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The relationship between theory and carpets: An interview with David Seidl

David Seidl

David came to HEC as a guest in March 2011, which is when the interview featured here took place. These were still early days as far as our blog idea was concerned, and as with Sarah, we started by interviewing our friends first. David is a long-standing member of the strategy-as-practice community of which all three of us are a part. We knew he’d not only oblige, but would be happy to contribute to anything that might help people figure out how to write better papers (even if it meant revealing to the world that he has a ping-pong table in his office and that he reads his drafts out loud to himself such that anyone passing by his open office door can hear him!) This interview is also interesting because David tends to write theory papers, and the process for writing those is a bit different from that of writing empirical papers. Personally, I found David’s explanation about getting the “line of argument” right particularly insightful. Much of the work we do is about telling a compelling, believable story about how things work in this great, big world that we inhabit, or in other words, getting “the line of argument right.” So roll out that carpet everyone, and make sure there are no more ripples in it when you’re done. (Read on, and you’ll understand!)

So let’s start with your ideas for papers. You have written a lot of conceptual papers. Where do your ideas for these papers come from?

That’s a difficult question. I always have lots of ideas, even though most of them are rubbish. I’ve never systematically reflected on how I get these ideas. Some ideas I get when I’m listening to presentations at conferences and my thoughts wander off. The ideas I get are usually not directly connected to what I’m hearing, but are rather just triggered by it. That’s one way. A lot of my ideas also get triggered by things that have nothing to do with organization and management – like when I might be sitting at the beach, staring at the sea and I just let my thoughts wander.

At first, when I have a new idea, I’m usually very excited about it. But as time goes by I begin to think that it’s not such a good idea and then I forget about it. Later I might come across something else that reminds me of my initial idea, which will make me think about it a bit more and then I might actually do something about it. I might search the literature and see whether my idea might be linked to relevant literatures. If I manage to link the idea to the relevant literatures, then I know that I’ve reached a point where I can start working on it seriously.

So then what? How do you get started on a paper?

Well, often what gets me going are calls for papers either for special issues or for a conference where I want to contribute something but I don’t really have anything to contribute. So I ask myself: “Can I do something for this special issue or this conference?” It might be a call for papers or a conference that I might like to go to because there will be other people I know there or because it’s a nice location or because I’m just interested in the general topic. And then it occurs to me that I do have something. And that’s when I come back to some of the ideas that I had. At that point, I’ll start really digging into it. In the end, it’s often another idea that emerges from my first idea, so it’s more like associative thinking. That’s more or less how it happens.

I’ll start by thinking of the literature which connects to the idea. When an idea pops up, it’s usually against a background of things that I’ve read in different literatures, different traditions or different strands of theory. And so I’ll think about this idea in relation to things that I’ve read. I’ll search for further literatures to just see what comes up. Sometimes, I’ll just have a vague idea that somebody might have done something on something, so then I’ll just search for that, for the name and maybe a search term in addition to that. I might just check those out on Google or even Wikipedia. I’m on a wide track at this point. Obviously I don’t use Wikipedia for real research, but I think it can be quite useful when it comes to seeing whether an idea connects to something that I thought it might connect to. Another thing, for example, somebody presents an idea or discusses something or I read something in a paper in a particular field and then I think, “I could just try to apply this concept or whatever it is to my field, and see what results I come up with.” Just by applying a new theoretical lens or a new concept to your field you might get new results. So that’s often what I do, I take a concept or an idea from one field and take it to another field. Quite a lot of my papers are actually about using ideas from one area and transferring them to another area.

Can you talk about a specific example?

Well, for example, I was sitting in a presentation listening to people talking about consulting and what makes them successful. And then I thought, if you look at it from a Luhmanian perspective, which is a certain perspective that I’ve been working with a lot, you can actually explain why consulting projects typically don’t work. Then I thought, “Ok, let’s be a bit more provocative.” So I thought, “Why not write a paper with a title like ‘Why do all consulting projects fail?’” If you look at it from a Luhmanian perspective, by definition, consulting projects fail. Because from a Luhmanian perspective you cannot transfer any meaning from one system to another (for example, from the consulting organization to the client organization), there’s always going to be misunderstanding. So, by definition there will be a failure of communication between consultants and clients and, in that sense, consulting projects can be said to fail by necessity. And I thought, maybe that’s an idea I could work on. So I developed it further and eventually a paper emerged from that – co-authored with another colleague.

You actually had a title before you started writing?

Yes. Well I often think backwards when developing paper projects. I have an idea in terms of what could be the outcome of what I’m arguing and then I’ll try working backwards from there. So in the example I just gave, I had a provocative idea on why consulting projects fail and how could I justify this? In the end the paper turned out to be a bit different, but I often start from the point of my argument and then work my way backwards.

So you think about what it is that you’re ultimately seeking to explain and then you go backwards to figure out what theories could help you?

Yes, that’s what I often do. However, by trying to figure out how to build an argument for the point I want to make, I often realize that I have to modify my point. Then I try to argue the modified point, maybe realizing that I have to modify it once again and so on. So it is an iterative process.

I think it was Kenneth Gergen who once said that a fruitful way of developing novel arguments is to take established ideas and see whether it is possible to argue the opposite. I think that’s what I’m intuitively doing as well – at least to some extent. Often I hear something, somebody is saying something and then I try to argue the opposite. So actually, in that case, the presentation I mentioned was on success factors in consulting projects. And that got me thinking, “Well then, what are failure factors?” and from that, “Do consulting projects ever succeed?” and then turning that around and thinking “Well, they always fail.” And although it started out that way, in the end, in the actual paper, I took out the idea of failure. I ended up turning it into a paper theorizing about the client-consulting relationship from a Luhmanian perspective. So the failure aspect actually dropped out even though it had been the original idea, in terms of the background of the paper.

So what about your idea about strategic episodes. How did that come up?

Well, that actually came out of my thesis. When I wrote my thesis, I sort of had an idea of what I wanted to get at but I didn’t know how to get there. There was a piece missing in my line of argument. And then I read another paper which was dealing with something vaguely related. And then, all of a sudden this idea popped in my head that you could actually treat it as an episode and the episode could be the missing link in my argument. So that’s how it emerged in my thesis. But that was a bit different from the paper we ended up writing with my supervisor. He’d been asked to submit something for a JMS (Journal of Management Studies) special issue. As he didn’t have anything ready to submit, he asked me whether I would be interested in writing a paper together with him. And he said maybe we could take this episode stuff and do something with it. I was obviously excited but I also had doubts because I didn’t think it would really fit into the Special Issue, but he said, “It’ll fit.” I wasn’t sure what the argument would be, but he was very confident that it would be a good paper.

Let’s go back to your writing process. So you have your idea and you’ve been toying around with different explanations. What next?

Well, I write a lot of stuff down; typically just bullet points, or arrows and concepts. Not a model, but more a line of argument. I often write down lines of arguments. I write down the line of argument and then I think, “Does it work?” And then I’ll write down another line of argument and it evolves over time. I don’t really start writing at this stage, it’s just scribbling, usually just half a page or something, not really formulating sentences or anything. It’s just a sketch of how I would argue something so that I can see whether it works or not and decide whether I should continue working on it. Then, depending on the deadline, I might start reading up the literature. But while I’m reading the literature I’ll always be trying to figure out the line the argument. It’s very much about line of argument: How does it work? How does one thing follow the next? Sometimes there’s something missing in between, and so then it’s not a proper line of argument and I have to try and figure out how I could argue that. I might find something that works and I could close the line of argument or I might have to change the way the argument is going. It’s only once I have my line of argument that I’ll sit down and actually start writing. But then in the writing, I’ll change things again. I might actually even change the basic argument at the end. That happens sometimes.

Once you’ve done that and start writing, how do you write? What’s your style of writing?

Well, I always start with the introduction. I can only write in a linear way. I sometimes collaborate with people and they say: “Let’s write the introduction at the end.” But I can’t do that. I always start with the introduction – even though I know that I will rewrite it afterwards. I can only think linearly, in exactly the same way as I would write the paper.

Do you follow an outline, for example?

Yes. And then I go through it. I often read in parallel to the writing as well. I don’t do all the reading in advance, as some people do. For example, some of my colleagues do all their reading first and then they start writing. I sort of go through the paper in a chronological way and I read up as I need different things. This also means that I often have to change what I’ve already written because I realize as I’m going along that there are things that I hadn’t thought about before.

Before I can move on, I have to feel comfortable with the introduction. I have to feel that it could be published in that way. I even put in the references in the proper way. Writing the introduction usually takes me a very long time. Even though I know the first sentence will definitely change again and that it doesn’t matter at that stage what my first sentence is, it takes me a long time to get it down. I also have to start getting into the mood of the paper and my thinking around it. I have to feel comfortable with the line of argument, right from the beginning.

As far as time is concerned, I need to write in blocks. I have to write when I know my day is open-ended and I can continue for as long as I need to. If I have other appointments or if I have things going on, I can’t really concentrate properly. It’s hard, because there’s always pressure to do other things but I work best when I have an open day. So I’ll try to schedule those in. I often block several days in a row to concentrate on a paper.

Where do you work best?

I can’t really work at home. I have always lived very close to my office, I leave everything there and that’s where I usually work. I have the internet on, I don’t shut off my email. It’s on, and from time to time, when I get stuck, I’ll go on the internet or I’ll check my emails to see whether anything exciting has come in. So I do that in between – as a kind of break to refresh my mind. Not long ago, I bought a ping pong table for the office, so instead of checking my emails I play a short match with members of my team. Sometimes, I might also shut off my email, thinking, “Okay, I have to get through this difficult piece,” but then, when I’m through it, I’ll check my email again. I know I shouldn’t do that but I need breaks. Often however, this means that I get stuck in an email exchange because something urgent has come up. And partly because of that, it’s hard for me to know in advance how much time it’s going to take me to write a paper. And the more I try to calculate in advance how long it will take me, the more time it takes me just to start. Some people know exactly how much time they need to write this section and how much time to write that section. I never know. So I can never plan it. I usually start as soon as possible, which is always too late and then I have to think about whether there’s enough time or not, and I just try to make it.

This being said, I’ve missed very few deadlines. Often I’ll work until late at night and sometimes even through the night in order to finish a paper, because once I decide to submit to a special issue or something, I really stick to it and continue working on it until it’s done – which is my obsessive trait probably. I don’t like to submit conference papers with missing sections or anything, so I always submit something that’s complete. It may not be perfect but it stands and it’s readable and it makes sense. Because otherwise I don’t get that good feeling of having it sent off. If it’s only half done or not really done, then I don’t get it. And I always look forward to getting that positive feeling of having sent something off. I also need that to move on to something else. Because when I work on a paper, I’ll often work on it for several weeks, and during that time, I’ll be quite occupied with it mentally. I’ll be thinking about it in the office and at home and so on. And I can’t really stop thinking of it until it’s sent off somewhere.

Do you share your ideas with others?

I love talking about them! Possibly other people hate listening to me talking about them! With the people in my team, I get very excited about ideas. If I read something and I think it fits together with my ideas, I get really excited and talk a lot about it, perhaps more than other people would like. What I like is actually collaborating with people and exchanging ideas. So working together on a paper where you can exchange. Actually I haven’t collaborated so much with other people but every time I’ve done it I really enjoyed it.

How do you organize your ideas?

It’s quite organic. I start files with ideas or with literature. In my case everything is organized around paper projects. So when I work on a paper, all the literature I read that is associated with that paper goes in a file. In that way I always know where to find the literature. All my notes on an idea and all the relevant literatures are filed together. This also means that if I used the same literature in several paper projects I will have several copies of those texts in different files. Not very efficient, I guess, but it has worked for me so far.

Do you follow any rituals when you write?

To get started, I have to get into the mood of the paper, otherwise I can’t write, the sentences don’t flow or I can’t think of the right words and so on. So I really have to get into the mood. And so what that means is that in the beginning, my desk has to be clean. I am very messy usually, but when I start a paper my desk has to be clean.

I’ll usually start writing a paper under pressure because of a deadline, and even though I want to start writing, I’ll still spend quite a lot of time cleaning up my desk and doing things on my ‘to do’ list to get them out of the way and clear my mind. And that takes some time. I also have to have a good starting sentence or a few good starting sentences before I can really get into writing the paper. I’ve tried doing it differently and I’ve tried writing in a non-linear way, but when I do that I can’t get into the mood and if I’m not in the mood, then I really struggle.

How do you decide when a paper is ready to be submitted for publication?

Actually never, it’s always just external pressure. I only let it go if the deadline is there. It’s very much deadline-driven. And I’m never entirely happy when I’m actually sending it off, but then when I go back to it sometimes I think: “Well, that’s actually quite good.” Other times I send it off because I’ve got other things to do and I know if I don’t send it off I won’t be able to concentrate on anything else.

You’ve submitted your paper, and you’ve just received an R&R? How to you react?

Every time I get an R&R I celebrate – often I don’t even read the comments in detail at that point. Then I let the paper sit for a while before starting to think about how to deal with the editor’s and reviewers’ comments. I usually try to do everything I have been asked to do. I only resubmit the paper when I’m happy with the revision and when I have the feeling that I’ve done what the reviewers have asked for, and that the paper is ok. So that’s quite different from when I originally submit the paper: I am never happy with a paper when first submitting it – I always have lots of different things that I would like to continue working on. However, when I resubmit a paper I usually know exactly at what point I’m finished with it; it’s when I’m happy with the way I’ve dealt with the editor’s and reviewers’ comments – only these count for me at that stage.

What if on the other hand you get a rejection?

When I get what looks like an editorial letter, I don’t open it immediately because if it’s a rejection it puts me in a bad mood and it takes me a while to get over it. I also like to think (or hope!) for a while that it’s an R&R, so I’ll usually keep it in my inbox for some time before I open it. Usually, I’ll open it when I don’t have anything important to do afterwards. I don’t open it if I have something important to do, because it will distract me. I know other people who open their letters immediately. But I don’t. I wait.

If I open the decision letter and it’s a rejection I get quite disappointed and it takes me a while to get over it. I usually let the paper sit for quite a long while before going back to it and thinking about what to do with it next. So far, I have always found a way of developing those papers further and submitting them elsewhere. And so far, I have only abandoned one paper – but, having said that, I might go back to it at some point again.

Often I get very difficult R&Rs which contain quite heavy criticism; then I usually think I won’t be able to get around it. However, in almost all those cases something suddenly clicks and I realize how easily I can deal with the reviews. Quite often this just means taking a part of the paper out. For example, in the paper on the failure of consulting projects, the reviewers thought that our conceptualization of “failure” was highly problematic. They also questioned whether we could capture failure with our theoretical approach and suggested changing it. This was a very fundamental criticism that was extremely difficult to handle. Initially I thought “There is nothing we can do. We can’t take out Luhmann and replace it with another theory because Luhmann is central to the argument of the paper.” Then I realized that if we just dropped the issue of failure from the paper altogether (concentrating instead on the client-consultant relation which was part of the argument), the main criticisms of the reviewers would be resolved.

Often I am asked by journal editors to cut the length of my papers – sometimes considerably (the same happened with my PhD thesis where I had to cut out more than 100 pages). Because I often struggle with writing, I have difficulty taking things out, even when it’s just a sentence or a paragraph because I know how much I struggled writing it. So I usually go at in several stages. First I take out what is easy to take out. Then I’ll go back and take out sentences that are a bit more difficult, and then I’ll have a go at it a third time and that’s really hard. But afterwards, when I’ve done it, I’m really happy about it. And it really strengthens the paper. Often it is just the taking out that actually strengthens the paper. But I always save what I cut out. I never throw away old versions. And yet, although I save them, I never go back to them!

Another thing I do is I read my papers to myself out loud, to see whether they flow. My colleagues laugh about it. They can hear me as I usually leave the door to my office open. I do it for particular parts of a paper, usually when I get stuck. When I’m having problems with my argument and I don’t know how to link ideas, I read the sentences or the paragraphs out loud, often several times, and that gets me going and all of a sudden I get to the next sentence and I can see how it needs to go on.

When I write a paper or revise a first draft of a paper, in my mind, I have the image of a carpet that needs to be smoothed out. Initially the carpet has a lot of ripples. In order to get rid of the ripples you have to start from one side of the carpet and then smooth it out, ripple by ripple. You can’t start in the middle or jump around which is why I always start with the introduction and then go through the rest of the paper in a linear way. The smoothing out of one ripple will affect the next ripple and typically increases the following ripples. Often when I’m resolving a problem at the beginning of a paper, new problems pop up in other parts of the paper. By going through it systematically, ripple by ripple, you successively smooth out the carpet. Although I always have a clear line of argument in mind when I’m doing that, I’m not always entirely sure how I’m going to resolve all of the problems. And then all of a sudden, I’ve moved this last problem fold to the end of the carpet and all the ripples are gone!

Last question, what recommendations do you have for people who are starting out on the academic writing adventure trail?

Well, I think people are quite different in the way they think and work. I’m not sure that there are any general recommendations. Maybe I can just say something about the biggest lesson that I learned when I started doing research. When I started my PhD project I thought the most important and most challenging thing was to come up with new ideas. I don’t think that is actually true. I think we all have lots of ideas – all the time. The real challenge is to integrate these ideas into the existing and relevant literatures and to craft a convincing line of argument from that. It took me a while to realize that it was this I really needed to learn how to do.

I can’t remember who, but when I did my PhD, one of our professors suggested that every two months or every couple of weeks we should just write an abstract about our entire thesis in order to see whether our argument worked. It’s actually a good exercise to do. Because it is short, just ten lines or whatever, it helps you see whether you have a clear-cut line of argument. If you can’t put your argument into a couple of clearly linked sentences you have a problem with your line of argument. I think that has influenced me. Initially I laughed at this idea, but then I tried it out a couple of times and found that it actually worked. What I’m doing now is more or less the same: When I’m scribbling down a line of argument for a paper, I’m actually just writing an abstract. Maybe not in full sentences, but it’s the same kind of idea.  I know there are people who can just start writing and everything flows – I have worked with some of them and I admire them, but I’m not like that. Over the years, I have obviously gotten better at writing papers. But only just a bit, because it’s still a struggle!

Interviewed and edited by Charlotte Cloutier

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