Setting Up A Case Question

Setting Up the Case Question

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When it comes to answering a consulting case question, there are three stages to the answer: setting it up, solving it, and providing a recommendation.

The first stage is setting it up, and below we provide five (5) steps to setting up a case question:

1. Summarize the question

Give yourself time to think by writing down the question and considering the key facts. You can safely pause for up to 90 seconds or so in order to capture your thoughts on paper. When you have finished doing so, summarize your understanding of the question out loud.

2. Clarify vague information

Ask questions to help you understand the situation and clarify any unfamiliar concepts or vague information provided by the interviewer.

3. Determine the goal

Be clear about the objective of the case. Is the company concerned with maximizing profits, increasing market share, or something else? Does the interviewer want a “go/no go” decision, or a list of recommendations?

For example, you might say “From what you have told me I understand that the company wants a list of recommendations on how to maximize profits, are there any other objectives that I should be aware of?”

4. Structure the analysis

When answering a case question, structure is crucial. The interviewer wants to know not only that you can provide a coherent answer but that you can deliver your analysis in a “client friendly” way.

That means having a clear structure.

Select an appropriate framework for analysis. This will allow you to gather the right kinds of information. However, don’t nominate the framework by name, for example don’t say “I want to use the three C’s framework”. Instead, use the framework to identify the relevant issues and draw out a structure for the interviewer to see. A good way to do this is to use a tree diagram. You can then walk the interviewer through your structure and start asking for data or diving into the details.

5. State a hypothesis

If the case is broad and open ended, for example “profits have declined, what should we do?”, then it is helpful to state a hypothesis about the source of the problem.

For example, you might say “Profit is a function of revenue and costs. My hypothesis is that declining profits have been caused by falling revenue.” This will give your analysis a starting point, and allow you to drive towards a solution.

[For more information on consulting interviews, please download “The HUB’s Guide to Consulting Interviews“.]

Conversation with Cartesian

I recently had the good fortune to talk briefly with Adam Fraser who is a Business Analyst at Cartesian.

Cartesian is a specialist provider of consulting services and managed solutions to leaders in the global communications, technology and digital media industries.

Please read the edited transcript of my discussion with Adam below. This will be of particular interest for students and recent graduates who have an interest in the telecoms sector.

Tom: Adam, nice to finally get a chance to talk with you. What is your role at Cartesian?

Adam Fraser: I’m a Business Analyst at Cartesian. I have been with the firm for about 5 months, joining straight out of undergraduate. I work with a variety of companies, typically in the telecoms industry, who are looking for help in formulating strategic approaches to problems; for example, a company looking to enter a new geography or improve their internal procedures, et cetera.

Tom: Cartesian provides consulting in strategy, execution and managed solutions to clients in the global communications, technology and digital media industries. Are graduates expected to pick an industry specialisation?

Adam Fraser: No, nothing like that. You just get involved with everything. They don’t get you to pick particular projects. If you have a preference you can state it, but I think it would be dangerous to limit yourself professionally-speaking.

Tom: Cartesian has offices in Boston, Kansas City, London, New York and Washington.

Are there opportunities for consultants to work with different offices or transfer between offices?

Adam Fraser: On occasion, yes, moving from London to the U.S. has been done, and sometimes people will go to work on a project for a few months at a time. However, there is not a lot of overlap in terms of personnel between the U.S. and London offices. Typically, interaction with an overseas office will involve working in tandem on the same project, without the transfer of personnel to foreign offices.

Tom: What kind of training and mentoring can graduates expect to receive at Cartesian?

Adam Fraser: There is a two-week [on-boarding] training process, followed by Brown Bag sessions (internal training) and external training. Cartesian uses various software packages for analysis, one of which is called Alteryx, and the training teaches you the basics of the software. They will also teach you PowerPoint and Excel skills, and teach you about the key clients that we tend to deal with, for example, companies in the telecoms industry. Beyond this, you receive a great deal of on-the-job training.

Tom: How much client contact can business analysts expect to have at Cartesian?

Adam Fraser: At the business analyst level, you have the opportunity to engage with, and present to, clients and have quite a bit of client interaction, including traveling to client sites.

Tom: What is the firm’s travel model? How much time do Cartesian’s consultants spend on-site with the client?

Adam Fraser: At the business analyst level, not a huge amount of time is spent on-site, it’s mostly in the office. It depends on the particular project you’re working on, though. Some projects may require you to travel to another country and be on-site every day.

Tom: What would you say distinguishes Cartesian from other management consulting firms?

Adam Fraser: I would say, firstly, that the people are really nice, and there is a positive atmosphere. People are interested in what you want to do with your career rather than progression within the organisation itself.

I don’t know anyone here who doesn’t have a good work life balance.

Cartesian consists of strategy and execution departments and the majority of employees are involved with execution and managed solutions. This means that the work atmosphere is probably very unlike other consultancies, like McKinsey or Bain.

Tom: How many graduates is Cartesian looking to hire in the coming year?

Adam Fraser: In the next round of intakes which will be in summer between July and September we will probably take around 2-3 business analysts. We will take any number of experienced hires. It depends on when we find the right people.

Tom: Which universities do you recruit from?

Adam Fraser: The firm will accept applications from anywhere, but they tend to focus on Oxford and Cambridge in the UK for their recruitment processes. However, other Universities are also heavily weighted in terms of judging someone’s academic performance. The firm puts weight on your academic background and you do not have to have experience in the telecoms industry to be hired at the entry level.

Tom: When is the next round of application deadlines?

Adam Fraser: We will begin the new process of recruiting with careers events in October. The application deadline typically falls in around November time.

Tom: Does Cartesian use the case interview in its recruitment process? How many interview rounds are there?

Adam Fraser: Yes, they do. They give you a situation and ask you to do some form of analysis which is mostly quantitative. However, the candidates are not fully judged on obtaining the correct answer, but rather the methodology with which they approach the scenario.

There were two rounds of interviews. Within two weeks of each other. The process is fairly quick.

Tom: Does Cartesian employ an “up or out” policy?

Adam Fraser: No, we don’t have that philosophy.

Tom: How are consultants reviewed?

Adam Fraser: There is a 6 monthly review process.

Tom: What exit opportunities have Cartesian’s consultants pursued in recent years?

Adam Fraser: Different things. Many will move on to the telecoms industry, because they have an expertise in the area. Others may start their own company.

Tom: Is there any additional information that you think would be helpful for candidates but which I haven’t covered?

Adam Fraser: If you are unsure about which consultancy to choose, the one thing you get at Cartesian is daily exposure to experts in the telecoms industry, including Cartesian employees and clients (operators, engineers, et cetera). It is one of the best consultancies if you want to become an industry expert at the same time as learning the consultancy craft.

Say Something

Often we can be scared to open our mouths and say something.

Expressions like “empty vessels make the most noise” and a pervasive social fear of rejection can make it difficult to open up.

Why is this the case?

Schools, universities and families typically work best when there is an open flow of communication. But on a day to day basis, and in the workplace, it can often seem best to say as little as possible.

The issue is that, as social animals, and whether we like it or not, we are constantly engaged in relationships with other people and the power dynamics that inevitably ensue.

If you are a junior employee with views on what your company should be doing, then calling the CEO to tell them may certainly get the CEO’s attention but it may also mark you as a trouble maker and hasten your exit from the firm.

There is always a power dynamic in play (and people who tell you differently are probably playing power games with you).

Speaking without thinking or sending an email which doesn’t convey a clear story backed by supporting data means that your communication is probably “criticism or noise” rather than being a meaningful contribution to the conversation.

The challenge then is not the speaking up part; the challenge is to first do the necessary research and thinking which can be used to foster a constructive dialogue.

You need to say something, but what?

Have you done your research?

Masters of University Adminsitration

I had coffee in early June with Chris McKenna, Associate Professor at Oxford’s Said Business School.

When I say we “had coffee”, we didn’t actually drink coffee, but I had offered to buy Chris one as I thought it might give him a reason to meet with me.

Chris’s area of expertise is strategy and business history, and he is also Director of the Centre for Professional Service Firms.

Needless to say, I was interested to hear his views on strategy, the professional services industry, and the state of the academic job market.

During the course of some light-hearted banter about his academic career, I decided to tell Chris that I was toying with the idea of doing a PhD, and all of a sudden he turned serious.

Don’t do it. He told me pointedly. Lots of people fancy the idea of teaching and research as a job, but the reality is that the odds of getting tenure are extremely remote and the odds of getting tenure somewhere nice like Oxford are slimmer still. Moreover, the opportunity cost of pursuing a PhD is extremely high because you not only miss out on a higher salary which you could have earned pretty much anywhere else, but you may also make yourself less employable in the process.

He conceded that if I still wanted to do a PhD despite his warnings and the lack of job opportunities, then there were a few things to bear in mind:

  1. Only do it if the university is willing to pay. His reasoning on this point was that a PhD is very time consuming and since it doesn’t offer a good return on investment anyway, you can’t afford to get into debt while doing it. He also suggested that the willingness of a university to provide funding is a proxy for how much they want you to come and join them, and so it is a kind of “leading indicator” for whether there will be follow on opportunities like post-doctoral work, consulting, and lecturing opportunities.
  2. Look for the spider in the web. Read lots of academic papers, and then talk to the academics whose research really resonates with you. You may find that the academic’s ideas are not as interesting as the research articles had led you to believe, and the reason that this can happen is that the research ideas may have come from the academic’s supervisor. If this is the case, then try talking to the supervisor or to some of the supervisor’s other hatchlings.
  3. In deciding which faculty to apply to, think about which subjects you would like to teach. If you would like to teach supply and demand, then apply to economics faculties. If you would like to teach strategy, then apply to business schools. Chris’s reasoning on this point was twofold (1) most PhD’s require you to do a year or so of course work which brings you up to speed on the core courses offered by the faculty, and (2) a PhD like any other degree has a certain “signalling effect”. If you do your PhD in a business school then your ability to find work in a business school following the PhD will be enhanced.

After Chris had finished advising me on how to avoid imminent demise and how to successfully navigate the academic job market, he then mentioned something in passing which was even more interesting.

He said, if you really want earn money in a university, then you should become an administrator. With the rise of online courses, the teaching function is likely to become more and more automated.

If you wanted to become a farmer, he told me, then the best job prospects for that industry came and went several hundred years ago. And if you want to become an academic, then the window of opportunity for that market is similarly closing. Universities need administrators, but they need fewer and fewer academics.

I wonder how long it will be before universities start offering a Masters of University Administration? And where will all the creative minds go once universities no longer need them?

Playing For Time In The Case Interview

Playing for Time

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If you get stuck during a case question then there are four (4) things you can do to regain momentum.

  1. If the interviewer has just given you some information then you can say something like “let me take a second to consider that information”. You can safely stay silent for up to 90 seconds or so while writing down and reviewing the key facts of the case. Although don’t take longer than you need.
  2. You can summarize where you are up to so far. Summarizing your position can help you pull your head above water and see the bigger picture. It will also buy you some time to think while you are talking.
  3. Consider the Three C’s Framework (customer, competition, company). Is there an obvious element of the case that you haven’t considered?
  4. Ask the interviewer for help. If you are truly stuck, then it is better to ask for help than to spin your wheels and create a prolonged and awkward silence.

[For more information on consulting interviews, please download “The HUB’s Guide to Consulting Interviews“.]

Purpose of the Consulting Case Question

Purpose of the Consulting Case Question

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The business case question is the cornerstone of the consulting interview, and consulting firms use it to assess a candidate for a number of qualities:

  • Structured thinking;
  • Numerical ability;
  • Communication skills;
  • Comfort with ambiguity;
  • Speed of thought;
  • Knowledge of key business concepts;
  • Enthusiasm for consulting;
  • Calm resolve under pressure; and
  • Ability to represent the firm.

As part of a case question a candidate will be required to consider a hypothetical business situation, uncover the source of the problem, develop a solution, and provide recommendations.

This process will involve presenting a structure for analysis, making a series of common-sense assumptions, and asking the interviewer clarifying questions.

A case question is not intended to test your knowledge of a particular industry, but is designed instead to test your thinking process. It is important to have a structured approach and to think out loud.

[For more information on consulting interviews, please download “The HUB’s Guide to Consulting Interviews“.]

Factors Questions

Factor Questions

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Factor questions are a type of question that you may come across in consulting interviews.

They are designed to help the interviewer see how you think, and you might be asked a question such as “What factors influence X, Y, Z?” or “What factors would you consider when A, B, C?”.

An example of a factor question is “What factors would you consider when marketing a new smart phone app?”

[For more information on consulting interviews, please download “The HUB’s Guide to Consulting Interviews“.]

Answers to Sample Brainteasers

Answers to Sample Brainteasers

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Last week we provided a list of ten (10) sample brainteasers that you might come across in consulting interviews.

If you didn’t read the post, you might want to read it before taking a look at the answers below (to read last week’s post, click here).

Answers to Sample Brainteasers

  1. A round manhole cover cannot fall through the circular opening. Circular covers don’t need to be rotated or precisely aligned when placing them. A round manhole cover can also be easily rolled.
  2. 3 socks.
  3. The digits are in alphabetical order – eight, eleven, five, four, nine, one, seven, six, ten, three, twelve, two, zero.
  4. One box.
  5. Less, you will only have $99.
  6. Read the first sentence to this question.
  7. The cabin is a cabin of a plane which crashed in the woods.
  8. 3 cages and 4 canaries.
  9. Read the question again.
  10. A match box can fit in your pocket, but it can also be used to fill the room with light.

[For more information on consulting interview, please download “The HUB’s Guide to Consulting Interviews“.]

Conversation with L.E.K. Consulting

LEKI recently had the opportunity to communicate with Janine Clifford, Recruitment & HR Manager at L.E.K. Consulting.

L.E.K. Consulting is a global management consulting firm that uses deep industry expertise and analytical rigor to help clients solve their most critical business problems.

Please read my discussion with Janine below. This will be of particular interest for students and recent graduates who are looking to pursue a career in the management consulting industry.

Tom: LEK offers a range of services including Strategy, Marketing & Sales, Operations and Mergers & Acquisitions. Where does LEK do the bulk of its work? Are graduates able to gain exposure to more than one service line?

Janine CliffordJanine Clifford: The bulk of our work is strategy, M&A, strategy activation and performance improvement. As we are a “generalist” consultancy firm our graduates get exposure to a variety of service lines which is fantastic for their early career development.

Tom: LEK has expertise in many different industry sectors including defence, media, and private equity. Are graduates expected to pick an industry specialisation? How quickly are graduates expected to specialise?

Janine Clifford: There is no expectation that graduates will specialise. One of the benefits of joining LEK is the exposure our people get to a variety of industries. Specialisations occur much later in a career with LEK, closer to Manager level roles. Even then, our Managers and Partners still work across a diverse range of sectors.

Tom: LEK has offices in 21 cities worldwide including offices in Sydney and Melbourne. Is it possible for consultants to transfer between offices within Australia or internationally?

Janine Clifford: Yes, one of the great benefits of being a global firm is being able to offer our people exposure to international opportunities. We offer a “swap” program which provides an opportunity for our people to work in another LEK international office for 6 months. They “swap” with another LEK’er in another office for that period of time. A number of our client engagements also require multi-disciplinary teams and cross regional input. In particular a number of our people have worked on projects across the Asia Pac region of late, in Singapore and Japan.

Tom: What kind of training and mentoring can graduates expect to receive at LEK?

Janine Clifford: LEK has a philosophy of continual learning. This involves a high caliber professional development program which includes formal technical training as well as on-the-job learning experiences. On the last Friday of every month we hold a Back to the Office day which is a day each month dedicated to professional development.

Our team work with their cohort on a range of tailored professional development activities geared at helping our people grow professionally and personally. We also have a fantastic career coach and a buddy program where from day 1 a more experienced LEK’er will guide and support you through your career at LEK.

Tom: How much partner and client contact can junior consultants expect to have at LEK?

Janine Clifford: Our junior Associates have lots of opportunity to work closely with partners and clients. Our Partners are “hands on” throughout the case which provides Associates with early exposure and meaningful involvement on how the case is tracking. We spend quite a bit of time working on client site which provides exposure to the clients environment fostering and encouraging regular contact with clients.

Tom: What would you say are the typical working hours for an LEK consultant?

Janine Clifford: Our Associates and Consultants would average around 55 to 60 hours a week with peaks during critical case periods. The life of a management consultant is certainly a busy one and often involves travel. We do have a number of programs in place to support a work/life balance including TOIL (time off in lieu) following busy periods.

Tom: What is LEK’s travel model?

Janine Clifford: This varies depending upon the case. Our clients are based all over Australia, NZ and in the Asia Pac region. Some in major cities and some in regional or remote locations. Some cases require our teams to work onsite with the client, others from our offices or it might be a hybrid of this. For those teams that travel, typically they work on site from Monday to Thursday and return to the home office for Fridays.

Tom: What would you say distinguishes LEK from other management consulting firms?

Janine Clifford: We believe our culture is a big differentiator from other firms. There’s no room for ego at LEK. Our people are very smart and capable but also very grounded and collaborative. There is a genuine comradery amongst the team that fosters teamwork and personal development.

Tom: How many graduates is LEK looking to hire over the coming year? How does this compare with last year?

Janine Clifford: We look for 10 to 12 graduates each year for Sydney and Melbourne. Our graduate recruitment programs runs every March so we will be back on campus and recruitment in March 2016 for positions commencing in February 2017.

Tom: When are the next set of recruitment application deadlines for graduates and other aspiring consultants?

Janine Clifford: Our focus at the moment is on experienced hires, those with around 3 to 5 years, Associate Consultants and Senior Associate Consultants. We are also in the process of recruiting some new Consultants. These candidates typically have 5+ years of experience and an MBA. We are currently accepting applications for these opportunities and more information can be found on our careers page.

Tom: Does LEK use the case interview in its recruitment process? How many interview rounds are there?

Janine Clifford: Yes, case interviews are a key component of our recruitment process. Associates (graduates) usually have 2 rounds on interviews and Consultants 3 rounds. Case interviews cover quantative and qualitative aspects. We also include behavioural interviews to ensure candidates are aligned with our core values.

Tom: What kind of candidates tend to be successful in securing a position with LEK?

Janine Clifford: We recruit from all disciplines so there isn’t a “typical” background that we look for. Strong analytical, problem solving, quant skills and an entrepreneurial spirit go a long way. We also look for people who align with our values, honesty, integrity, open and transparent communication and leadership capabilities.

Tom: What’s the most common mistake that candidates make when applying?

Janine Clifford: Not investing enough time in the cover letter and resume and not preparing for case interviews. It’s important to spend time on your application to bring your cover letter to life, expressing why you are interested in management consulting as a career and LEK as an employer.

Case interviews can also be quite challenging if you haven’t done one before. I’d suggest spending a number of hours practicing with family and friends to help hone your case interview skills.

Tom: What exit opportunities do LEK’s consultants typically pursue?

Janine Clifford: Our alumni are in so many diverse roles, from strategy to general management to chief advisor and heads of innovation.

Tom: Is there any additional information that you think would be helpful for candidates but which we haven’t covered?

Janine Clifford: We offer an 10 week internship program for penultimate students over the Australian summer break, early Dec to the start Feb. This is a fabulous opportunity for those who are interested in exploring management consulting as a career to get a taste for what it’s like. Our applications will open in mid-July with interviews taking place in August.

Impending Grexit?

Greek Exit

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We have seen this week some heated negotiations between Greece and its European lenders.

Here are some of the issues facing Greece at the moment:

  1. Technical default: Greece is due to repay €1.6bn (£1.2bn) to the IMF at the end of June. On Wednesday, Athens announced that it is stony broke and will not be able to pay up. As I understand it, this amounts to a technical default.
  2. Troika withholds money: The Troika (i.e. the European Commission, European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund) are withholding the last tranche of money from Greece’s second bailout until Athens agrees to make a number of painful economic reforms.
  3. Political deadlock: Alexis Tsipras, Greece’s prime minister, came to power on an anti-austerity ticket in January and is refusing to accept calls from the Troika for new austerity measures.
  4. Emergency Liquidity Assistance in doubt: Emergency Liquidity Assistance (ELA) is support which the ECB has been providing to Greek banks as they suffer from dwindling deposits as worried Greek savers continue to pull money out of their accounts. As the name suggests, ELA was intended to be a temporary measure; will the ELA scheme be continued?
  5. Greek Exit?: If debt negotiations remain unresolved by the end of the month, Greece will default on its repayment obligations. If this happens, one possible scenario is that emergency liquidity assistance will come to an end, there will be a run on Greek banks as people scramble to withdraw their money, and the Greek government will impose capital controls to prevent money from leaving the country. Chaos is likely to ensue, and Greece may exit the currency union and the EU. Since the Greek economy is small in relative terms (around 1.4% of EU GDP), failure by the Troika to contain the Greek debt crisis may lead to reduced confidence in the European project and the spread of financial contagion to other highly indebted EU member countries.

Watch this space.

Trump Nation?

Donald Trump

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The Donald has announced his intention to run for the White House in 2016 on a ticket to “Make America Great Again!”.

At this stage it’s unclear whether he will run for office or not because he has flirted with running in the past and then not done so.

Whatever happens though, the take away lesson at this stage is that Donald Trump is a master at manipulating media attention and getting people to talk about him (in articles like this one).

Trump is a shrewd businessman who never misses an opportunity to build the Trump brand.

Are you being similarly diligent with your own brand building efforts?


Brainteasers 4

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Brainteasers are another kind of question that you might confront in consulting interviews.

They are likely to be tricky and to require “out of the box” thinking.

Why do interviewers ask brainteasers?

Well, since clients can sometimes ask questions which have no immediate or obvious answer, the goal of the brainteaser is to assess how well you deal with ambiguity under pressure.

Here is a list of six (6) sample brainteasers to give you an idea of what you might come across in your consulting interview (answers will be posted next week).

  1. Why are manhole covers round?
  2. There are 6 blue socks and 6 purple socks mixed randomly together in your sock drawer. It is dark, and you cannot tell them apart. What is the smallest number of socks that you need to take from the draw to be sure you have one matching pair?
  3. Is there anything interesting about the following sequence of numbers? 8, 11, 5, 4, 9, 1, 7, 6, 10, 3, 12, 2, 0
  4. You have three boxes of eggs. The boxes contain (1) big eggs, (2) small eggs, or (3) a mixture of big and small eggs. The boxes are labelled: Big, Small and Mixed but every box is labelled incorrectly. What is the least number of boxes that you will need to open to know which eggs are in which box?
  5. You invest $100 today in a company. The share price goes up 10% in the first year but then drops 10% in the second year. At the end of the second year do you have more, less or the same as you started with?
  6. You are driving a bus and tracking the number of passengers on the bus. At the first stop, the bus picks up 22 people. At the second stop, 15 people get off the bus and 8 new passengers get on. At the third stop, 5 passengers get off, and 13 new passengers get on. At the fourth stop, 5 passengers get off, and 2 get on. What is the color of the bus driver’s eyes?
  7. In a tiny cabin in the woods, two men lie dead. The cabin is not burned but the woods around it have burned. How did the men die?
  8. You are the owner of a pet store. You have a number of canaries and bird cages. If you place one canary per cage, you have one bird too many. If you place two canaries per cage, you have one cage too many. How many cages and canaries do you have?
  9. Mary’s father has five daughters: Nana, Nene, Nini, Nono, and what is the name of the fifth daughter?
  10. A rich father is dying and wants to leave his properties to his wisest son. He asks them to purchase something that can fill the bedroom, but is small enough to fit in their pocket. What did the wisest child bring?

[For more information on consulting interviews, please download “The HUB’s Guide to Consulting Interviews“.]

Math Questions

Maths Questions

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In consulting interviews, the interviewer may quiz you on your quantitative skills with one or two short maths questions.

Below we outline six (6) sample math questions to give you an idea of what to expect:

  1. What is 13 x 13?
  2. What percentage is 5 of 42?
  3. The total smart phone market is $900 million and our client’s sales are $120 million. What is our client’s market share as a percentage?
  4. Our client’s total costs are $350,000. Raw material costs account for 25% of total costs. How much does the company pay for raw materials?
  5. A company’s marketing costs are $50 million and it sells 40,654 units. What is the approximate marketing cost per unit?
  6. An investment bank helps a mining company raise $35 million and takes a 3% commission. What’s the investment bank’s commission?

[For more information on consulting interviews, please download “The HUB’s Guide to Consulting Interviews“.]

Sample Guesstimate Questions

Sample Guesstimate Questions

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The guesstimate question (market sizing or other) is one of the types of question you are likely to encounter in consulting interviews.

Below we list twenty three (23) sample guesstimate questions broken down by question type.

Population Questions

  1. How many births are there in America each day?
  2. How many petrol stations are there in Sydney?
  3. How many bottles of wine are consumed in France each month?
  4. How many cups of tea are drunk in England each day?
  5. How many pounds are spent on haircuts in the UK each year?
  6. How many weddings are performed in China each year?
  7. How many men’s suits were sold in the United States last year?
  8. Surfboards Inc. imports surfboards into America. Demand depends on the weather and the company needs to order stock six months in advance. How many surfboards should they order?
  9. Estimate the total revenues obtained from the Harry Potter movies.
  10. What is the size of the market for mobile phones in America?
  11. How many cars are sold in in Australia each year?
  12. How many people are buried each year in England?
  13. How many taxis are there in New York?

Household Questions

  1. What is the annual market for apples in America?
  2. What is the annual size of the market for golf clubs in Japan?
  3. What is the annual revenue of Harrods in London?
  4. What is the market for bicycles in America?

Preposterous Questions

  1. How far does the average Premiership footballer run in a game?
  2. How much does Mount Kilimanjaro weigh?
  3. How many ping-pong balls will fit inside a 747?
  4. How much does a 747 weigh?
  5. How many slices of pizza does it take to reach the moon?
  6. How many tennis balls fit in a swimming pool?

[For more information on consulting interviews, please download “The HUB’s Guide to Consulting Interviews“.]

Approaching the Guesstimate Question

Approaching the Guestimate Question

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A guesstimate question can be approached by breaking a question down into smaller pieces by asking the interviewer questions and making a series of narrowing assumptions.

You can break a question down either by starting big (e.g. making an assumption about the total population) or starting small (e.g. making assumptions about the average household or some other piece of the whole and then extrapolating).

After coming up with an estimate, it is a good idea to sanity check whether the estimate is in the right ball park by establishing reasonable upper and lower bounds within which the answer should fall.

There are three types of guesstimate questions that you might come across: population questions, household questions, and preposterous questions.

For population questions, the standard formula for calculating the market size is the following:

Market Sizing Standard Formula

In finding the market size, segmenting the population using simple demographics will normally be the way to go. You might decide to segment the population by age group, gender, geography, income, or marital status.

[For more information on consulting interviews, please download “The HUB’s Guide to Consulting Interviews“.]

Conversation with Vivaldi Partners Group

Vivaldi PartnersI was grateful for the recent opportunity to talk with Heather Tortorello, the talent growth director at Vivaldi Partners Group.

Founded in 1999, Vivaldi Partners Group works across industries to help build strong brands, ignite innovation and drive growth by connecting business strategy with a deep understanding of changing customer contexts.

Please read the edited transcript of my discussion with Heather below. This will be of particular interest for students and recent graduates who are looking to pursue a career in the management consulting industry.

Tom: Vivaldi Partners Group consists of three specialty practice areas:

  1. Vivaldi Partners, your strategic consulting firm;
  2. Fifth Season, your creative powerhouse; and
  3. E-Edge, your organizational engagement and change management program.

Where does Vivaldi Partners Group do the bulk of its work?

Heather TortorelloHeather Tortorello: We work across all practice areas, and a lot of times you’ll see projects that coalesce together to combine the expertise of consultants from different practice areas.

Internships allow graduates to gain exposure across all practice areas and to work within different areas of the business: change management, brand, strategy and innovation.

For full time positions, we have a strong presence within brand, strategy and innovation. There is no rotation program for full time roles, and the nature of the work will depend on who the clients are and the scope of the project. You could be working with change management or innovation and brand strategy.

Tom: Vivaldi Partners Group has worked with a diverse range of clients including companies like Lego, airbnb, BMW, Samsung, and Birkenstock.

Are graduates expected to pick an industry specialisation?

Heather Tortorello: We are a boutique firm, and so our consultants usually have a wide range of opportunities to work with different clients. If a consultant is passionate about a particular industry, we do our best to support a focus in that industry.

Tom: Vivaldi Partners Group has 9 offices globally including an office in London and headquarters in New York.

Is it possible for consultants to transfer between offices?

Heather Tortorello: Good question. The short answer is it depends. New consultants tend to stick with the office where they start to ramp up their skills.

Depending on the clients and scope of work, there is a lot of fluctuation. For example, we could have a consultant from another office working in New York for a one month or two month stay if they are assigned to a large project focused there. It depends on the situation.

Tom: What kind of training and mentoring can graduates expect to receive at Vivaldi Partners Group?

Heather Tortorello: We have a mentor program in place, which is in addition to the normal on-boarding program that we provide for graduates.

As part of the mentor program, we assign a senior partner to a handful of people on the mentor team, and we have a learning and development guideline that guides the process. The mentoring program provides individuals with coaching opportunities in order to enhance professional development.

Tom: How much partner and client contact can junior consultants expect to have?

Heather Tortorello: It’s situational. We have pretty strong track record of getting junior consultants very involved in projects. They wouldn’t be leading a meeting but they would be sitting in on it and getting exposure, allowing them to see their individual impact on the larger goal of the project.

Tom: What is the firm’s travel model?

Heather Tortorello: It depends on what the client’s needs are. We have a fluid and open schedule in that regards.

Tom: For all the ambitious young graduates out there, what would you say distinguishes Vivaldi Partners Group from other consulting firms?

Heather Tortorello: The organisation itself. Erich Joachimsthaler is the founder and CEO and brings his level of expertise.

From a company culture standpoint and brand standpoint, we give a lot of flexibility to employees that is often not available in larger firms. This is combined with the ability to work for large clients and be very involved on larger projects that may not be available at other agencies.

Tom: How many graduates is Vivaldi Partners Group looking to hire in the coming year?

Heather Tortorello: We don’t have a fixed number. We continue to look for top talent, and it depends on the work that we have and the offices that we’re looking to fill.

Tom: When is the next round of application deadlines?

Heather Tortorello: For full time roles we consistently keep our eyes out, this is an annual process. As for when the hiring takes place, it depends on need.

Interns are hired every couple of months. We are currently looking for a fall internship (undergraduate or MBA) in London.

Tom: Does Vivaldi Partners Group use the case interview as part of its recruitment process?

Heather Tortorello: Yes, for full time positions we use the case interview process.

Tom: How many interview rounds are there?

Heather Tortorello: It varies by position and office. If someone is interested we can talk them through the process in our first conversion.

Tom: What kind of candidates tend to be successful in securing a position with Vivaldi Partners Group?

Heather Tortorello: For entry level consultants, people who are excited, energetic, and self motivated tend to do well. People who tend to thrive in a fluid environment tend to be successful here.

Tom: Does Vivaldi Partners Group employ an “up or out” policy?

Heather Tortorello: No. We encourage growth and development. We don’t manage people out of the firm if they are not ready to be promoted within a set period of time.

Tom: What kind of exit opportunities have the firm’s consultants pursued in the last few years?

Heather Tortorello: There are a variety of paths. Some people go to the client side, other agencies, or to graduate school. We see a large significant trend of people coming back to the company after spending some time away.

Tom: Is there anything else that I haven’t touched on that might be useful for graduates looking to pursue a career in the management consulting industry?

Heather Tortorello: Do your research and do your homework when applying. Make sure you understand the business, the organisation and the brand. Ask lots of questions when you have the opportunity to do so.

Ownership vs Control

The recent news of succession planning at 21st Century Fox brings an interesting issue to light.

On Thursday, the Guardian reported that James Murdoch will succeed Rupert Murdoch as CEO at 21st Century Fox.  At the same time, Rupert and Lachlan will become executive co-chairmen.

The interesting thing about the Murdoch family’s control of Fox is that it relies on a dual-voting structure in which the family has nearly 40% of the voting power but only owns about 12% of the shares.

This may infuriate some people, but the interesting lesson here for all of us is that “control is more important than ownership”.

This is an incredibly powerful insight that can be used by business owners who are looking to grow their business.

Giving up equity in a company or a subsidiary in order to gain key talent or much needed financial backing is worthwhile so long as it doesn’t result in loss of control.

This concept is used by Richard Branson to expand into new markets.

Virgin will, as I understand it, typically provide its brand name and a small fraction of the financial capital required for an investment, but at the same time gain most of the shares in the new venture, thereby retaining control.

Ownership versus control; it’s a valuable distinction for all of us to be aware of.

Guesstimate Questions

Guesstimate Questions

(Source: Flickr)

The guesstimate question frequently comes up in consulting interviews.

It will often be a market sizing question, which may be a standalone question or part of a larger case question.

What will you be asked to do?

The typical guesstimate question will require you to estimate a number by doing a rough “back of the envelope” calculation. You are supposed to reach a final answer by using a series of narrowing assumptions.

Your assumptions should have a sound basis and you should explain the logic behind your assumptions, however it is not important that your assumptions be 100% accurate.

What is being assessed?

The guesstimate question is quite different from the kind of interview questions that you are probably used to.

For the guesstimate question, it is better to arrive at the wrong answer with good assumptions and clear logic than to know the right answer because you read it in a text book.

[For more information on consulting interviews, please download “The HUB’s Guide to Consulting Interviews“.]

How to Answer Behavioural Questions

How to Answer Behavioural Questions

(Source: Flickr)

In consulting interviews, when you are asked a behavioural interview question, you will typically want to include five things in your answer:

  1. A specific situation;
  2. The goal you set for yourself or obstacle you faced;
  3. The action you took;
  4. The outcome achieved; and
  5. What you learned from the experience.

[For more information on consulting interviews, please download “The HUB’s Guide to Consulting Interviews“.]

Sample Behavioural Interview Questions

Sample Behavioural Questions

(Source: Flickr)

Behavioural interview questions are one type of question that you are likely to encounter in the consulting interview.

Below we provide thirteen (13) sample questions to give you an idea of what to expect:

  1. Tell me about yourself.
  2. Can you provide an example of a time when you demonstrated leadership?
  3. Can you provide an example of an obstacle you faced, and how you overcame it?
  4. What role do you normally take in a group?
  5. Can you provide an example of a time you worked with someone in a group who didn’t pull their weight? How did you deal with the situation?
  6. Describe a project that best highlights your analytical abilities. What was your role?
  7. Tell us about a time when you had to persuade someone. How did you go about it?
  8. When was the last time you thought “outside the box”? Explain your approach.
  9. What is the most stressful situation you have ever faced? How did you handle it?
  10. Which of your achievements are you most proud of?
  11. What is the worst mistake you have ever made?
  12. Why do you want to work at [insert firm name here]?
  13. Why should we hire you?

[For more information on consulting interviews, please download “The HUB’s Guide to Consulting Interviews“.]

Behavioural Interview Questions

Behavioural Interview Questions

(Source: Flickr)

In consulting interviews, the interviewer is likely to ask questions based on your résumé with the aim of understanding your skills and experience.

Your résumé may provide a structure for these kinds of interview questions, but you also need to be prepared to elaborate on your experience including by highlighting your skills using different examples from the ones contained in your résumé.

The way you answer behavioural questions can be just as important as what you say. Appearing confident and relaxed is crucial.

What skills is the firm you are applying for specifically looking for?

Prior to the interview, review your résumé and answers to the most likely questions. This will reduce your stress levels.

In general, interviewers are looking for the following qualities:

  • Leadership skills – Consultants need to be able to promote themselves, their ideas, and the firm;
  • Teamwork skills – Consultants spend long hours travelling and working together, and so need the ability to get along;
  • Analytical skills – Research and analysis are bread and butter consulting skills;
  • Communication skills – Good analysis is meaningless if you can’t convey your ideas;
  • Confidence – Clients can be busy and demanding, and consultants need to have the right mettle. Sometimes one of the interviewers will play “bad cop” to try and ruffle your feathers;
  • Personality – Do you have hobbies, interests, and a sense of humour?

You should prepare answers ahead of time so that you can address this part of the interview without needing to think on the spot.

Memorize bullet points instead of lengthy answers, and have at least three stories to demonstrate each personal quality.

[For more information on consulting interviews, please download “The HUB’s Guide to Consulting Interviews“.]

To Those Who Have

John Paulson, the American hedge fund manager and billionaire, donated $400 million to Harvard University this week.

The donation will go to Harvard’s School of Engineering and Applied Sciences which, strangely enough, will be renamed the “Harvard John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences”.

Donating money to an educational institution can never be a bad thing, can it?

Well, it depends on who you ask.

Malcolm Gladwell was pretty incensed about the donation, and spent an hour on Wednesday ranting about it.

Gladwell appears to have been annoyed about the donation because Harvard just doesn’t need the money.

And while Gladwell’s outrage may be justified, and certainly Harvard (like Oxford) is not short of funds, the more interesting question is: what enables Harvard to attract such a large donation?

This is not a bible class but it does happen to say in Matthew 13:12 “For whoever has, to him more shall be given, and he will have an abundance.”

That’s all well and good, but what exactly is it that Harvard has that allows it to attract even more?

Here are three (3) ideas:

  1. Brand: Harvard is one of the world’s most prestigious and truly global brand names, up there with Oxford. By donating to Harvard, Paulson gains recognition by associating himself with an elite institution.
  2. Network: Harvard may provide education, but it is of an extremely elite variety.  One of my friends from Sydney studied his MBA at Harvard, and one of the questions in the application form asked him to state his father’s occupation and salary. He refused to answer the question, and was accepted anyway, but the nature of the question shows you the kind of game that Harvard is playing. Harvard is a powerful network that empowers itself still further by bringing together people who are already very powerful, wealthy and connected.
  3. Scale: In addition to having a powerful brand and network, Harvard also has scale, teaching around 21,000 students at any one time. This is important because, the larger the scale, the bigger the impact that Paulson can claim that he is making. It also means that more high achieving and ambitious young people will be reminded each year of the true greatness of the ego of John Alfred Paulson.

Art vs Business

Art vs Business

(Source: Flickr)

I attended a talk last week at the Oxford Union given by Alexandra Shulman, editor-in-chief of British Vogue.

Shulman is the longest serving editor in British Vogue history. She took the helm in 2002, and has presided over a circulation increase to 220,000 copies.

Needless to say, I was interested to hear what she had to say about the media and publishing industry.

Shulman is an interesting character, and a master of the British art of understatement.

She entered journalism in the 1980’s and claims to have had no particular inclination towards fashion. Although, after gaining some exposure to the fashion runways working with the British edition of GQ, she says that she ultimately found herself as the editor of Vogue. She also claims not really to be a business person, but has engineered not only a successful career for herself as the editor-in-chief of British Vogue but has also helped to build the profile and circulation of the publication. This is no small feat given that the media industry in general is struggling.

The most interesting takeaway from Shulman’s talk was the distinction she made between art and business.

People who think fashion is all about art and pretty pictures, she said, are not going to do very well in the fashion business.

Pretty pictures and fanciful notions are not worth much, unless you can deliver on time and on budget.

To drive home just how much of a business pragmatist Shulman actually is, it was interesting to hear how she selects which model to use on the cover of British Vogue.

One of the students in the front row asked whether there were plans to feature more black and Asian models on a regular basis rather than merely bringing them in as part of special feature issues.

Shulman acknowledged that things are evolving on this issue albeit very slowly. The reality, she told the audience, is that a blonde will sell even more issues than a brunette, and (as we understand her) a black or Asian model will sell fewer copies still.

British Vogue may be a magazine about fashion, but its editor-in-chief remains a pragmatic business woman. If her readers prefer blondes, then she will be only too happy to provide them.

7 Insights On Crowdfunding From Oxford

Crowdfunding in Oxford

Crowdfunding is a growing trend that allows individuals, non-profits and start-ups to fund projects by raising money from the crowd using an online platform.

Last week I attended a crowdfunding discussion at the Oxford Launchpad with Jonathan May, CEO of Hubbub, and representatives from the development offices of various Oxford colleges.

Asking for donations from alumni is one of the things that Oxford’s colleges do best, but crowdfunding offers a new and largely untested approach.

Pioneering new innovations is not necessarily something that Oxford is known for, and so it was interesting to attend an open discussion between Hubbub’s co-founder and representatives from some of Oxford’s colleges including Melissa Gemmer-Johnson who was representing my own college, Green Templeton.

Here are seven (7) insights that I picked up from the discussion:

  1. Firstly, and probably most interestingly, although crowdfunding is nominally about raising money, one of the main benefits of crowdfunding, as seen by Oxford’s Somerville College, is that it can enable the fundraiser to communicate with the donor in a more personalised way by providing specific and ongoing project updates. Before the advent of crowdfunding this kind of personal touch was only feasible for very large donors (think £1 million or more) but crowdfunding makes it possible for even the very smallest donations;
  2. Hubbub’s Jonathan May was quick to highlight that Hubbub, in contrast to some other crowdfunding platforms like Kickstarter, provides a number of key benefits including (a) a white-label platform that lets the fundraiser use their own branding and marketing materials, and (b) data analytics which allows the fundraiser to identify donors and track where referrals have come from in order to generate new leads;
  3. The most effective way to raise funds, at least when it comes to talking with Oxford college alumni, is to tell them a story about what’s currently happening in college rather than directly asking for money, the money tends to follow;
  4. Repetition pays dividends. It is typical for a donor to hear about a project or fundraising campaign two or three times before they decide to donate;
  5. Long fundraising campaigns are not necessarily the best; two or three weeks was suggested as an ideal length for a giving campaign.  Most money tends to be given at the beginning of a campaign (by the consistent givers) and at the end of a campaign as the pressure mounts and the laggards come on board just before the deadline;
  6. Videos are an effective marketing tools; Hubbub’s Jonathan May indicated that projects which have videos are twice as likely to be successful; and
  7. Contributions lead to more contributions; Hubbub’s Jonathan May indicated that projects that lack friends or family to provide early donations are significantly less likely to reach their ultimate donation targets.

Collaborative Consumption and Social Entrepreneurship, A Cautionary Tale

A few weeks ago I attended a panel discussion at Oxford’s Said Business School entitled “Trust Me, I’m A Stranger: Learn from leading entrepreneurs innovating in the collaborative economy”.

The panelists were Lily Cole founder of Impossible, a social network that encourages users to exchange skills and services for free in the hope of encouraging a peer-to-peer gift economy; Sam Stephens founder of streetbank, a website that helps neighbours build community, reduce consumption and save money; and Ivo Gormeley founder of GoodGym, a growing movement of runners who run to do good.

The panel was moderated by Rachel Botsman, a self-styled expert on collaborative consumption.

Collaborative consumption is a growing trend and looks set to continue for some time. It refers to the fact that the Internet enables people who have things to sell or share them, and people who need things to buy or borrow them.

Buying and selling, sharing and borrowing are nothing new. They have been going on since the dawn of humanity. But the hype around collaborative consumption is due to the fact that the Internet allows people to connect at very low cost (in terms of time and money), and so makes it possible to create markets that didn’t formerly exist because they weren’t economically viable.

While the collaborative economy does offer exciting possibilities and significant promise to enable us to consume more while producing less, I was underwhelmed by the three self-proclaimed social entrepreneurs who spoke.

For three reasons.

Firstly, the panelists demonstrated a lack of understanding of how things work online. 

Lily Cole spoke about the slow growth of her platform, Impossible, and argued that people just need time to become familiar with a new medium, and that it just takes time for people to trust each other online.

This sounds like a plausible argument, but you don’t hear Mark Zuckerberg or Reid Hoffman talking about lack of trust online.

Facebook and LinkedIn are platforms that launched successfully because they were able to attract the critical mass of active users needed to create sufficiently strong network effects, and thus a self sustaining community.

Secondly, the self-proclaimed social entrepreneurs all seemed blissfully aware and yet surprisingly apathetic about the fact that they lack the resources required to compete should a new venture-backed start-up company decide to enter one of their market segments.

Uber poses a significant threat to the taxi industry worldwide largely because it has $1.6 billion to spend.

Good intentions are meaningless if you lack the resources required to carry out your mission; and the panelists were full of good intentions.

Thirdly, two of the panelists (Lily Cole and Sam Stephens) typified the social entrepreneurship movement in that they were slightly too self serving and self congratulatory to be given the respect that they so desperately crave.

Lily Cole has a net worth of around £8 million, and yet was happy to take around £250,000 from the UK government in order to launch her (lackluster) collaborative sharing platform.

Sam Stephens took a similar amount from the UK government. He joked during the panel discussion about needing a new laptop and whether he should borrow one through streetbank, the sharing platform he founded with the money. He conceded that since nobody was likely to lend him the Macbook he so desperately coveted, he would probably just spend some of his grant money to go and buy one.

Social entrepreneurs love to frame themselves as public benefactors, but sometimes the only people they are benefiting are themselves.

How Consultants Can Use Social Media to Brand Themselves

How Consultants Can Use Social Media to Brand Themselves

This is a guest post from Archie Ward, a business consultant and social media strategist. Archie splits his time each year between Asia and Australia. While he is hard at work helping other people make their businesses successful, he hopes to launch his own by year end.

Consultants rely on image as much as they do with any other form of credibility, and one of the avenues technology has provided for consultants to easily differentiate themselves from others in their field is through the use of social media.

There are several different platforms that consultants can use to develop their image and stand out from the competition, and utilising social media is a great first step. Self promotion is something that the most successful consultants all do.


Improving personal branding through social media is an obvious first step for anyone looking to be a consultant. A consultant’s brand name is perhaps their most valuable asset, and building a blog with lots of great free content is a smart and scalable way to start building that brand.

Blogs are nothing new, but are one of the best ways for social media and personal branding to coexist.

If a consultant has a great online platform through a blog, then their work can be show cased to the world and potential customers will be able to view their knowledge of the industry as well as see the consultant’s work over time. Whenever a potential customer Googles the consultant’s name, it helps to have a well maintained website show up with all of the consultant’s past work.

Once you are ranking for your own name within Google, then you know that you can attract repeat visits from people you have met briefly at conferences or other functions. People tend to lose business cards, but if you make a real impression on someone, they will Google you, and you do want them to be able to find you with one click.


Another great social media resource that consultants must use to brand themselves is LinkedIn.

Known as the largest network for professionals available today, LinkedIn has a lot of features that allow a person to show case their work in electronic form.

There are areas on a LinkedIn profile where a consultant can upload work from past projects. In addition, if a client is satisfied with the work completed by a consultant then there is an area where they can leave a recommendation. Having the ability to display real reviews from satisfied customers is a great way to improve the credibility and brand recognition of a consultant. In addition, there are also options to display different skills through the LinkedIn profile and have connections and former clients endorse for those skills. This is important because if a consultant is in the health care field, for example, and a potential client sees recommendations and endorsed skills in that area, then that will go a long way towards landing that client.

It all comes back to having a blog. Once you make that new post go live, you want to post it to LinkedIn, and make sure it’s posted to the types of groups that are able to find it useful. If you can have it read by just one influential person, and they feel compelled to share it, your social reach could explode over night.

Investing Time and Money

One thing that many consultants may notice at the beginning of their journey of using social media to brand themselves is that a significant amount of time and money are needed in order to get started. A social media strategy should be a well thought out plan that allows for the time and money investment required.

There are many different ways in which a consultant could wisely spend money and time on developing their social media strategy and building their platform. This might include taking classes on how to build a web site, on SEO techniques, understanding your Klout score, determining if it’s a worthwhile investment to get into Facebook advertising or re-marketing. Building an email list can become essential at one point, once you have a core group of followers.

Libin’s Law

Libin's Law

(Source: Techworld)

Phil Libin, founder and CEO of Evernote, was one of the guest speakers during Silicon Valley Comes to Oxford which was hosted at Oxford’s Said Business School a fortnight ago.

As part of the conference there was a debate held at the Oxford Union, the world’s oldest debating society, the motion being “This House Believes that Humanity’s Augmentation with Technology Creates a Better World”.

The debate was a heated one, and Libin was a speaker for the proposition.

In making the case for technological progress in general (as you would expect from a tech founder), and for human augmentation in particular, Libin argued that “[t]he upsides of making people better and making people smarter will far outweigh the downsides.”

At the same time he was quick to acknowledge that some of the potential risks associated with human augmentation are likely to come true, and we will need to be prepared to minimise and mitigate these risks.

These risks were variously acknowledged to include (a) the creation of an unrivalled and potentially immortal tech elite, (b) the creation of artificial intelligence which has been characterised by Stephen Hawkings and Elon Musk as a technology with extreme downside risks, and (c) the creation of greater inequality worldwide since only the wealthy will be able to purchase augmentation technology in the early stages, and so they may gain a self-sustaining advantage over everybody else.

In response to the risks outlined by the opposition team including their references to Murphy’s law, Libin proposed a law of his own.

“The opposition talk very intelligently about Murphy’s Law … but there’s an alternative to Murphy’s Law, which I’d like to propose here. In fact, I would very much like from here on out, for this to be known as Libin’s Law … It’s the combination of Murphy’s Law and Moore’s Law. It says that the number of things that go wrong will roughly double every year and it’s for this reason that we need technology and that we need augmentation.”

Whether it be artificial intelligence, or some other form of existential threat like climate change or nuclear proliferation, are you inclined to agree with Phil Libin? Do we need to augment humanity in order to protect and save it from these escalating risks?