Why focus is your friend when writing assignments

As we’ve discussed before, a good Henley MBA assignment is one that focuses on a well-defined, relevant topic, identifies a clear, answerable research question and then proceeds to draw extensively on both theory (i.e. existing literature) and practice (i.e. interviews, surveys, secondary data) to find an answer (or set of potential answers) to the question.

Therefore, it should be no surprise that if you want to lose marks rapidly, simply take on a loosely-defined, extremely broad topic, and flounder about trying to answer the unconquerable stockpile of associated questions. Your end product will be a disjointed bargain bin of superficial analyses which lead nowhere and earn no marks. Exciting.

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A tight focus = a solid assignment

If it’s not yet clear, the point is this: focus is your friend in Henley MBA assignments (and even more so in the MRC/dissertation). This often feels a little strange, given the rarity of focus that typifies the workplace, and, indeed, the importance of taking an integrated, holistic view of problems in both the workplace and academia. After all, systems thinking teaches us that everything is connected.

Nevertheless, it is important to narrow down your scope to achieve a degree of focus when you write your assignments. It is totally acceptable to put items on the shelf, as long as you demonstrate an awareness of these exist, and justify your choice of focal area. Given that every assignment has a word count limit, you need to make trade-off choices, and trading off breadth for depth is an important one.

For example, within the MPS assignment, you’ll need to analyse a specific process. This process will likely be part of another process and a larger system. These are all interconnected and you could end up going down an absolute rabbit hole trying to cover every potential connection. Therefore, you need to focus clearly on just the one specific process, while acknowledging that there are interlinkages that may have an impact as well.

To this end, a brief paragraph which demonstrates that you considered related matters (and their potential impact), but made the decision to stay focused, will serve you well.

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How do I choose a focal topic?

There’s no straightforward answer here, but you should be led by the assignment brief. Start by identifying a few potential focal topics, and then narrow these down by asking yourself the following questions:

  1. Which option is most relevant to the assignment brief (i.e. has the best “fit” with what the assignment is asking of you)?
    Which option will allow you to apply theories, models and frameworks from the module best?
  2. Which topic is closest to the root of the problem? If there are causal links between the various options (e.g. X impacts Y), it often makes sense to start at the lowest foundational level.
  3. Which option do you have the best access to data for? If you have a great topic but no data access, that’s going to hurt your mark-earning potential.

Importantly, once you’ve made your choice of focal area, be sure to (briefly) justify it in your assignment so that your marker understands why you chose the path you did.

How do I justify my topic choice?

To justify your topic, you simply need to show that its important to resolve the matter. In other words, show that it has a commercial impact if left unresolved. For example, leaving it unresolved may result in:

  • Degraded performance
  • Increased costs
  • Reduced sales/revenue

Basically, any significant consequences will do the trick. Show the pending doom and gloom!

Let’s do a quick recap:

  • Keep your focus narrow and your analysis deep. Quality trumps quantity. Depth trumps breadth. Analysis trumps description.
  • Make it clear to the marker that you did consider adjacent areas, but made a decision to concentrate your analysis in one (important) area.
  • Justify your choice of focal area by explaining why it’s important to the success of the business.
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