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How to identify a thesis subject

As a thesis supervisor in the Master of Management track of the Rotterdam School of Management, I have had several conversations with students looking for a thesis subject in the past couple of weeks. By that time, most students were still unclear about a potential thesis subject and they use the conversation to get one. To help them, I’ll share a few things that I learned about the choice of a thesis subject.

Tip 1 It is a step up from your earlier Thesis

The students I have met typically already have a Bachelor’s or Master’s degree in one of a wide range of topics: a law degree from Russia, an IT degree from India, a veterinary physician from Portugal and so on. Some of them see their Master of Management thesis as a repetition of their earlier thesis. I disagree; instead I encourage them to step up their game.

For example, I supervised a student with a grade in IT from India, who wanted to study retail loyalty programs. Same as for his Bachelor’s thesis, he wanted to develop an advanced loyalty program, only this time for a mall instead of an individual store or retail chain.  We agreed it would be too limited. Worthy of a Master of Management degree, he broadened the scope. He first studied the international variety of malls, shopping cultures in various markets and the role of malls in it and the roles of types of stores in a mall to draw a stakeholder map. Then he selected a type of mall in a single market and he studied how various aspects of loyalty program design would drive customer loyalty in this mall and its stores. From that he drew up a list of requirements for a loyalty program. He was now ready to develop the program, but in his thesis project he did not touch software code.

Tip 2 Follow the T-shaped model of expanding your horizon

The student followed what I would call a T-shaped model.

Many degrees that my students have completed, involve specialization turning them into a qualified professional. The Master of Management track, however, involves developing a broader under­standing of the context in which the person may operate after graduation and becoming manager or leader in this field. If the foundational degree is the stem of the T, the Master of Management degree is the arm. It encourages looking beyond the borders of the specialty. For that, the student needs to develop a 30,000 feet perspective on the context in which one will operate. The thesis is the perfect place to do so.

Tip 3 Ladder up to the big trend and then come down

The idea is to understand the context in which one will operate and find a thesis subject within that. By the time I get to talk with them, many have already read a lot of literature, typically instructed to do so as part of their academic formation. However, they are surprised that reading a lot does not help them to get to a thesis subject. If anything, it is confusing because there is so much one can work on. How to choose?

Many ways lead to Rome, but here is one that I have seen work. Imagine that you’re a trained medical professional and you want to keep working in this field but then from a Master of Management point of view. I recommend them to do the following: (1) identify the big trend (in society or science), then (2) define a smaller trend in your field that results from the big trend or influences it, (3) identify the opportunity in it, and then (4) define a specific target that you want to meet (see also tip 4).

For example, the big trend can be the global pandemic of obesity. People are getting increasingly more often obese; what’s worse, children too and it is causing health problems at increasing healthcare costs.  Students see this and want to do something about it. That’s great and noble but we need to be more specific not to boil the ocean. We move on to a smaller trend. There are many things that you can do, or there are many experts that you can consult what to do about obesity, which is an interesting study by itself. For example, one can try to encourage consumers to reduce sugar consumption (by nudging them to consume less soft drinks), exercise more, fight snacking, or promote different means of transportation (e.g., biking instead of driving). A study into this smaller trend may help us understand what stops the consumer from displaying the healthier behavior. The results of this study may help us to do (3): identify the opportunity. The thesis subject can then be to seize the opportunity and drive the change.

Tip 4 Be SMART

Which brings me to the fourth tip, which is to define a specific target that you want to meet (see also tip 3). For example, two students noticed that fellow students often gain weight when they start college because of bad nutritional habits; no longer at home; drinking a lot and consuming unhealthy food. In Rotterdam, they have lunch on campus and the food courts are populated with unhealthy options. The student studied how they can nudge the students into healthier food options, taking the layout of the food court and the food stalls into account. For example, they experimented with the menus and the accessibility of public spaces to consume the food.

Ideally, the definition of the thesis subject is SMART: specific, measurable, attainable, relevant and timely. The window of writing a Master thesis is typically six months, much of which is often lost looking for a topic.  My advice is not to boil the ocean. It is not enough to say that one wants to do something with “sustainability”, “disruption”, “fighting obesity” etc. Noble, but to make it in six months, it better be specific.

Tip 5 Diverge and converge

Students are concerned that by being specific, their topic is irrelevant and they will not have an impact. How­ever, those involved in innovation know there is a way to minimize these risks, which by properly diverging first and then converging to the subject of choice.

For example, imagine that the student wants to help fight obesity. The divergent stage may then comprise identifying the populations that get obese (e.g., the elderly, students or kids) and in the convergent stage one can choose a population (e.g., students) based on an assessment of impact and reachability. Then, the student can study opportunities to fight student obesity, e.g., fight excessive drinking behavior or change nutritional habits at breakfast, lunch, dinner or munching down kebab after a night out. My students identified lunch breaks, not only because of its potential impact but also based on their access to campus restaurants.

My advice is to explore, talk and read a lot in the divergent stage, along with doing brainstorms and running workshops, and then be decisive in the convergent stage and set SMART objectives.

Tip 6 Position yourself in the middle

It is academically perfectly legitimate to do a study identifying the 10 factors that drive student obesity and follow an academically sound procedure for a study. However, I invite my students to be more entrepreneurial than this by positioning themselves as a change agent and start experimenting with a solution, based on their insight into the drivers.

For example, I had a student who studied the opportunity to build resorts on the moon. One of the constraints he discovered was the payload of a rocket; the cost per kilo of bringing people and materials to the moon and back. Given the right study design, it would have been perfectly legitimate to stop here, along with the identification of other constraints. However, he started to study opportunities to bring down the cost of the payload and explore them with experts. It was an example of not being satisfied with just the description.

I believe that it comes with the territory of a Master of Management and future leader to be experimental and entrepreneurial instead of just descriptive. I also believe that it results into more exciting studies and thesis subjects, potentially even worth publishing in peer-reviewed journals.

Besides, I believe that taking the entrepreneurial stance also better prepares the student for their post-graduate future: few of the graduates will enjoy a career in science; many more will the practitioners with an academic (curious, experimental and provocative) mindset, just like me.

Tip 7 Make it academically relevant

Yet don’t get me wrong; I don’t promote students to abandon the academic part or mindset and just go for an entrepreneurial project.  On the contrary; I want to maintain the academic rigor and its deep roots in theory; I just encourage the students to be a little more visionary, experimental and playful.

For example, a while ago I had a student with a Bachelor’s degree in Law from Russia. He was founding a startup in his home country and he asked if he could write his thesis about this startup. I get these requests more often; startups are hot. I said he could not, but what we could and did do is give an academic fundament to the startup initiative and use that as a thesis subject.

The startup idea was a website that produced custom-made contracts from templates targeted at small and medium enterprises. The student had seen the initiative in the US where it was successful. The idea itself did not qualify for a Master thesis. However, when discussing the idea, it became clear that it would provide the enterprises access to the Russian legal system, which is to date very inaccessible leaving the enterprises at risk. Similar situations exist in other countries, e.g., India, and there are academics and departments studying access to legal systems. This reference to an existing field of research justified the thesis subject and it gave the student’s startup extra insight into the conditions for his future success.

Tip 8 Put it in context

The example under tip 7 is illustrative of the wider scope that a Master of Management thesis may have than the Bachelor’s Thesis. The thesis subjects have the tendency to look at the wider economic, political and technical context in which the future Master will operate. A medical professional will no longer only look at the medical or clinical aspects of a new drug for animals; she will also look at the societal implications of launching the new drug; the dominant technology of producing and administering the new drug, or the funding of drug research and manufacturing, making a distinction between on-label and off-label marketing.

It also means that students must deploy a wide array of research methods, ranging from stakeholder analysis and qualitative expert interviews to surveys among difficult to identify experts and specialists. Being resourceful in getting things done, is one of the qualifications of the future Master.

Tip 9 No need to do it all by yourself

Being resourceful also comes down to acknowledging that the student does not need to do everything by himself. Part of the exercise is to identify and tap into the right experts; another part of the exercise can be to promote teamwork; I believe that both exercises are worthy of a future Master of Management.

For example, the student who studied the opportunity of building a resort on the moon already had a degree in Aerospace Engineering so he was qualified to take on the subject. However, the subject turned out to be very complex, covering a wide range of technical, economic and health-related topics. So instead of trying to cover it all by himself, the student built a collaboration platform using Slack (www.slack.com) to have experts interact and arrive at a shared view on the possibility of building a resort on the moon.

Tip 10 Follow your heart

I have come across several students who were looking to combine an internship and writing the master thesis, even though it is not required or encouraged by the program. One reason is because they think it will give them a better entry point into the job market. Others consider working in the research program of a faculty member or PhD student.

While it is perfectly legitimate, I encourage the students to follow their hearts and choose a thesis subject they really like. It may sound overly dramatic, but it may be the last time in their career that they do something they really like and that is not defined by someone else. Once you’re graduated, you’ll find a job at a company and the boss will define your agenda. Equally, don’t let the happen­stance availability of an internship define what you do. You’ll be investing six months of your life; it better be good.

Wrapping up

The purpose of this text is help students identify a thesis subject, first by liberating them to do as they please but also by setting grand expectations. I hope that it this text help them not only to make a choice but also to prepare them for our conversations.

Acknowledgement

The author wishes to thank Dr. Irma Bogenrieder, Associate Professor Organizational Processes in the Department of Organization & Personnel and Academic Director Master in Management, Rotterdam School of Management, Erasmus University, for the opportunity to supervise these talented students.

Consulted work and references

Gowtham Prassath Balakrishnan (2016): Coalition Loyalty Programs; an analysis on the design of a coalition loyalty program based on the shopping centre typology. Thesis for the MScBA Master in Management 2015-2016. Student number 438448

Roman Buzko (2015): Online legal services to enhance access to justice. Thesis for the MScBA Master in Management 2014-2015. Student number 418214

Raduz Mollee (2016): The Moon; turning a dream destination into reality. Thesis for the MScBA Master in Management 2015-2016. Student number 419782

Five behaviors

I support organizations going through change. Often, the people I work with don’t change as quickly or smoothly as I would like, so I am easily frustrated. It is unfair to them; although the business, organization or market conditions may dictate the need for change, it is not obvious to the people why and how they need to change; what should to start or stop doing. Often, individuals are stuck in habits, tasks and chores that have not followed the desire for change yet. So I should be more empathetic and mindful of their situation.

So I am adopting a behavior change trick suggested by Jennifer Sertl, a recognized expert in this field (http://jennifersertl.com/; @jennifersertl). She told me to write down five current behaviors I saw with people in the organization, and then for each what I would see if people were moving in the desired direction. Not if they are already there, but on their way. It helped me tremendously to take more distance, steer more softly and empathetically departing from their point of view, recognize the beauty in their signs of progress and stop responding from frustration.

The training of director-level professionals

At our company, we have a training program to offer our people the opportunity to grow through con­ti­nu­ous learning and personal development. As it turns out, the program is best at addressing the deve­lop­mental needs of  our least experienced people;  project managers. That’s because it is geared toward teach­ing the art and craft of managing complex research projects under circumstances like tight budgets and timelines, and working with dispersed teams and clients. The training focuses on craftsmanship and the acquisition of skills. By that, it runs out of steam at the director level and beyond. Because we want to offer directors the opportunity of personal deve­lopment too, a colleague approached me to discuss what we should do to train them, and how to do that? Well, it is hard to say, so I just tried to describe what has helped me to advance to the director level.

What did I learn when growing to a director level?

I made the transition from ‘managing in’ to ‘managing on’ the business

The progression to the director level was marked  first by the fact that I was expatriated to the United States to set up a market research team for a $300 million business.  It was challenging because I had moved two comfort zones away; first, by moving to a country with a different culture and second, by picking up a managerial instead of an individual contributor position. The first thing I learned was to make the transition from managing in to managing on the business.

When I came out to the US, the position had been vacant for a while so there was a backlog of project work to be done. I started to worked hard to get the project work done, and I had no time nor energy left to recruit team members. I was swamped and disaster was waiting to happen. A defining moment was when a VP of Product Development came out and offered me a brochure listing training programs about project management.  It was embarrassing. So in one of our weekly meetings, my manager, gave me a lecture, of how I had to make the transition of ‘managing in’ to ‘managing on’ the business. It was the transition from doing everything myself to creating the conditions to getting things done – which was in this case hiring the right people. So I did and I built a strong three-person team, which lasted for years after I had left to move on to the next assignment.

I learned to make initiatives scalable by detaching them from individuals

One advantage of working with others is that activities can become scalable if one focuses on deve­lop­ing people.  Even having a team of market research professionals does not mean  that activities become scalable; in order for activities to become scalable, every team member should impact others . It does not mean that we should all do the same. Instead we should develop trust in each other and give access to each other’s strengths so that the team as a whole becomes scalable. Scalability means leveraging synergies so that the collection will achieve more than the individuals could have done by themselves.

An example can be found in this mission: our organization had completed many claim studies, so we felt that we had the potential of becoming claim study specialists. But in order to do so, we should see the golden threat across the claim studies ; the communalities between the claims tested, and their impact on consumer claim appreciation. We did an analysis across the claim studies to identify drivers of claim appeal.  It extracts the insights from the studies and helps us develop a frame­work of drivers of claim appeal that anyone involved in claim studies could apply. Through the framework,  everyone can contri­bute and it offers a great way of disseminating  know­ledge.

But having the framework and the knowledge base is not enough; it should reside in people. That’s why we started a claim apprenticeship program. The director identified a team of people with a knack for language and he engaged in a training program to share his knowledge of claims. It extends the reach of the program beyond what we can individually do in the 24 hours of a day, seven days a week.

I (hope to have) made the transition from being a ‘manager’ to being a ‘leader’

The previous two points helped me becoming a manager but it were just necessary but insufficient steps toward becoming a leader. Becoming a leader takes having a 30,000 feet perspective, connecting the dots about what we’re doing and why we were doing it to create a common vision and encouraging others to get there in an inspiring and intrinsically motivating way. Managing is about creating the con­ditions for others to perform; leadership is about showing the way.  In fact, it is just leading by example, but I do not really know any other form of leadership.

Examples of (my) leadership in action are few and far apart. It was hidden in the previous example of how we wanted to be a leader in claims and how we encouraged one of our directors to pick up the glove. Another example is the presentation about pricing by two of our directors at the annual 2010 ESOMAR conference. The presentation it was the culmination of more than two years’ worth of work on analyzing 10 years of pricing studies. It was part of a mission to become a recognized pricing specialist, and the ESOMAR presentation was the pinnacle of our work. My contribution was to keep an eye on the goal and orchestrate the effort among a team of contributors.

I learned to trust people

One thing that comes with being a manager or leader is that you cannot longer do everything yourself. You need to trust other people with the tasks, and the outcomes. And that is still a recurring battle, especially if, and because, I want everything to be done in a certain way (“my way”). So I have to accept that other people do things differently, with a different result – not better or worse, but different. It is a matter of staying in touch and agree on reciprocal expectations.

The most challenging part is to trust people. What I learned is that I had to put markers in place to see if I still trust you. Point of departure is that I trust you (“trust by default”) instead of wishing you to fight for my trust (“trust by evidence”), which I will continue to do until you have breached my trust and disappointed me. After that, it is hard work to restore the trust that’s lost; probably more difficult than it would be to build someone trust in a “trust by evidence” situation.

In terms of tasks, I discovered two ways of trusting people, delegation and empowerment. Delegation means that I trust others with tasks that I conducted myself before, after training them. Most likely, I would look for replication of task and outcome, seeing if you do it the way I would. It is the best way of warranting a certain quality level of execution, but the risk is that it creates clones not leaders.

The alternative way is empowerment, which means that I ask for an expected outcome without telling you how it needs to be done. It is a good way to  get surprised by an unexpected path or outcome. The risk is a higher likelihood of disappointment and that I won’t get the desired quality. So empowerment only works with people who know what they do, or are so resourceful that they quickly compensate for their limitations. A leader who empowers should avoid to be naïve, and build in as many “markers of trust” as the person who delegates – perhaps even more.

The pledge of “I lead”

This was ‘just’ a series of challenges that I went through. It is not a recipe for others to copy; every person should find its own way. That’s the most difficult part of creating a training program for directors. Training programs are by default prescriptive because it has been proven to be less effective to deviate from the path. But it is less clear how to continue to make progress once has achieved the director level, so I believe that we can only work through case studies: by des­cribing how one person has done it, the next person may be inspired to go out and find its own way. It takes coaching not teaching to help a person find its her own way, allowing her to make mistakes but actively learn from it.

Perhaps that’s the most important thing to understand when trying to make progress: one needs to be intrinsically motivated to do so. It means putting yourself on a mission, taking your future in your own hands and accepting higher risks and demands. Not everyone is ready for it. So the first thing I had to do was to answer the questions: do I want to lead (“I lead”), what do I lead in (“the mission”), and what am I willing to do and sacrifice for it?