically different results. Since it is unrealistic to understand all of those intricacies, it is also equally unrealistic to use case studies as definitive roadmaps for future success or failure.

The final concern with an over-reliance on formal case studies is that doing so may encourage imitation rather than inspiration – and that is not an advisable place to be.  You may recall taking classes in college where works of art and literature were analyzed to the nth degree. And while this made for some interesting discussion, the focus seemed to be placed more on understanding how somebody else did something rather than encouraging people to think up new ways of doing things on their own.

Presenting the “case” without the formal “study” may just inspire people to apply their own observations and insights rather than leaning on someone else’s analysis.

This, in turn, should lead to the creation of unique works of business art that other people will be writing cases studies about someday!

None of this is to say that formal case studies should be completely ignored – only that they should not be overly relied upon. When case studies are put into the category of foundational learning, they can be extremely effective tools. But when these studies are used as an absolute framework for what should or should not be done in any given situation, you may just find that your own intuition and observations will serve as a far better guide.

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