How to set a clear direction and purpose in your assignments by using research questions

When it comes to writing up your Henley MBA assignments, being crystal clear about what your assignment will address (and why) is essential to earning good marks. In fact, if you want to throw away marks by the bucket load, simply be vague and ambiguous about your assignment’s purpose.

It might sound ridiculous, but a lack of clear direction is extremely common in weak (and failed) Henley MBA assignments. This is because when you’re shoulder-deep in your assignment topic, it’s easy to forget that your reader (i.e. your marker) likely has no experience in your industry, and certainly has no knowledge of your organisation and its unique local context (they’re probably not in your country). The key issue of the assignment, as well as the associated research question(s) is crystal clear in your head – surely the marker will get it too, right? Wrong.

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How do I clarify my assignment purpose?

When writing your Henley MBA assignments, you first need to take ten steps back and think about the layman reader (i.e. someone not involved in your business). Assume they know nothing about your industry and organisation. This includes the ten acronyms you included in the first three paragraphs (which, by the way, you should list in an appendix). If your granny’s bingo partner doesn’t know about the inner workings of your business, neither does the reader – despite their sparkly PhD.

To help your reader understand your unique situation, you need to cover 3 interlinked components in your introduction chapter. That is, you need to present a very well-explained context which leads to an outstandingly unambiguous problem or opportunity, followed by a clear, logical research question(s) that your assignment will (aim to) answer.

The order and hierarchy mentioned above are important. In other words, make sure that you demonstrate a strong alignment between the context, the problem/opportunity and the question. There should be a smooth, logical flow from one to the other, as per below:

Importantly, the final component, the research question, should take the form of a crystal-clear one-liner (no rambling or wordiness). Moreover, the question should be answerable within the constraints of the assignment – in other words, it should be narrow enough to answer within the word count limit.

What makes a good research question?

A good research question should provide a step towards resolving the key issue/problem that you present in Step 2 above. In other words, it should be tightly linked to the problem at hand. Note that given the word count limits of Henley MBA assignments, you won’t always be able to resolve the entirety of the problem. That’s okay – as long as your research question(s) is taking steps in the right direction.

When crafting your research question(s), keep your question(s) focused and reasonably narrow so that you don’t end up horrendously over word count trying to answer a vague question. When formulating a question(s), you should already be thinking about what models, frameworks and theories you might use to identify an answer to said question(s).

Here are some example questions, based on Henley MBA assignments:

Strategy assignment:

“What has changed in Organisation X’s competitive context at a macro, meso and micro-level?”

“How should the organisation best respond to ensure a sustainable competitive advantage?”

International Business assignment:

“Should Organisation X internationalise to Country Y?”

“Which entry mode would be best for the organisation?”
Strategic Marketing assignment:

“What segments exist within Industry X and what are their respective attributes?

“Which segment should Organisation Y target and how should it position itself?”

By laying this sort of guiding question out loud and clear in the introduction of your assignment, you inadvertently achieve a few things at once – you will:

  • Provide the reader with clarity and direction, i.e. they know what your assignment will be about and where it may potentially go.
  • Narrow the scope of your assignment to a manageable and achievable breadth, allowing you to add depth in your analysis, rather than floundering in a broad floodplain of superficial description, peppered with bits of analysis.
  • Provide a guiding light for yourself throughout the assignment, ensuring that you stay relevant and on-track when you write.

Simply put, establishing this key research question (or set of questions) upfront provides a clear destination for the assignment. This allows your reader (the marker) to have a rough idea of where you’re headed, thereby aiding their comprehension throughout the assignment. Furthermore, it helps you stay focused and on-topic – typically resulting in more meaningful, deep analysis. Failure to establish this goal post early in the assignment (ideally within the first chapter – introduction) means you risk going nowhere slowly – or going somewhere, but losing the reader (i.e. marker) along the way.

Let’s recap.

When writing up your Henley MBA assignments, set a clear direction in your introduction chapter by discussing:

  • The background and context, which then leads up to
  • The key issue/problem, which then lays the foundation for
  • The research question(s).

By doing this, you will make it outstandingly clear what your assignment will be about and why that’s important – both for the reader/marker and for yourself. This sets a clear direction and purpose for the assignment, which will help you stay on point and earn marks.

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