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Don’t eat the marshmallow! An interview with Sarah Kaplan

Sarah Kaplan

Associate Professor of Strategy, Rotman School of Management, University of Toronto

Sarah was the very first person I interviewed for this blog project. Viviane, Chahrazad and I had decided about a month before that we’d go forward with the project, and Sarah came to give a talk at HEC shortly after. We’d crossed paths a few times at conferences, and Sarah seemed quite supportive of any initiative that would be helpful to newish researchers trying to trace their little path within the academic world. I figured that if she turned me down, it would be in a nice way – remember these were early days, and we weren’t quite sure how people would respond to our request, particularly to the fact that we would be posting the interviews online. Sarah was very supportive and we talked for well over an hour. I might even add that if it hadn’t been for Sarah’s warm reception at our idea, I may not have had the motivation to ask other academics to engage in the process. No kidding! Once I completed the interview though, I became quite convinced that a lot of people would find it both interesting and informative. It is this belief that has kept me going since.

Why don’t we start with the basics. Where do your ideas for writing papers come from?

Let me give you an example from my framing contests paper which was my first paper out of my dissertation. I went into my dissertation thinking I was going to look at cognition and how cognitive processes unfold interactively in organizations. And so I did all this field work and started presenting these vignettes at MIT and other places and people kept saying: “Why is this cognition? Why isn’t this just people pursuing their interests?” which is when I realized that that was part of what was going on. And so then I had to think about, “Are there other models for thinking about how cognition and interests interact?” And there weren’t any really except for the social movements literature, so I looked at that and thought maybe they’d said everything I needed to say and so it was a lot of back and forth and figuring out, “How am I going to get a story out of this?”

Even though in my notes there was all this political infighting and interpretation, I kept ignoring all that because it wasn’t what I was looking for. I was looking for cognition, and all the political stuff was just interesting background in my field notes. And then at some point, I realized it wasn’t just interesting background, it was actually part of the data and I needed to use that. So then I started thinking, if I were to really pay attention to these data on politics, what would a model look like? At that point I found the social movements literature which operates at a completely different level of analysis from what I was doing, but I thought: “Well, maybe it can help me theorize and I can bring it into the organization.” But then social movements do look really different. They’re not about producing strategic choice and action, so once you take that model into the organization, it looks a little bit different and I can draw a model of what it looks like inside an organization. So, that was one of those things where it was just, you know, starting at one point and slowly evolving with more data and more comments and more reading of the literature and that kind of thing. So, that’s one way to get ideas.

Now, where most of my paper ideas come from is I hear a talk, or I read a paper and there’s a cool idea and I think: “I’ve got to pursue this in a paper somehow.” Then, you wait for the right data or the right outlet or the right this or that and then you write the paper.

Like my paper on PowerPoint and strategy. In that case, I didn’t go to the field to study PowerPoint at all, but every single one of my field notes was filled with comments about PowerPoint. The field notes were all about: “Let’s look at the PowerPoint, let’s talk about the PowerPoint. I can’t do the PowerPoint. I haven’t done the PowerPoint yet.” Instead of asking for another analysis, they’d say: “We need three more slides on this.” They would have a meeting and they would say: “Let’s walk through the PowerPoint. OK, slide two, let me tell you… Wait for your question because on slide 4, I’m going to tell you this.” So, PowerPoint just ended up being in use all the time. So I thought it was fascinating and my advisor, Wanda Orlikowski had written this book chapter with Johanne Yates on PowerPoint and organizations. I liked that paper and I thought: “I have all this data, it’d be cool to do a paper on PowerPoint.”

Then, there was this conference that was going to be in Mykonos that Hari Tsoukas was organizing. It was on practice theories and so I thought: “You know what, let me just develop this paper enough to get into this conference. You know, it’ll be my entry ticket to this conference. So, I wrote up a draft of a paper and it wasn’t a very strong draft. It had some interesting ideas but there wasn’t much theory around it. After the conference, it went back on the back burner because I was focused on other things. And then, a call for a special issue on culture and organizations came out for Organization Science and I thought: “You know, I’d always been thinking about the paper in terms of culture.” I think one of the initial titles of the paper was ‘The Culture of PowerPoint’ or something like that. So, I thought why not try to get this paper into the special issue? But when I started reading the culture literature and I was kind of unsatisfied with those theories. There was all this stuff about cultural artifacts, but these didn’t operate in the way those theories suggested. So, I had separately been reading more in the social studies of science literature and had read Karin Knorr-Cetina’s work about work in scientific labs. She has this idea of epistemic machinery and epistemic cultures and I figured that “This is the kind culture I’m talking about, this is about the knowledge production culture of the organization.” And I’ve always thought that studying strategy is a little bit like the way the STS (Science and Technology Studies) people study science in a lab, I feel like I’m trying to study strategy in that same kind of way. Latour and Woolgard wrote “Laboratory Life” and my work has been in some senses to write “Strategy Life.”

So, I thought: “OK, I can’t use the regular culture literature, but maybe I can use this other notion of the culture of knowledge and talk about strategy as a knowledge production process just like science is a knowledge production process.” And in organizations, PowerPoint is part of the epistemic machinery because you can’t really produce strategy without PowerPoint. So, that’s how that developed. It was partly opportunistic, the chance of getting into the conference and later of getting into the special issue, and partly the kind of theories that I was attracted to.

Were you familiar with this literature to start out or did you just say: “OK, I’ve got to look at the culture literature” and then you just dove in?

I was not well read in the culture literature before this, so I went to friends and said, “Give me four things I need to read.” And you look up review pieces or something like that, and you look at the citations. But I kept reading stuff that didn’t work for me. So then I started reading critiques of the culture literature thinking: “Well, if someone is critiquing it, maybe they are dissatisfied in the same way I’m dissatisfied.” And I got through the critiques realizing that this was the case but that there was no resolution that worked for me. And that’s when I started thinking about Karin Knorr-Cetina. I do read pretty heavily in the STS literature, so that was more familiar to me. So, I get these little ideas and then they float around in my mind and they wait for opportunities.

How much reading do you do? When you say that you read pretty heavily, what do you mean exactly?

Well, I get all the table of contents for all the journals and anytime I see a paper I’m interested in, I print it out and I read it. Or I print it out and skim it and put in a file, so I know at least what the ideas are and I remember that I can go back to it. Any time I read a paper or attend a seminar, I go through the reference list and circle the things I am interested in and I’m going to go get the papers and read them. When someone else has read something that is interesting that I haven’t read and they’re drawing on it in an interesting way, I think: “That can be useful for this paper, that can be useful for that paper.” I’m always thinking about that.

My process is really different depending on the paper, but it’s always iterative and it’s always some mix of stuff I’ve read, data I have and outlets — like whether it’s a conference or a special issue, a journal or something like that.

How do you organize all this stuff? I mean, all these papers that you print out and the data that you’re collecting? How do you organize them?

As an example, I have an idea for a paper that I haven’t written yet in which I want to claim that the right unit of analysis for strategy is the project and not the firm. You know, most of the mainstream strategy research is done at the firm level and there’s not a lot of theorizing about the fact that strategy actually takes place in projects. That’s basically how strategy gets done. And so, I have this idea of writing this paper about strategy-making as basically about projects and what would happen if we treated this as the right unit of analysis. What would that say about strategy literature up until now? I have a file, I don’t know, about a foot wide filled with papers that I think would be relevant for this paper whenever I end up writing it.

I tend to think in projects. And maybe that’s what makes me effective in the sense that I have a decent pipeline. I think in projects and projects are in different phases and I always have projects, you know. Whenever I have a free moment, there are projects waiting. There’s never any moment when I have to say: “What do I do now?” So, I do think of it as a pipeline.

When you say pipeline, what is a big pipeline for you?

I don’t know, some people will really focus on one paper and then get that into a journal and then start another paper, but I always have two or three things under review at any one time at different stages, and things waiting in the wings that are drafts of papers and others that are ideas of papers and so on. So like right now, I have three things that are under review or somewhere in the review process, one having just been conditionally accepted, so it’s almost done with the review process. I have three other papers that are drafted and need a lot of work and three projects that are pre-draft. But I have co-authors, those are not all just me. Everyone has a different style. I’m interested in a lot of things, I have a lot of things going on. It makes me less emotional about any one thing if it doesn’t work out.

So what about the writing process as such? You have these ideas that are percolating and a possible outlet presents itself and now you just have to sit down and start writing. What then?

Well, the blank page is always kind of terrifying. I always outline. I start by taking notes. I read a whole bunch of stuff and I’ll start taking notes. Like for the PowerPoint epistemic culture paper, I took a whole bunch of notes on every paper that has ever been written about PowerPoint and I took a whole bunch of notes about everything that has been written about cultural artifacts and then a whole bunch of notes about epistemic cultures and things like that. I had all that stuff and I started to get ideas about what would be my argument and then I took all that and I started an outline of a paper. And I also have notes on all my data. Then I write an outline which I paste into a Word document and then I start filling out with text. So I’m not starting from a blank page because there’s already an outline, and I can say: “Well, I need to say something about this” and I kind of fill that in and so on. So, I basically fill in an outline when I’m writing.

Tell me a bit about your analytical process. We can use your PowerPoint paper as an example.

Well, I went in looking for strategy making under uncertainty. I wanted to know how these people were making strategy, so I had data on that, but in the field notes and in the interviews, there was all this stuff about PowerPoint. So, I had a doctoral student code everything about communication genres, any kind of communication genre, not just PowerPoint: emails and these other things. And there was a little bit on the other communications genres and there was this huge amount on PowerPoint and so I thought: “OK, this paper really is about PowerPoint.” So I collected all that and started coding it. What is going on here? What are the characteristics of PowerPoint? How is it being mobilized in the organization? Stuff like that. Once I did that, I went back to the original data, as I needed more context around it. With that, I did some more refined coding. Then, I went back to the literature and I got some more ideas of things I could code, then went back and coded some more. It was iterative. I always do multiple rounds of coding. Also, often when I’m writing a paper, I’ll get an idea of the table that I want. Then I’ll go back and recode all the data.

So you do all your own coding?

Yes, I do all my coding. Usually, the help that I will get will often be to just go through the data to figure out whether there is something in the notes or the field notes or the interview that is at least salient to the topic. I’ll have someone get all those pieces of text collected and then I hand code them. I don’t even code with a software.

How do you do that?

I have printouts and I write on them and then I often will do a big Excel spreadsheet or a big Word table or something like that where I’m collecting the different things according to different categories. But I don’t use special coding software. I have my field notes and they have ten different colors of ink on them because I’ve gone back so many times to rethink stuff and code for something else. Then I build tables and then versions of those tables eventually become tables that end up in the actual article that I write. So my coding iterates with my writing because I often have to go back and code some more. When I start writing, I realize I need to know something else about the data that I didn’t know, so then I have to go back and code some more. And it’s not very unusual for ethnographic researchers to do that. Even in the writing, it’s not like you get to writing and you just have the stuff and you write it up. It’s very Weickian: “How do I know what I think until I see what I said?” You start writing and like: “Oh my goodness! I have to know this other thing about the data.” You put the writing on hold, you go back and code some more and then come back to the writing.

How do you pace yourself? How do you balance your other responsibilities with writing?

I don’t have a rule of writing every day. I admire people who do, people who say: “The first three hours of the day I’m going to write.” I’m more of a binge-purge kind of writer, in the sense that for me to really write, I need to be doing nothing else. So I have to do another outline or read some more stuff and take notes, and upload everything into my brain. I feel like a computer where you have to upload everything in your RAM. Once it’s in your RAM, then you can write. And then I need something like a week to just sit and write, so I often carve weeks out where I schedule nothing and am just going to write. I can’t do much writing in less than a week. This is becoming problematic however because my professional life is getting busier. And I’m right in a kind of space where I’m trying to figure out how I still carve out that time given that I have all these service responsibilities. It’s harder to carve out time. So, more and more it’s like two days here and two days there, or two hours here and two hours there, and I’m learning how to make that work. But for me, the most effective writing, the most creative, the deepest writing I do is when I really have that time, when I’m in my pajamas for a week and I’m in front of my computer. Then I often work 16 hours a day. I’ll just get so into it, I’ll be writing until 2 in the morning. I’m just in the flow.

You work from home then?

I find it hard to write at the office. I mean, I can write little things. I can edit paragraphs, but I can’t write really new text because there are so many interruptions.

Do you have any rituals to get you started?

No email. Email has to be shut down. No email, no web. The connectivity’s only if you need to look up a paper or find a reference. And I always write with music in the background. Usually the same CD over and over and over again for like a week. I’ll just listen to the same music. It shuts out everything, it’s like white noise. I can pretty much associate different albums with different papers. I pick an album and then that’s the album I listen to for that paper. And, I have my little ergonomic workstation at home and my tea with milk.

When you’re writing, do you revise as you go or do you just try to get as much out as possible and then go back to the beginning and start revising then?

The first round, you kind of just have to get words on a paper, so I do try to just chug away. But often, if you’re writing one section, you get an idea for another section, so I’ll go back and make a note so that I know I thought of this thing for this other section. But for the first round, I do try to just get stuff down, because I’m much better once there’s at least some amount of text on paper. Then I go back and edit and rewrite section by section. So I’ll think: “Here are the things I need to fix about the lit review, let me go read some more stuff and I’ll fix that. Ok, done. Methods section, I need to find something to explain this thing. Ok, I go read and I fix the methods section. So if I can’t explain something very well, I’ll go read something that will help me explain it better.

What about stuff that needs to be cut out?

Once you have text, it’s easy to get married to it. But sometimes you just need to throw it away and there’s a couple of ways you can do that. One way is to just cut it and put it in a little file called ‘cut text.’ You preserve the idea that you’ll go back to it and then you never do. Another way, and this often happens to me, is something that I thought was part of the framing of the article really works better in the discussion and so I’ll reframe it and move it to the discussion section. Sometimes it survives there and sometimes I go back later and think: “You know, it doesn’t even work in the discussion section” and then it gets cut out. Other times, I’ll have this detailed explanation in the lit review of this one stream of research, and later I’ll say: “Maybe it just should be a footnote, it’s not so central.” And so I put it as a footnote, and later again I’ll think: “I don’t need this footnote,” and then I just take it out. It’s actually quite rare that I will cut something without putting it somewhere else first. It’s too emotionally difficult.

How do you decide a paper is ready to be submitted to a journal?

Well, if it’s a special issue, the deadline helps because you have to send it in by the deadline. And I like special issues for that reason because otherwise, you don’t know. The other reason I like special issues is you know you’re writing for a particular topic, so you can frame your paper around that topic. There are so many more parameters in a special issue, there’s a time parameter and there’s a framing parameter. If it’s not one of those things, then it’s hard to know. I try to present a paper 5 or 6 times in different settings: at conferences, at invited seminars, at brownbags at my school, in my “slump management” research group (this is the research group a number of us started when we were doctoral students at MIT and we continue to meet at least once a month via Skype to this day). I revise the paper according to the feedback I get and present it a few more times. Once I feel like I’ve resolved the big issues, I send it off. With special issues, you know it’s ready to go when you’ve hit the deadline and you have to send something. And I always meet deadlines. I’m not one of those people who miss deadlines. With regular papers, it’s more: “I’m so sick of working on this paper and I presented it at places where people like it, some friends read the intro and they think it’s compelling enough and I’ll have a few other people read it and then I’ll send it in. In those cases, for the most part, I’ve been able to get the R&R. But, yes, it’s a different process. You’re just a nervous wreck about whether it was really ready to send. Because there’s no deadline, you don’t know if you should have worked on it more.

How do you deal with rejection?

My first year and a half as a junior faculty member, I got five rejections. I even had some papers that were rejected twice. When that happens, I read the reviews, figure out what comments are useful, that aren’t so specific to the reviewer that they’re not going to matter in another journal. “This is probably a good point. You didn’t explain your mechanisms very well” or whatever. I’ll make those revisions and then send it again. But I revise and send again. A colleague and I have this paper that I love, but that had a circuitous pathway through the journal process. We first wrote it with an empirical example. That didn’t work in one journal, so for another journal we stripped out the empirical example and just went through theory and it almost worked, but it was for AMR and they wanted the kind of propositions that we couldn’t really produce given the theory that we were developing. So, when it got rejected there, we just looked at what the feedback was and then we submitted it to another journal and it got conditionally accepted on the first round because by then we’d done so many revisions. I don’t have a big ego about rejections. If they’re unfair, it’s a little bit of a bummer. If I don’t feel like they were judging the paper based on its own merits, that they were applying criteria that are not appropriate for the paper, then I find that frustrating. But mainly I look at it and say: “Gee, this is what they didn’t understand” or “This is what I didn’t do.” And I’ve had some jerky reviewers, who’ve written their reviews, like half of them in all caps, as if they’re shouting at me. You wonder why the editor didn’t catch such bad behavior, but I just rewrite the review in lower case and then look at it again. Maybe that’s part of why I have all these multiple projects. I don’t have to have so much ego about any one project that I’m doing. If something doesn’t work out, it’s a bummer. But, on the other hand I could just work on it and send it somewhere else and I’ve got other things going on, so I don’t feel like it’s the end of the world. And, the rejection doesn’t change my own interest in the ideas. So, I keep working until the paper gets published somewhere.

How do you deal with that throwaway reviewer comment, the one that says a paper is not fit for publication because “it doesn’t make enough of a theoretical contribution”? I mean, what is a theoretical contribution? When do you know you’ve made one and not made one?

I think two things are possible in this scenario. One is, you haven’t really said what’s different. This is sometimes a risk in grounded theorizing. I saw someone present a paper recently in which they did grounded theorizing from a field study and said: “The importance of trust came out of the data, and we were so surprised!” “Well yes, but the literature actually kind of tells you that trust matters,” so there’s nothing new there. The literature isn’t surprised, even if you are. So then the question is, how can you push deeper: for example, is there something from the fieldwork that tells us more about the process by which that plays out? This is what is meant by iteration in grounded theorizing. The iteration with the literature helps you push more deeply into your data. You have to actually say something new, something that wouldn’t have been anticipated by a reasonable person in the literature. So, some of it is about really honing in on what you add that other people haven’t added. The second thing is, it could just be a writing problem. People don’t know how to write about what their contribution is. So, often you’ll see in introductions or lit reviews: “Well, people have done all this, but they haven’t done this other thing, so there’s a gap.” And the question is: “Who cares?” Maybe they haven’t done it for a very good reason. Just because someone hasn’t done it doesn’t mean you need to do it. So you have to actually say: “This literature does this and it highlights this tension, but it doesn’t actually explain how the tension gets resolved and we actually need to know how the tensions resolve if we’re going to know about these outcomes.” Then you say: “The gap is: we don’t know how this tension gets resolved, but we need to know it because of this other thing.” So, some of it is a writing problem. And that’s easier to fix. But you have to be clear on the first step, which is, what you are really actually adding to the literature and be clear about who you’re having a conversation with.

I mean, for me it’s quite difficult because I bring a lot of organization theory stuff to bear on the strategy literature and sometimes I get strategy reviewers who say: “This sounds crazy and I don’t like what you’re doing. Or I get OT (organizational theory) reviewers who will say: “But we know all this already.” Like this paper I’m writing with Wanda [Orlikowski], one of the critiques was: “You write about time being interpreted. Well, we know all this, why do you need to have a big section upfront saying this is a big issue?” And now I’m re-crafting the introduction, but I’m also going to write to the reviewers to say: “Well, organization theory does have a stream of research that looks at this, but it has not been at all taken onboard in strategy and that’s a huge problem because strategy is all about projecting the future and so we actually need to understand this.” So, I think you need both to actually have a contribution and you need to describe it in a way that doesn’t annoy people.

So, often that’s the problem. The problem is that you just said something like: “There’s a gap, but I’m filling it.” But only descriptively: “So now we know that this and this and this happens.” But then it’s, “So what? Does knowing this change anything that we do?” You have to say what that is.

Ok, last question! What advice would you give to junior faculty or people right out of a PhD program who are just starting their careers. What do you wish you knew then that you know now?

Say no to everything other than research on your own trajectory. Or pick your shots. If you can’t say no to everything, then pick one thing that’s visible and that’s fun for you. Like for me, I chose organizing conferences on topics that were close to my heart. It’s very visible and it was clearly a service to my school and to the field, so I wasn’t really asked to do too much other service. And I could say: “Oh, well, I’m already organizing this conference, so this additional thing you want me to do is not really going to fit in.” The advantage of something like organizing conferences or seminar series is that it feeds back directly to your research and helps you build connections in the field. So, it’s a useful thing to do. So, one recommendation is to just say “no.” The second, and related, recommendation is, don’t get distracted by a million little things. Don’t fill up your day checking email, looking at the web — it’s just too easy to get caught up in that. And don’t over stress about teaching. Do your teaching when you’re teaching and then don’t think about it until the next time so that you can focus on your research. Unless you have some very bad luck and your teaching didn’t go well and you have to do some remedial work. But as long as you’re teaching to some kind of mean rating, most schools are not going to kill you over it. Some schools focus more on teaching than others, but I don’t think you need to be a superstar; you just need to be solid because the research is what is going to matter. And the research is what makes you portable. If you don’t necessarily want to stay in one place forever, or in case it doesn’t work out for you to stay in one place forever, your research is what makes it possible for you to move. These two recommendations are connected. They add up to a message about focus on your research trajectory. You have to say no even to things that sound fun. That’s the hard part. Before tenure, you actually have to say no to all (or most) of the things that don’t count. Someone asks you: “Oh, will you just do this book chapter?” “No.” Don’t do a book chapter, it doesn’t count. Don’t get distracted. Go for the publications that are on their list. Focus on that which helps you build your research trajectory and publication record until you get tenure (and of course after tenure too!). Some of my friends got sucked into executive education and that can be interesting to do, but it gets in the way of publishing. Unless you desperately need the money for family reasons, which is understandable, but if you don’t, then you shouldn’t be doing it. Or blogging which is also fun but not necessarily productive of publishable papers. So, you have to say no to stuff that’s potentially enjoyable. You have to bore yourself almost, but you’ve just got to work on papers. It can be boring, but it pays off! You have to think of your career in phases, knowing that there are some things that you should emphasize when untenured, others when tenured associate, others when a full chaired professor.

You know that study that’s been getting a lot of press lately? About the little kids they put in a room with a marshmallow and they say: “If you can wait two minutes and don’t eat the marshmallow, then I’ll give you two marshmallows. But if you eat the marshmallow then you don’t get anymore marshmallows.” And, some of the kids have to eat the marshmallow right away and other kids say, “Ok, I’ll wait.” And they looked at these kids 20 years later and found that the ones who waited were the most successful. They had better grades and better careers, all this stuff. So…

Don’t eat the marshmallow!

Don’t eat the marshmallow. That’s what it is.


Interviewed and edited by Charlotte Cloutier



Eggers, JP & Sarah Kaplan. 2013. Cognition & Capabilities: A Multi-Level Perspective. Academy of Management Annals, Vol. 7, forthcoming

Kaplan, Sarah & Wanda Orlikowski. (Forthcoming). Temporal Work in Strategy Making. Organization Science.

Kaplan, Sarah (2011); Strategy and PowerPoint: An inquiry into the epistemic culture and machinery of strategy making; Organization Science; 22 (2); p. 320.

Kaplan, Sarah (2011); Research in cognition and strategy: Reflections on two decades of progress and a look to the future; Journal of Management Studies; 48 (3); p. 665.

Kaplan, Sarah (2008); Cognition, capabilities and incentives: Assessing firm responses to fiber-optic revolution; Academy of Management Journal; 51 (4); p. 672.

Kaplan, Sarah (2008); Framing contests: Strategy-making under uncertainty; Organization Science; 19 (5); p. 729.

Kaplan, Sarah and Rebecca Henderson (2005); Inertia and incentives: Bridging Organizational economics and organizational theory; Organization Science; 16 (5); p. 509.

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