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Case studies are stories used as a teaching tool to show the application of a theory or concept to real situations. The “case method” is a way of teaching that uses those stories— or cases— to encourage learners to exercise judgment and to deal with the complexity of real-life experience. With the case method, learners develop skills in analytical thinking and reflective judgment by reading and discussing complex, real-life scenarios.

According to the father of the case method, Professor Christensen, this way of teaching is “the art of managing uncertainty.” In the process the instructor drops the usual role of lecturer or presenter, and serves instead as planner, host, moderator, devil’s advocate, fellow-student, and judge— all in search of solutions to real-world problems and challenges. Rather than teaching by presenting the concepts, the case instructor ask students to immerse themselves in a concrete scenario of an organization facing, for example, a critical decision for its strategic direction. The work in class is about discussing the choices by analyzing them and, and in so doing, learning about the concepts while applying them to a concrete situation.

I like to think that the case method is not just a methodology for teaching but also a major opportunity for “command and control” types to experiment safely with a different paradigm. In fact, the capacity of the method to bring a point home— tapping into people’s inner motivations, interest and opinions— forces the instructor to practice a critical leadership ability: creating, hosting and facilitating engaging conversations.


I’ve been using this methodology for the last ten years after I attended a course at Harvard.

The key difference with more traditional methods of teaching is that when you use the case method you need to be comfortable improvising, as your class will not be following the predictable pattern of lecturing or presenting a PowerPoint. When you teach with this method you are immediately brought to  more honest terms with the content—as you cannot just name it, but are forced to move to the next level and apply content in a real-world situation. This applies also to your own role in class: if you see yourself as the “sage on stage” or the “dispenser of wisdom,” you are sure to fail. Good case method instructors are good facilitators that manage to engage class members in an interesting exchange while also making key points about the content at hand.

This means that the preparation for teaching like this is entirely different. You need to learn to balance planning (your agenda and the teachable points you want to convey) and spontaneity (your “being in the moment” and openness to what evolves).


How is this relevant to managers? We talk about engagement all the time these days. I think managing your next team meeting using the principles of the case method has several advantages:

  1. It forces you to be real. I am intrigued about my own journey with the case method and how it has forced me to be more honest in class, to pay attention more, to be more intentional and yet conversational, strategic yet responsive.
  2. It changes the atmosphere in the room. The amazing payback of having a conversation with your staff this way is the ability to tap into the power of discussion, by creating real discovery opportunities and learning conversations rather than monologues or speeches.
  3. It encourages your team to ask great questions/engage in inquiry. It makes everyone ask great questions, as different takes on a subject are analyzed and explored rather than dismissed.

So the next time you have a problem-solving session or an important meeting, think like a case educator. Build your list of questions, do not present, provide a quick summary of data and what is not yet known. Last but not least, trust your team to find the best way forward.

What kind of leadership “unlearning” can you practice using the case method? It is a great way to experiment with a less directive way to manage your team and to see in action how— with our expertise and willingness to be the expert— we inadvertently restrict the space of learning for others.