Why “brief-topic fit” is critically important

So, you’ve got this problem or opportunity at the office and you’d love to kill two birds with one stone by making it the topic of your next Henley MBA assignment. You’ve done some initial reading of the module material and you think it’s relevant – kinda…

In your eagerness, you get started writing. As you read more module material, you realise that it isn’t such a great fit after all – but you’ll make it work, somehow…

You’re approaching deadline time and rapidly realising that you didn’t make the best choice – you work fiercely to shoehorn your business problem into the module-prescribed theories, models and frameworks that you’ve by this stage learnt are not the right fit. You reverse engineer. You shoot the arrow and then paint the target. You know it’s not right, but damn, you’ve come too far to start over. You submit.

And then, the mark arrives…

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Ill-fitting topics = bad marks.

Working with hundreds of Henley MBA students, we’ve seen this sort of problem far too many times. Students pick a topic based on it being highly relevant at work, despite it not fitting well with the assignment brief or the core module theory. It’s totally understandable to want to solve a pressing issue at the office and earn marks in your MBA at the same time, but you’ve got to be careful. If your topic doesn’t fit the brief, you’re in for trouble.

An ill-fitting topic robs you of the opportunity to write a great assignment as it limits your ability to apply the respective module’s theories, models and frameworks. Given that this material-related knowledge and application is what the markers are assessing, a poor fitting topic often equals a failing or scraping assignment. Simply put, you cannot demonstrate a sound understanding of the module material (i.e. earn good marks) if the business problem or opportunity has no relevance to the module – no matter how good you are!

To find a good topic, you need to have options.

Accordingly, you need to make sure that there is an extremely good fit between your assignment topic and the module material (in particular, the key theories, models and frameworks). In order to find a well-fitting assignment topic, you will likely need to wade your way through a fair deal of potential topic ideas. Therefore, you should start thinking about multiple topic ideas from day one, and refine these ideas as you progress through the module material. Invariably, your thinking will develop through the reading process, and you may scrap some ideas, come up with new ones, revise, etc.

Implicit in this recommendation is the need to actually read all the module material. This sounds obvious, but it’s often overlooked by students, given the unique (and intense) demands of the MBA, combined with full-time employment, family and so on. Everyone has different study strategies, but at the very least, I’d argue that you should have an overview-level understanding of all the content in the module before you can find a solid topic.

In other words, you should be aware of all the key models, frameworks and theories in a module, and know what they are used for. With this knowledge, you are equipped to assess the relevance of any given potential topic (and how you’ll approach it). Without this knowledge, you’re just poking around in the dark, and will likely waste a huge amount of time on dead ends.

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How to find an assignment topic that fits.

So, how do you go about finding a topic that fits well? Again, different approaches work for different people, but I would recommend the following approach:

Step 1 – Know thy brief inside out.

Start each module by first reading the assignment brief 2-3 times, before you even get started reading the core material. This will help you “start with the end in mind”, even if the module-specific language and terminology doesn’t make much sense yet.

Highlight the key requirements and make notes of anything that is unclear. You can revisit these once you’ve engaged with the module material, and you can also raise them as questions in the workshop (or speak to your Grad Coach). If any assignment topics bubble to the surface at this stage, write them down. Don’t fall in love with any ideas – just pen them down for review later.

Step 2 – Get the big-picture view.

The next step is to get a high-level understanding of the module material. To do this, I’d suggest reading the study guide start to finish, excluding the key resources (i.e. textbook, journal articles, videos, etc). Given that the guide is pretty lightweight, you should be able to knock it out in the week or two leading up to the module’s workshop.

The objective of this exercise is to give you a big-picture overview of the module’s contents. You will still have many knowledge gaps, and some things will make no sense without reading the key resources, but this is okay, given the objective (i.e. to gain an overview of the module’s contents).

As you’re reading through the study guide, evaluate any assignment topic ideas you thought of in the previous step. If you didn’t have any, start developing some ideas as you progress through this stage. Importantly, give some thought to what the key research question(s) might be, and what theory and fieldwork you might draw on to answer this question. If you still have time prior to the workshop, start reading key resources in the sections that relate to your potential assignment topics.

Once you’ve completed the study guide, read the assignment brief again. It should now become a lot clearer, but there will likely still be gaps. Make notes of anything that is even mildly unclear, so that you can raise this at the workshop.

At this stage, you may come to the conclusion that you cannot undertake an assignment on your own business – this is okay. In this case, start thinking about what business might be ideal, and how you will gain access to the relevant data.

Step 3 – Enter the workshop with 2 objectives.

Having an understanding of the brief and a high-level view of the theory, you should ideally have a handful of potential topic ideas, as well as a list of “uncertainties” (i.e. things you’re unsure of that you’ve made notes about during your reading). With this in hand, you’re ready for the workshop.

Having done your prep work, you will now be able to extract a substantial amount of value from the workshop. In particular, you should attend the workshop with (at least) two clear objectives:

  1. To get clarity on the items from you “uncertainties” list
  2. To get feedback regarding your 2-3 topic ideas

Having this agenda is HUGELY beneficial, as it allows you to approach the workshop as a goal-driven topic confirmation exercise, rather than an aimless idea exploration session. You will get infinitely more value if you approach your workshops this way.

Some of your questions may be answered in the presentation itself, and some might be answered during the Q&A sessions. If not, don’t be afraid to approach the lecturer during breaks. They’re typically quite impressed by students that have prepared for the workshops (given that this is sadly rather rare). Don’t be shy – share your ideas, ask questions and get (extremely!) useful feedback. Joining a lecturer for lunch can turn out to be the most valuable 30 minutes you spend at a workshop!

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Whatever you do, make sure that you do not leave the workshop without answers to your questions. Ideally, you should leave each workshop with a very clear idea about what your assignment topic will be, what data you will need and what module material you still need to read up on.

Let’s recap.

In summary, then:

  1. While the Henley MBA is all about real-world application, don’t make the mistake of forcing an ill-fitting but timely business problem into an assignment.
  2. Don’t fall in love with the first assignment idea – take the time to cultivate multiple ideas and refine these as you progress through the module material.
  3. Prepare for module workshops by (at the very least) reading the respective assignment brief and study guide and preparing 2-3 provisional assignment ideas.
  4. Get critical feedback from the lecturer on your assignment – make sure you leave the workshop knowing what you will write about.
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