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What Is a Case Study?
When you’re performing research as part of your job or for a school assignment, you’ll probably come across case studies that help you to learn more about the topic at hand. But what is a case study and why are they helpful? Read on to learn all about case studies.
Deep Dive into a Topic
At face value, a case study is a deep dive into a topic. Case studies can be found in many fields, particularly across the social sciences and medicine. When you conduct a case study, you create a body of research based on an inquiry and related data from analysis of a group, individual or controlled research environment.
As a researcher, you can benefit from the analysis of case studies similar to inquiries you’re currently studying. Researchers often rely on case studies to answer questions that basic information and standard diagnostics cannot address.
Study a Pattern
One of the main objectives of a case study is to find a pattern that answers whatever the initial inquiry seeks to find. This might be a question about why college students are prone to certain eating habits or what mental health problems afflict house fire survivors. The researcher then collects data, either through observation or data research, and starts connecting the dots to find underlying behaviors or impacts of the sample group’s behavior.
During the study period, the researcher gathers evidence to back the observed patterns and future claims that’ll be derived from the data. Since case studies are usually presented in the professional environment, it’s not enough to simply have a theory and observational notes to back up a claim. Instead, the researcher must provide evidence to support the body of study and the resulting conclusions.
As the study progresses, the researcher develops a solid case to present to peers or a governing body. Case study presentation is important because it legitimizes the body of research and opens the findings to a broader analysis that may end up drawing a conclusion that’s more true to the data than what one or two researchers might establish. The presentation might be formal or casual, depending on the case study itself.
Once the body of research is established, it’s time to draw conclusions from the case study. As with all social sciences studies, conclusions from one researcher shouldn’t necessarily be taken as gospel, but they’re helpful for advancing the body of knowledge in a given field. For that purpose, they’re an invaluable way of gathering new material and presenting ideas that others in the field can learn from and expand upon.
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Case Study: Project Failure Often Linked to Design Problems
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A comparison of two sets of ratings for the same cohort of projects showed that 74% of projects with satisfactory designs also had satisfactory outcomes years later.
The quality of a project's design is a strong indicator of its likelihood of success.
The World Bank's Quality Assurance Group (QAG), DPMG's predecessor, compared two sets of ratings for the same cohort of projects. One set was based on evaluations of the design quality of each project. The other ratings measured whether these projects had achieved their development objectives by the time they closed.
Of the 385 projects evaluated, 74% of projects with satisfactory designs also had satisfactory outcomes years later. By contrast, projects rated less than satisfactory on the basis of their designs were twice as likely as others to fail.
The study also showed that design flaws could be corrected if projects were evaluated early during their implementation. More than half of the projects found to have poor designs were turned around during supervision, and those that were evaluated early performed better than those evaluated later.
Common Design Problems
Four design problems were highly correlated with risk of failure.
Overly complex project designs Some project objectives are too complex and ambitious for the institution or government to manage. Donors’ (and governments’) enthusiasm tends to expand the scope of a project beyond the capabilities of weaker governments. This complexity takes many forms:
- Multiple sub-sectors, such as the primary, secondary, and tertiary levels of education
- Multiple beneficiaries, such as disabled children, street children, migrant children, girls in ethnic minority areas, and illiterate adults
- Multiple reform objectives, such as access, quality, equity, and efficiency.
Complex projects place heavy demands on implementing entities that often have limited capacities. The mismatch between complexity and capacity occurs most frequently in low-income and fragile states.
Poorly formulated causal links between inputs, outputs, and outcomes Poorly formulated objectives set up targets that are impossible to achieve. For example, the goal of one project was to produce more trained engineers. However, the project focused on construction of new training facilities that would not have produced any graduates by the end of the project.
Poorly selected indicators of success Poorly selected indicators of success leave all parties to the project flying blind. For example, one project gave four indicators of its objectives. Three of these were outputs (such as the number of vaccination doses procured), not outcomes (such as the number of children vaccinated). In the same project, one outcome measure was inappropriate: it applied to the entire country, not to the sub-regions addressed by the project.
Premature approval Sometimes projects are approved before they are ready. Examples include infrastructure projects that begin before the bidding documents for the first year of work have been prepared or projects that begin before baseline data for indicators of intended outcomes have been collected.
When projects enter the portfolio too soon, project teams may spend the first year or longer addressing issues that should have been handled before the project started. In these cases, the project is not likely to meet its objectives by the time resources have been spent.
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HBR Case Study: A Rush to Failure?
A complex project for the space station must come in on time and on budget—but the push for speed might be its undoing.
There is absolutely no reason why the contractors shouldn’t be able to give us rapid product development and flawless products—speed and quality both,” David MacDonagle said as he tried to light a cigarette. The warm wind, portending rain, kept blowing out his matches. Finally he gave up and slipped the cigarette back in his pocket.
- TC Tom Cross is a senior director in executive education at the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business, where he develops executive learning programs for Department of Defense leaders. Previously he was a senior executive at such firms as KFC and Office Depot.
Leadership development by failure: A case study
Posted by Jeff Russell | September 22 2016
To the extent that leadership is learned, it’s learned through experience. In his Model for Learning and Development , Morgan McCall of the University of Southern California argues that successful managers learn 10 percent from formal schooling and 20 percent from other people, compared to 70 percent from personal and professional experience. “Learning,” in this case, means gaining knowledge or acquiring a skill.
Experience is an ongoing process, and good leaders need to make the most of it. Some look but don’t see; some listen but don’t understand. As T.S. Eliot said, “We had the experience but missed the meaning.”
Experience necessarily involves failures, and you certainly shouldn’t miss the meaning of those. Failures can prepare you to be a leader—as long as you take the time to reflect on them. When you’re reflective, you think about outcomes and impact. You develop judgment.
By “failing,” I don’t mean simply “making a mistake. Failing can involve falling short in a duty or an expected action. It can also refer to a situation in which you don’t make the most of an opportunity. I’m all too familiar with both scenarios and can speak from personal experience about the benefits of failure.
Can’t do, need to do
I came from an athletic family, and in high school my identity was tied up in playing football. I spent the summer before senior year preparing for what I thought would be my crowning season as a fullback and cornerback. I was co-captain of the team and expected to play in college. On the first play of the first game, however, I tore up my knee and had to sit out the rest of the season.
That turn of events was not in the script, and it spelled the end of my college football dreams. What I took away from the experience is that you can’t control all outcomes. When disaster strikes, you have to move on to plan B.
For me, plan B was to pursue an education that would lead to becoming a faculty member in engineering. But from the get-go I faced a significant obstacle: I couldn’t write. I had trouble organizing my thoughts and didn’t understand basic syntax and grammar.
So I just hunkered down, developing my writing skills at every opportunity. I studied others’ papers and tried to figure out how they approached similar subjects. What outline did they use? How did they integrate figures and tables? How did they organize and package information? It took a while, but with practice—and feedback from many faculty members—I improved my writing.
The paradigm here is “can’t do; need to do.” I couldn’t write, but I needed to write to pursue a career in academia. In other words, I needed to face my deficiencies and get on with developing my skills.
As an undergraduate at the University of Cincinnati, I walked into my first fluid mechanics class and knew I was in deep trouble. That class alone covered five chapters! I dropped the course, retook it, and dropped it again. Part of the problem was a lack of focus; part of it was a mental block. During my junior year I dropped out of college altogether, feeling like I couldn’t cut it.
I was in a ditch, and I couldn’t have pulled myself out without a hand from the engineering department’s chairman and secretary. These kind people provided encouragement, assuring me I wasn’t the first student to face such difficulties. Other patient faculty members helped me figure out a schedule to get back on track. Family and friends also encouraged me.
The lesson is that community matters. I realized that obtaining my civil engineering degree wouldn’t have been possible without this wonderful support network.
I moved on to Purdue for my master’s degree and, after one year, started work on my Ph.D. dissertation. I entered my preliminary examination feeling confident but underwent a brutal interrogation from my committee. They asked many questions I couldn’t answer, and after three long hours I considered leaving the room. I looked at my adviser and actually started crying.
Days later, he assured me that the committee members recognized my potential. They just wanted to show me that I didn’t know as much as I thought I did, and that pursuit of knowledge is an ongoing lifetime effort.
I got the point: “always be prepared, if not overprepared.” And keep learning, because you don’t know everything.
It takes a lot of noes to get to a yes
My rejections weren’t a total loss. I learned a lot about myself. I also learned how to communicate, how to understand what organizations need, and how to build relationships that would be useful in my career. In other words, achieving success wasn’t all that mattered; going through the process was valuable in and of itself.
The job search also showed me that it often takes a lot of noes to get to a yes.
The next step on my career progression was a run for chair of UW-Madison’s civil and environmental engineering department. I lost twice, then won, and immediately began pushing for changes in the department. My aggressive agenda caused enough discontent that I faced a challenger after only a year. I prevailed, but the lesson wasn’t lost on me: don’t get too far out ahead of the people you’re leading. It takes patience to manage the process of change.
Know when to move on
I’ll close with one last failure on the road to my current position as the dean of UW-Madison Continuing Studies and vice provost of Lifelong Learning. I became chair of a professional organization’s committee, tasked with rethinking the educational requirements for practicing civil engineers. Over the course of two decades the committee made progress in creating a model law, but we ran into roadblocks getting it adopted on the state level.
Finally, a leader from the organization informed me that “the committee needs new blood.” In other words, I was fired.
After all the work I’d put in, I was disappointed. There was still work to be done. But this was yet another failure worth reflecting on. I concluded that a leader must know when to move on. I should have stepped down earlier but had no sense of what I would do next. Since I hadn’t thought ahead, I kept working on the committee and couldn’t let go of it.
My takeaway: always have a transition plan.
Using position and influence wisely
I began with the idea that leadership is learned through experience, and I know that reading about someone else’s epiphanies can have only so much value. But I’ll end with three more lessons that I’ve found particularly useful in my career. I’ve learned each one in typical fashion—the hard way.
Treat people based upon who you are, not who they are or how they act. Leaders must be centered and know themselves.
To quote Maya Angelou, people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel. In other words, leaders must use their power wisely, especially in situations that are stressful and involve the lives of others.
To paraphrase Heraclitus, it’s not possible to step twice in the same river, or to come into contact twice with a mortal being in the same state. Life is an ongoing process, and none of us has arrived. We must, through experience, continue learning, observing, and growing.
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Please note you do not have access to teaching notes, “we must have the wrong consumers” – a case study on new food product development failure.
British Food Journal
ISSN : 0007-070X
Article publication date: 1 April 2014
The aim of this paper is to investigate, in detail, an unsuccessful food development project that took place in 2008-2010. The case is studied from the viewpoint of an interpretive paradigm. This article concentrates on constructing the critical elements that led to a food development project failure. The plan was to have a traditional Finnish dish updated and introduced as a mass produced high-end convenience food. The project included new convenience food development, packaging design, consumer market research and a sensory study to back up the food product development on behalf of a newly established company. Theoretical grounds for the case are based on the new product development (NPD) research process in the food sector.
The method applied is an explorative single within-case study. The research data were mainly obtained from qualitative materials that ranged from marketing plans to case study field notes compiled by the researchers. Quantitative data were also obtained from various types of materials but to a lesser extent.
The results of the study show that the failure of new product development was connected to the factors identified in classic NPD research. In addition, five phenomena that contributed to product development failure were constructed: path-dependency; “information condensations”; the illusion of mutual knowledge and understanding; practices of problem definition; and window-of-opportunity effects. The results are presented in a form of analytical generalisation that can be applied, with certain restrictions, to other contexts for new food product development.
Failure rates of NPD have remained the same for the last 30 years in the food sector. Failed NPD projects can be valuable assets for the food industry when properly analysed. Examination of successful NPD projects has provided valuable lists of success factors, but knowledge on phenomena having an effect on NPD failure is needed.
- Case studies
- New product development
- Convenience foods
- Consumer research
Ryynänen, T. and Hakatie, A. (2014), "“We must have the wrong consumers” – a case study on new food product development failure", British Food Journal , Vol. 116 No. 4, pp. 707-722. https://doi.org/10.1108/BFJ-08-2012-0215
Emerald Group Publishing Limited
Copyright © 2014, Emerald Group Publishing Limited
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