Best Dissertation Advice I Received

It’s been more than 17 years since I completed my doctorate and I still remember the dissertation advice that changed both my mindset and my topic.

I was one of those doctoral candidates who was going to change the world with my dissertation research. I was going to “prove” a better approach to leadership. I had this specific experimental research mapped out in my head as I traveled to attend my last intensive class before I could work exclusively on my dissertation.

It’s now been a number of years and I don’t even recall the professor’s name, but to this day I still remember exactly what he said about choosing a dissertation topic. He said, “Pick a topic that you know you can get done. Then, go change the world.” He described how many of the doctoral candidates he had worked with over the years were enthusiastic to change the world. However, they picked a topic and research methodology that was so laborious and would extend over such a long period of time, that they never finished. They became an ABD (all-but-dissertation).

Getting the air sucked out of my research idea…

As he spoke, I felt the air being sucked out of my grandiose research idea. I tried to convince myself that I was the exception. After all, I had a master’s degree that focused on research (marketing research) and I had conducted many research studies for universities. I could do this.

As I flew home following the intensive class, I had a come-to-Jesus-moment with myself. I thought long and hard about what he said, “Pick a topic that you know you can get done. Then go change the world.” I decided I should take his advice. On the plane home I began to think of an entirely new direction for my dissertation born out of an entirely new mindset – “get it done.”

Now, more than 17 years later, I am still incredibly grateful for that advice. It’s proved to be one of the best decisions I’ve made. Not only did I get my dissertation completed in a year’s time, my career since that time has evolved out of my dissertation! Something I had not expected when I chose the path of least resistance – pick something you know you can get done.

Criteria for Selecting a Topic

Carol Roberts and Laura Hyatt, authors of The Dissertation Journey (Third Edition, Corwin, 2019) provide several criteria for selecting a dissertation topic, here are a few:

  • It has to hold your interest for a long time
  • Must be manageable in size
  • It must be doable within your time frame and budget
  • It has to have obtainable data

Where to Find Topic Possibilities

With that in mind, here are a few questions I would suggest to help uncover topic possibilities.

  • Would taking a deep dive into something related to your current professional work hold your interest?
  • What have you read recently that got you energized or excited?
  • Download a few published dissertations in your field of study. Skip to the section, “Recommendations for Further Research.” Do any of the recommendations strike you as fascinating or intriguing?
  • Throughout your doctoral coursework, what papers did you write that seemed to come more easily because you were so engrossed in the topic? What else about that topic would you like to know?

Pick a topic that you know you can get done. Then, go change the world.”

Is your organization designed for scarcity?

Any company designed for success in the 20th century is doomed to failure in the 21st. ~David S. Rose

One of the many free venues of entertainment in Chicago is eavesdropping on conversations while standing on the “L” platform waiting for the train to arrive. Last week I couldn’t help but smile as I listened to two young men enthusiastically discuss how organizations have changed. They commented on a number of organizations that have grown, exponentially, in a very short period of time.

One of those organizations that is mentioned frequently in conversations about rapid change is Airbnb. Salim Ismail in his book Exponential Organizations provides this background on Airbnb. “A company that leverages users’ extra bedrooms. Founded in 2008, Airbnb currently has 1,324 employees and operates 500,000 listings in 33,000 cities. However, Airbnb owns no physical assets and is worth almost $10 billion. That’s more than the value of Hyatt Hotels, which has 45,000 employees spread across 549 properties.”

Organized to Manage Scarcity

Ismail also says, “Our organizational structures have evolved to manage scarcity. The concept of ownership works well for scarcity, but accessing or sharing works better in an abundant, information-based world. The information-based world is now moving exponentially. However, our organizational structures are still very linear (especially large ones).”

Now, some of you might be thinking, my organization is not an “internet” company like Airbnb so none of this applies to me/us. Well, I think that’s the point. Are you structured to manage scarcity?

Here are two examples to consider. In a scarcity structure you have heroic leaders, employees, and process supervisors. An abundant structure has vital people who fulfill their role. Scarcity uses “job titles,” abundance relies on “dynamic roles.”

Organized to Manage Abundance

It’s hard for me to think of an industry or sector that the idea of being designed for abundance could not apply. Manufacturing (IoT – Internet of Things), healthcare (integrated healthcare), education (online competency-based education), churches (online churches).

If you’re still having a hard time getting your head around abundance, consider this. A recent global study found that 70 percent of professionals work remotely at least one day a week, and 53 percent work remotely for at least half of the week. Gallup recently estimated that 29% of all workers in the U.S. have an alternative work arrangement as their primary job.

We no longer need to be limited (scarcity) by employing individuals who live within an hour’s drive. We can now search the globe (abundance) for the vital people to fulfill a role.

We have lived within the confines of a traditional hierarchical structure for so long, that it’s hard to imagine that anything else is even plausible. How would your organization be different through the lens of abundance?

As David Rose said, “Any company designed for success in the 20th century is doomed to failure in the 21st.”

Leadership: continuous personal change.

One key to successful leadership is continuous personal change.  Personal change is a reflection of our inner growth and empowerment.  ~Robert E. Quinn

I don’t think anyone in leadership would argue against the fact that we are living in an era of continuous change. And many of us pride ourselves on our ability to maneuver our organizations through nonstop alterations. However, this week in particular, I was struck by how much we resist change when it becomes personal.

Much of leadership, if not nearly all of leadership, is expressed or manifested in how we behave. Yes, that’s right, a word that seems to make many leaders uncomfortable. This week a leader said to me, “You mean you don’t want us to just change what we think but we need to change our behavior?”  Changing what we think is certainly a critical component, but if we stop there, what have we accomplished? 

Learning and Change

I recall a definition of learning, I think it was from Warren Bennis, he said that learning takes place when we acquire new knowledge and then alter our behavior based upon that new knowledge. In other words, acquiring knowledge, only, isn’t really learning.

Marshall Goldsmith, guru of executive coaching, said “After living with their dysfunctional behavior for so many years (a sunk cost if ever there was one), people become invested in defending their dysfunctions rather than changing them.” Peter Senge, author of the classic The Fifth Discipline, stated “People don’t resist change. They resist being changed!” That’s his exclamation point, not mine.

We may welcome change, as long as it’s change around us, not within us. 

Given what I do for a living, I suppose it’s not all that surprising that periodically people will call or meet with me and rant on and on about another person – a colleague, a supervisor, etc.  They spout off all of the things that bother them, that make them angry, that they disagree with, etc.  Then they pause, and ask me what they should say to that person to get them to change their behavior. 

When things aren’t working for us, or aren’t working as we believe they should, it’s interesting that our first instinct is to search for ways to change the other person. I’m certainly not advocating for a workplace where there is no accountability. I am suggesting that we think of ourselves in a state of continuous personal change. And that could mean that the best alternative to changing a situation or improving a working relationship is for us to seek ways that we can change our behavior. 

Continuous Personal Change

Robert Quinn, author of many books, wrote Deep Change: Discovering the Leader Within. The basic premise of the book is to identify and describe the surprising relationship between organizational change and personal change. Quinn says, “If organizations must make deep change more frequently, so must the people who work in organizations.”

Leadership: continuous personal change.

The alpha leader is a dying breed.

From start-ups to the Fortune 100, the world is changing. Alpha types often still run the show—but they are also a dying breed. ~Jeffrey Hull, PhD, author of Flex: The Art and Science of Leadership in a Changing World

As I walk the streets of Chicago with my dog, Lily, she is sure to let other dogs know that she is the alpha dog. So I have daily first-hand experience with the concept of alpha types. But in the world of leadership, as Hull points out, the alpha leader approach is a dying breed. It’s simply no longer effective in a fast-paced changing world.

I’m reading Jeffrey Hull’s book. It’s one of those books where I discover I’m highlighting nearly every word. The highlights are mostly a mark of enthusiastic agreement for something I too have been seeing happen over the past several years. The ground underneath us is shifting, and so too are the tenets of effective leadership.

Highlights from Flex

I’ll share with you just a few of my highlights from Hull’s book Flex: The Art and Science of Leadership in a Changing World.

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There is an emerging recognition that people with less directive, less authoritative styles can be equally valuable and impactful in leadership roles. It’s a shift in mind-set from a goal-oriented, top-down figuration (alpha) to a growth-oriented, process-based one (beta). Beta leaders are in flux, always improving, and always aware of the need to disrupt the status quo.

Alphas want to win. Betas want to grow.

Beta means being comfortable in a state of constant growth, not aspiring so much to ascend the hierarchy and dominate from above, but to lead from anywhere, anytime.

Beta leadership is, at its core, about reciprocity. It parallels a cultural shift toward a shared economy. Just as many of us no longer have just one career, or even five, leadership is no longer about climbing a ladder to reach a pinnacle of success.

…less emphasis upon hierarchy and more of a sense of teamwork, reciprocity, and respect for the talent and expertise of everyone in the room.

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I find this terribly exciting (of course I am a bit of a leadership theory nerd). It’s exciting because in the past leadership was authoritative (and in many instances, still is). One person made the decisions and the others were expected to follow. But this new shift, not only expects, it requires (or even demands) leaders to be engaged in collaborative decision making. Not only respecting alternative views, but relying on others to make decisions.

The organization really becomes an “organization” of talent and expertise that, collectively, becomes capable of flexing in an ever-changing world.

Culture: It IS the game.

I came to see, in my time at IBM, that culture isn’t just one aspect of the game, it is the game. In the end, an organization is nothing more than the collective capacity of its people to create value. ~Louis Gerstner, IBM

Since culture is the game. I’m going to compare organizational values to a pizza menu. Probably not a comparison most people would consider.

Let’s say that you are in the mood for pizza. You go online and find two restaurants with a margarita pizza on the menu, just what you wanted. The pizza description for restaurant (A) is: thin base, cheese, stuffed crust. The description for restaurant (B) is: a crispy stone-baked base is the foundation for velvety tomato sauce and melted mozzarella cheese, topped with sharp notes of basil leaf.

I don’t know about you, but I am a fan of margarita pizza and without a doubt I would choose restaurant B. It’s descriptive, it’s unique, I can even visualize what it will look (and taste) like when it arrives at my door.

Then why do so many organizations have values like teamwork, excellence, integrity, customer-focused, etc. All of these values are really expected of employees at virtually every organization. It’s a lot like ordering a thin base, cheese, stuffed crust pizza. Nothing unique. Fairly bland.

Denise Lee Yohn said it well in her article Ban These 5 Words from Your Corporate Values Statement.

Your core values should describe the collective attitudes and beliefs that you desire all employees to hold, translate those into specific actions and decisions that they should make, and then in turn show how those behaviors produce customer experiences that define and differentiate your brand. Your core values need to be unique.

Values need to define and differentiate. They need to be unique.

Why do they need to differentiate? What I’ve seen with my own clients, those that have unique values and differentiate attract and retain the kind of employees who are a good fit for their organization. As Drucker said many years ago, “Culture eats strategy for lunch.” An organization’s values, when they are unique, create the unique culture for that organization.

How do you do that? When I’m meeting with clients and they say something like teamwork is one of their values, I then ask, “What does that mean?” And then I keep asking, “What does that mean?” until we finally get to a point where we really start to uncover the organization’s unique behaviors and culture.

You can also ask, could any of our competitors claim the very same values? If the answer is “yes,” then they really aren’t all that unique.

Your organization’s culture is a brand.

Your organization is a brand to not only your customers, but also to your employees. You build that brand with unique values that differentiate you from other organizations. More importantly, you also live and breathe those values. That’s for another blog post.

Are your values bland and common? Or, do your values make your culture truly unique?