In Which I Learn the Ways of “Synergy” and “Optimization”

(Cross-posted, in slightly altered form)

So I’m going to DC for spring break to volunteer at the SEED school. To fund the trip, the group of us going hosted a fundraising concert. Being a profoundly talentless individual, it was my job to stage-manage the acts, so I went a little early to set up. As soon as I walked backstage, I saw a big piles of red pamphlets at my feet. They said, in a chicly understated font, “BAIN & COMPANY: How to ace the case interview.” Given as I feel the same way about management consulting firms as, say, Christian Bale feels about his cinematographer, I immediately picked up a copy. And it was the most hilariously vapid document I’ve ever read.

The meat of the pamphlet are five sample questions for a case interview, along with “A good answer” to each. Example:

Question: You have just been promoted to be the President of the University you are currently attending. What do you think the biggest challenge facing you might be?

A good answer: The University has several powerful constituencies – undergraduates, graduate students, professors, alumni, government and community. However, the University doesn’t have unlimited resources, and therefore it must prioritize where it spends its dollars. Long-term success for the University is driven by figuring out what the most important areas are, and at the same time ensuring that all constituents feel they are being treated fairly.

Now, obviously this doesn’t answer the question, and contains information that your average seventh-grader could articulate. And, of course, if you were one of Bain’s clients and paid $20,000 for this advice, you would want to use the just-hired consultant’s freshly printed Harvard diploma to inflict him with a little case of Death By Papercut. But it should go without saying at this point that management consulting firms are useless institutions that a truly efficient capitalist system would have weeded out eons ago. No, this isn’t close to the best part. Observe question 4:

Question: Okay, so how would you improve the University’s reputation?

A good answer: I would focus on improvement in two areas:

  • Promote activities that build reputation
  • Eliminate factors that negatively impact reputation

    Discussion then continues down both of these paths with specific improvement ideas

  • Yes, Bain & Co. needs bullet points to express the view that institutions can improve their reputations by promoting activities that build reputation. I swear to God, you could put my 13-year-old cousin in stilts and get him a job at this place.

    Question: Well, those seem like pretty sound strategies. How exactly would you implement those ideas?

    A good answer: We will need to start with a PR blitz, so I would encourage several articles to be written about “The New University” in the popular press. Also, I would heighten the pressure on professors to publish articles…(The answer continues with other implementation ideas).

    “Well, Mr. Tool, your tautologies impress me. Go on.” “Step one, write articles. Thousands and thousands of articles. Step two, compromise academic freedom.”

    And then, the best of the best, the finest set of insights in this brilliant document, I bring you the Interview Tips:

    Interview tips

    Be concise. If asked for the top two issues, confine your response to two items.

    “Know how to count.”

    Provide logical backup for your answers.

    “Did you know that if all cats are mammals, and all cats have whiskers, then all mammals do not necessarily have whiskers? It’s okay, us neither.”

    Good luck!

    Yes, that’s a tip. Apparently, Bain consultants are expected to create their own luck. And then become disfigured by a burning oil drum and go on a vigilante rampage.

    P.S. Special thanks to Abby Brown for having the brilliant idea of sharing this with the world (and for serving as my endlessly insightful interviewer in our acting-out of the pamphlet).

    4 thoughts on “In Which I Learn the Ways of “Synergy” and “Optimization”

    1. This reminds me of a self-help method a friend and I invented in college, the Boyd-Weese Method for Success — guaranteed to solve any problem if applied correctly:
      Step 1: Identify the problem
      Step 2: Solve it
      I didn’t realize at the time that I had just qualified myself to advise captains of industry.

    2. @ Question 1:
      Clark Kerr, famous chancellor of UC Berkeley and president of the UC system, once said that an university president needs to provide three things: enough parking for the faculty, enough sex for the undergraduates and a good enough football team for the alumni. I’d say Drew Faust and her predecessors fail on all three counts.

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