This post is part of the series: “How to write distinction-earning MBA assignments”. Check out the rest of the series for straightforward, actionable MBA assignment ideation, planning, research and writing advice.
Right, let’s get started…
A good MBA assignment is one that focuses on a well-defined topic, identifies a clear, answerable question (read more on that here), 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, 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.
If it’s not yet clear, the point is this: focus is your friend in an MBA assignment (and even more so in a 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 the scope to achieve a degree of focus when you write your assignments. It is acceptable to put certain logically important items on the shelf, as long as you demonstrate an awareness of these variables in your writing, and justify your choice of focal area. Essentially you’re trading off breadth for depth in terms of the analysis you will undertake in the assignment. However, since you don’t have unlimited word count (or unlimited time!), any attempt to go broad typically results in very superficial description, rather than analysis. Therefore, it’s not so much a trade-off as it is an essential choice of which area to focus on.
For example, taking an earlier research question:
Strategic Marketing assignment: “What segments exist within Industry X and which segment should Organisation Y target?”
It is naturally very tempting to continue to discuss matters of implementation (how do we do it? what new people, processes and infrastructure are required?) and measurement (what is success? how do we quantify it?). One might also consider the other 3 P’s in the marketing mix (i.e. pricing, promotion, product). These are, after all, very important considerations – but alas, you always have a word limit. So how do you keep things focused? Quite simply, 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.
How do you choose what to focus on, you ask? There’s no straightforward answer here, but you should be led by the assignment brief. Which, of the various focal areas you’ve identified, is most relevant to the assignment? Which option will allow you to apply theories, models and frameworks best? If path dependency exists (i.e. X must be established before Y can be started), it often makes sense to start at the lowest foundational level. Also, consider the practical issue of access to data – what data (secondary or primary) will you be able to access? These are all key considerations. Most importantly, once you’ve made your choice of focal area, be sure to (very briefly) justify it in your assignment so that your marker understands why you chose the path you did. Failure to do this can leave the marker confused (or even frustrated), which is not good for you…
To summarise, then:
- 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 issues, but made an informed decision to concentrate your analysis in one (important) area.
- Justify your choice of focal area – i.e. why did you choose to focus where you did.
Have a question, suggestion or counterargument?
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