Studying Rubicon: The Harvard Business School Case Method

Running a business takes courage. You often have to make decisions based on incomplete information, or honestly analyze your past failures to make better decisions in the future, all while motivating others, calculating costs versus benefits, and keeping tabs on multiple lines of communication.

When it is time to make a big decision — which in entrepreneurship is almost every day — you often have mountains of data to sift through in a limited time, and not everything you have access to matters to the decision you are trying to make. You have to ask yourself: What is important, what is not, and how can you tell the difference in time to make the best decision possible?

Harvard Business School (HBS) attempts to emulate this high-stakes scenario with what they call their Case Method.

Here is how it works: The professors at HBS prepare a case study on a given business or government institution. This is usually a 10-20 page document detailing the specifics of an organization’s finances, market positions, or prior decisions in extreme detail. The document contains background information a student will need to understand the organization, and also posits a question that the organization is attempting to answer. Students will then analyze this information and attempt to reach a decision on the question being asked.

Like such situations in the real world, however, a Harvard Case Study is incomplete in some ways, and more-than-complete in others. It omits information that a person in the organization being studied cannot know, such as how competitors will react, or what is going through the mind of people critical to the decision making. It will also include data that is irrelevant, leaving it up to the student to sift through what is there, determine what is useful, and make the best decision possible under the circumstances. Just like in the real world.

HBS turned this critical lens on Rubicon in 2015. As an entrepreneur, I was impressed with the amount of detail and the level of critical thinking involved. The Rubicon case study characterized Rubicon as one of a number of asset-light businesses disrupting asset-heavy industries in the technology space, focusing on the waste and recycling industry (which is typically asset-heavy), and positioned us against our major competitors in the space.

The case study picked up our story as the company’s co-founders and I were beginning the process of raising another round of funding. It detailed the company’s market position, the general state of the waste industry, and how the company had come to be founded. The study also looked extensively at our unique value proposition, allowing customers to gain more visibility into how their waste is handled and creating opportunities to divert more waste from landfills.

The study included deep looks at our relationship with two of our biggest customers, our leaders and investors, our waste diversion rates, and our Certified B Corporation status, as well as detailed financials. It was a remarkable amount of data.

When I returned to Harvard this September (virtually, due to COVID-19 limitations) to speak to the current class at HBS, I witnessed the impact of the case study on the students’ learning. It was quite a sight to behold, and humbling to be analyzed and dissected by a class of young soon-to-be Harvard MBAs.

The students all played the roles of fellow executives, picking apart the available data to determine the company’s strengths and weaknesses. Watching them take in all of the information on my company was fascinating, as was seeing the decisions they ultimately made. In some cases they were right on with their analysis, reaching exactly the same conclusions we had reached.

Since pioneering the Case Method, Harvard has made its case studies available to other universities and even high schools around the country. They have shared the stories of a multitude of organizations, with students across America, allowing other institutions of learning to incorporate the Method into their curricula. The Case Method is helping to train an entire generation of new leaders.

I am always excited by opportunities to contribute to the advancement of knowledge and opportunity. That is why the Harvard Case Method is so important to me. It provides a unique opportunity for students all across this great country to participate in an exercise based in real world challenges and opportunities. It is an indispensable tool in creating new leaders, and it is my hope that this case study will serve as a model for future leaders to learn from the challenges and adversity that comes with innovation and standing up to the status quo. You can read the case study here.

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