(posted on behalf of @Ashley Roccapriore, PhD Representative, and Rebecca Arwine)
“There’s no shortage of remarkable ideas, what’s missing is the will to execute them.” – Seth Godin, Entrepreneur and Author
We spend so much time during our academic careers teaching others about entrepreneurship, whether that’s through teaching, research, or service. Oftentimes, our entrepreneurship classes start with a lecture on finding a good idea. We expand on effectuation, causation, and bricolage (Sarasvathy, 2001; Baker & Nelson, 2005; Fisher, 2012), telling our students about and researching the various ways entrepreneurs find new ideas. Like the quote from Seth Godin, we acknowledge and argue that ideas abound, but stress that executing these ideas is paramount.
Every PhD student has run into the same problem in their career: What do I write this paper about? Whether it is a term paper, a research project, or a dissertation topic, we either have too many ideas or never enough. And what happens after you find that great idea? After searching and searching for that gem in a pile of “idea-garbage,” you have to figure out not only how to make it happen, but also determine if 1) anyone else has already done it, 2) if your idea could make a contribution to the field, and 3) if anyone will buy what you write. We’ve all been there. We’ve all battled this. So what’s the solution? We spoke to our peers and read interviews with faculty about how they come up with and execute their ideas. We now offer five tips to help you do the same.
1. Stop Reading Research
Not expecting that as the first tip, huh? In the first two years of our PhD programs, we’re constantly urged to read, read, read. Yet, becoming so immersed in the literature sometimes makes it difficult to see the forest through the trees. If you ask many faculty members, they’ll tell you that their ideas don’t actually come from reading. For anyone who hasn’t already checked it out (you should!), Dr. Charlotte Cloutier publishes articles with some rather prolific management scholars on her website, ProjectScrib. When asked about their ideas, many of these researchers say they find inspiration from everywhere except our journal articles. Tim Pollock (Haslam Chair in Business, University of Tennessee) gets ideas from popular press articles, such as those in Business Week. Roy Suddaby (Chair in Organisation Studies, University of Liverpool) gets ideas from newspapers and conversations with friends and family. Ace Beorchia, fourth year student at the University of Tennessee, said, “I get a lot of new research ideas by listening to podcasts focused on dissecting current events.” Sensing a trend? Get your head out of those journal articles, and start reading other things!
2. Do Market Research
You know how every paper you write asks for contributions to both theory and practice? There’s a reason for that! Not only do you want your idea to help you get published, land a job, and make tenure, but it should also help the entrepreneurship community. So, if you’re struggling with an idea, go into the field! When I was just starting my dissertation topic, I went out and talked to actual investors. From these conversations, my dissertation idea came to fruition. We tell our entrepreneurship students, “Get out of the building! Talk to customers, test your assumptions, and validate your ideas.” Entrepreneurship research requires the same litmus tests. Sometimes, getting out of the literature and stepping into the field can help you realize that there are great ideas right under your nose. Spending time in the field can also help you recognize that the assumptions you’ve based your grand theorizing upon may not hold up in reality – before you spend time putting your idea through the publication process. Nathan Hayes, fourth year student at LSU agrees, saying, “I try to answer questions to interesting situations/phenomena I see or hear about in the ‘real world.’"
3. Audition the Idea
Found your idea? The next step is figuring out if that idea is feasible and actually worth the time to pursue it. Similar to how we tell our entrepreneurship students that they need to perform a feasibility analysis on their new venture ideas (Ardichvili et al., 2003), we also need a feasibility analysis of our research ideas. One method is “auditioning” ideas to determine which one best fits 1) the research question you want to ask, 2) leads to the greatest contribution, and 3) is worth your time! Consider this part brainstorming session-part competing hypotheses test to determine the most effective route for your idea. This is the time to start reading the research again! Reading helps you determine not only whether your idea is original, but also the area of literature your idea fits best. When asked, Alanna Hirshman (recent WVU graduate and soon-to-be Assistant Professor at Texas Tech) said, “After a new idea has taken my attention, I typically do a quick literature search to see what research has been conducted on the topic and to understand how this new idea can add to the ongoing research conversation.” After reviewing the existing literature, write brief, one-page memos that explain your research question, potential contributions, and methodology. Feel free to consider the phenomenon from a few different angles. Then share your ideas with someone who knows the space to get their initial reaction. We can land more quickly on topics that are both more interesting and more impactful if we approach our research with the same mindset we teach entrepreneurs – that of sharing our ideas, failing fast, and taking advantage of the entrepreneurial pivot.
4. Put it in PowerPoint
You have your idea, you’ve auditioned it, and now it’s time to execute. Have you ever found yourself in a situation where you’re much better at talking about an idea than writing about it? Figuring out the story you want to tell can be a key step when executing your idea (Pollock, 2021). An easy way to do this: Put it in presentation form! Not only does this help you hash out your idea (La Cava, 2020), but it also preps you for possible conference submissions or presentations! Editors say that common reasons for manuscript rejections include foggy writing, lack of explanations of ideas, and no storytelling (Ragins, 2012). Putting your idea together in presentation format can help you determine early in the project’s life if and what contribution you’re making and help avoid those nasty publication pitfalls.
5. Phone a Friend (or text, or Snap, or IM, or fax)
As the studENT blog posts have mentioned before, having friends or peers in this field and career are invaluable (take writing this article for instance)! That advice stands, even when vetting or deciding on new research ideas. When trying to find a new idea or figure out how to bring one to life, it can be helpful to talk it out. David Skandera, fourth year student at the University of Central Florida, says that, when coming up with new ideas, “I talk to peers (faculty and students) about their current research and try to find ways to connect our interests. This leads to collaboration opportunities, and collaborating with peers is one of the best things about this career.” Other PhD students agree: “By having these conversations early in the process, faculty and peers have been able to catch potentially fatal flaws in the research design or idea, saving me valuable time from going down an unproductive path,” notes Ace Beorchia. These folks can help you brainstorm, plan, and execute, which involves identifying both feasible ideas and viable research projects worth pushing forward.
Ardichvili, A., Cardozo, R. and Ray, S., 2003. A theory of entrepreneurial opportunity identification and development. Journal of Business venturing, 18(1), pp.105-123.
Baker, Nelson, 2005. Creating something from nothing: Resource construction through entrepreneurial bricolage. Administrative Science Quarterly.
Cloutier, C. ProjectScrib. https://projectscrib.org/
Fisher, 2012. Effectuation, causation, and bricolage: A behavioral comparison of emerging theories in entrepreneurship research. Entrepreneurship Theory and Practice.
La Cava, M. 2020. Pitch an Idea: How to Sell Your Idea With a Presentation. https://www.mauriziolacava.com/en/lean-presentation-storytelling/how-to-sell-your-idea-with-a-presentation/
Pollock, T.G., 2021. How to use storytelling in your academic writing: techniques for engaging readers and successfully navigating the writing and publishing processes. Edward Elgar Publishing, Northampton.
Ragins, B.R. (Ed.), 2012. Editor’s Comments: Reflections on the Craft of Clear Writing. Academy of Management Review 37, 493–501. https://doi.org/10.5465/amr.2012.0165
Sarasvathy, S., 2001. Causation and Effectuation: Toward A Theoretical Shift from Economic Inevitability to Entrepreneurial Contingency. The Academy of Management Review 26. https://doi.org/10.5465/AMR.2001.4378020