By Eugene Yamnitsky
Senior Director of Product Management –
Workspace and Content Collaboration
Citrix

 

As many of you know, I’m pursuing the degree of Doctor of Business Administration (DBA) with the Heriot-Watt University, Edinburgh Business School (EBS). It’s been 18 months since I started this journey, and now I have reached a crucial milestone: The Intermediate Submission. As I reflect on this journey so far, I realize that what helped me reach this point successfully in a fairly short timeframe (in doctoral journey terms) was no different from what aids a software development team in a successful delivery of a product: following the Agile Development principles.

Read further if you’d like to learn more about the doctoral journey or if you’d like to see how the Agile Development techniques can help make non-software projects run smoother and deliver faster.

The doctoral program at #EBS spans three stages:

(1) Course stage – [doctoral] candidates take 3 classes on topics of business research.
(2) Mentored stage – candidates work with a mentor to develop and submit a research proposal;
(3) Supervised stage – candidates work with a supervisor to review and synthesize all relevant literature, show the gap in literature that is worth closing from the perspective of business practitioners, develop a hypothesis or a belief statement and design the research around it, and finally conduct the research (pilot and main study) and write up the dissertation.

The journey is extremely demanding, with many uncertainties and risks throughout the program. As such, it demands proper project management to succeed. As it happens, the Agile development manifesto in general, and the underlying techniques in particular, can be more than helpful in achieving success.

1. Responding to Change OVER Following a Plan

One of the four Agile Manifesto principles is to be open and ready for change in your plans. Sometimes, Agile practitioners may interpret this as “planning is not important,” yet the opposite is true. When I started my supervised stage 7 months ago, I came up with a plan that would cover the remainder of the doctoral journey (and yes, I did use MS Project for this…). With my topic revolving around corporate entrepreneurship, I dissected my topic into the various sub-topics such as “Innovation in Large Corporations” and “Middle Managers” and allocated time to review literature for each. However, as I worked with my supervisor, I learned about a variety of other topics I have not anticipated to cover initially (e.g. “Organizational Ambidexterity”, “Personal Construct Theory”, and “Sensemaking”). The plans have been adjusted continuously, and I could track where I stand with respect to the overall schedule: what led to a slip vs. where I was moving faster than initially anticipated.

2. Focusing on Working Product through Iterative Delivery

Agile Development promotes the focus on working software throughout the development cycle. This is achieved through delivery of working, tested software increments, such that no extensive quality assurance is required at the end of the development cycle. What it meant to me is that my dissertation has been evolving into the final product continuously, section by section, chapter by chapter. This is what my supervisor insisted on early in the process, and he was spot on. Each portion of the thesis (a topic in the Literature Review chapter, a section in the Methodology chapter, etc) was handled in a 2-3-week iteration with a concrete scope and agreed upon outcomes. If the outcomes were not achieved, the following iteration focused on addressing the ‘debt’ before proceeding with the new scope. The end result is this: almost none of the 40K words in my intermediate submission will have to be rewritten between now and the final submission (after the main study is completed, results analysed, and the remainder of the dissertation is written up in about 18 months from now).

3. Individuals and Interactions and 4. Customer Collaboration

Constant interaction and collaboration are important in any project that seeks to deliver results that address customer requirements. In the doctoral journey’s terms, there are several customers to be considered. I am my supervisor’s customer, as he consults me to ensure I’m on the right track throughout the process. At the same time, my supervisor, and the Doctoral Research Committee (DRC) are my customers as they expect a dissertation of high quality from me in a timely manner.

In the past 7 months my supervisor and I have exchanged hundreds of messages, a dozen of FaceTime and Skype sessions, and I made a trip to meet my supervisor in person when I had the opportunity during my business trip to the UK in October. This type of constant and continuous interaction made sure my supervisor and I anticipate each other’s expectations and have a truly productive collaboration environment. As far as the DRC is concerned, my quarterly reports update the DRC of my progress so far and the next quarter’s plans.

Conclusion

The dropout rate from doctoral programs is soaring at 50% according to various sources. And this is not a surprise: doctoral programs differ from any undergraduate or a graduate degree, as they require a significant level of discipline and perseverance from a candidate. It is a commonly known fact that Agile software development principles can be successfully used on non-software projects, and I propose that going about a doctoral journey is no different. Constant focus on incremental delivery of a working product, constant and continuous collaboration, and responding to change are powerful principles that can help a doctoral candidate make continuous, tangible progress and avoid a dropout.

*Disclaimer*
While this is not meant to be an ad for Edinburgh Business School, I truly enjoy the journey, with its highly demanding, rigorous program, especially thanks to my supervisor who is one of the most respected academics in the field of managerial psychology as well as an accomplished business consultant.

Eugene is an innovation catalyst and product development leader with 18 years of experience getting things done in conditions of uncertainty and fast paced change. He has a proven track record of success in early and late stage startups and large companies. His accomplishments include scaling teams going through extremely rapid organizational growth phases and designing collaboration processes between various departments to ensure success. Most recently, he established an Innovation Center of Excellence at Citrix based on the Lean Startup framework.

Eugene is also a Speaker, Thought Leader, and Advisory Board Member for the New Product Innovation & Development: A Frost & Sullivan’s Executive MindXchange.