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Just do it: An interview with Paula Jarzabkowski

Paula 3

Interview with Paula Jarzabkowski
Professor Strategic Management
Cass Business School

City University London

I’ve known Paula for quite some years now and she never ceases to impress me.  I recall a visit to Aston some years ago where she and Jane Lê, with whom she’s collaborated over the years and who is now at the University of Sydney, showed me how they organized the data they had collected for a big study they were doing at the time.  They had these endless, cross-referenced Excel files in which they had rigorously documented every meeting, every note, and every interview by date, by theme, by research site and by God knows what else.  I was a PhD student at the time and I came back from that meeting thinking that I really needed to up my game if I was to come anywhere close to that level of rigour in my own research. Paula is also very devoted to her graduate students, working very hard to ensure that they all do well throughout their studies and beyond.  So in those and many other ways, Paula has been quite an inspiration.  And last, but far from least, Paula is easily one of the most productive people I know.  How she does it is completely beyond me.  I thought that through our interview I might be able to figure out where her magic comes from, but really, there doesn’t seem to be any. As you will see for yourself, it’s the same for Paula as for the rest of us. You just have to keep at it!

Where to do your ideas for papers come from?

What has been most significant for me recently in getting ideas is working in teams. As a team of researchers, one of the things we do in the field to prevent isolation is to communicate ideas. So we’ll email each other, “What’s the funniest thing you heard today?” or “What really struck you today?” It becomes part of the group dynamic to just dump down anything that you find funny or interesting or odd or anything that prompts your imagination. So a couple of good things have come out of that. For example, one of the things we noticed in the field was the way people dressed and how they changed their dress. And that ended up being part of this conceptual point about segmenting that’s in a paper that we’ve now got under review about logics and how people switch between them.

Another thing we noticed was the way people sat in these particular configurations. And we used to make jokes about it, you know, “It’s the puppy position,” or “It’s this position or that position,” and then we realized that this joke was actually something quite consistent.  So we started drawing codes about them, so that we could quickly note them down. We ended up with these five or six different positions and there was something different about interaction in each of them. And that has now become a paper where we’re looking at the spatial and bodily arrangements of people and how that affects their strategic interaction with others. So it started as just something funny and now it’s become something about the embodiment and the positioning of different people.

So when it comes to ideas, I think it’s just about coming out and sharing things that are funny or odd to you, especially when you see it initially. So you write about it or remark on it because it’s strange to you and it catches your attention. And I think that’s the time to do it because after a while it’s not strange anymore.

So how did you go from that initial idea about how people dress to building up a whole story around it?

I mean, I couldn’t say it was the thing about dress as such that did it. What really struck us about the whole clothing thing was how people were being shamed when they didn’t put on the “right” clothes.  You know, like “You don’t wear brown in town”, or “You mustn’t wear brown shoes.” All these kinds of things began to mean something to us.  Once we saw someone at Lloyd’s who went in without a tie in an open-necked shirt, it was a business shirt, but it was open-necked and he didn’t wear a tie, and people came up to him and commented on how he should be thrown out of the building. And the guy knew it was a faux pas; he defended himself by saying he wasn’t doing any work, just catching up with friends. So it was very funny, but you realize that it was funny in a very normative and sanctioning kind of way about what constitutes the appropriate work in different spaces.  And that’s when we started to think of it in that way and look for other pointers about what work is appropriate and where.

At this rate you’re probably producing quite a lot of ideas. How do you decide to work on a particular idea versus another?

Whatever you’ve got energy for at the time. There are always more ideas that could turn into papers than you can actually do and my view is to always let the big papers run.  What I mean by that is run with the ideas that are most obviously speaking to some body of theory that’s out there that’s looking for an answer that you think you can give. So it’s sparked your interest, it links to a body of theory you already know something about and you want to run with it. Let those ones, the ones that have things that want to be said right now have priority and let the smaller ideas, the ones that might need more time to brew, let them wait for a special issue or something. Because it takes a lot of energy to go from an idea to a paper, there are miles and miles in that.

How many projects are you working on right now?

Increasingly I’ve been engaged in programs of ethnographic research. So what might have started out as a case, sort of just grew.  I think it started being programmatic with Jane (Lê) because we followed a really big company undergoing a massive regulatory shift across everything they did for two years. So on the one hand it’s all about one company, and on the other, it’s actually a program of research that looks at a range of different things, regulations being implemented at different stages and timelines and things like that, but we didn’t really realize it then. We just thought we were doing a really, really, big case study that had multiple facets.

And this next program is very much the same but even bigger. I’ve been following the reinsurance industry for three years now. And there are a whole lot of different themes and programs within it, with different types of participants, different areas of participation, different members of the team, and so on. So it’s like having a research centre that looks at one particular sort of thing.

So right now you’d be working on how many papers, roughly?

We’ve got a book, which is a little overdue like all books are, but we hope to get that finished by the end of the year. There are four papers under review; there’s another working paper that’s gone to AOM and that’s the one you saw, it’s in the best paper proceedings but you know that doesn’t mean much, you still have to work hard to get it out; and there’s one or two more that have been to conferences that we’d like to get out this year. So that makes about seven.

So you would have two, three that are sort of working papers and then four or so that are different stages of the review process, some first, second round.

Yeah. To be honest I have never been quite so crazy busy in my whole life. I hope it’s not going to be like this forever, but at the same time there’s this rush of stuff and there’s this group of people and they’re productive, and they’re clever and what am I supposed to do?  Be some bottleneck that stops them getting through?

How many people are there on your team?

About six.

So you’re actually running a whole team and managing team dynamics, as well as multi-site data collection, and a system to organize it all….

To me it’s very exciting; I never intended it to be like that, it just happened like that.

What about access, how hard was it to negotiate access to your different sites?

Well, it’s one thing to have a CEO saying that you can do it, it’s quite another thing being allowed to do it.  It takes a while and it takes a lot of energy. Energy to really invest in these people, invest in knowing them, understanding them, thinking about what they want, how can you make them feel comfortable. It’s exciting and challenging, but it’s also difficult personally; how can you get above your own emotions and how do you feel about that, which quite often is not so great.  You know? In the field, I’m always on the receiving end of your potential dislike of me for being in your space, and I have to do that over and over and over again. I have to learn to both cope with that myself, and also make sure my team is capable and comfortable within that field dynamic, where you are always aiming to get more and more inside the world of the participants.

Did you contact them in advance and ask, “Can I drop in?” How did you work that out?

I guess it starts like that, very formal, and you can do it a bit, but then after a while the guys get used to you, and they see you at someone else’s desk, or they see that you’re in the company and there’s a snowball effect.  You know, “Why are you spending time with them and not with me?”

Did you have an office where you can sit down?

No. And that’s tiring because you have nowhere that you can withdraw. Some of them thought that’s what I wanted, and they said, “We’ll give you a desk” and I’m like, “No, I want to sit beside you.”  And then they’d be the ones who’d say, “I’m not doing anything interesting today so there’s no point sitting beside me.” And I’d say, “Fantastic, that’s what I’m looking for.”  Sometimes with someone you have to say, “Look I know you don’t want to do this, but you know, I’ve collected data from everyone else except you,” and he’d look at me and go, “Yeah, that’s true, it’s my turn.” So then you’d sit beside him and try to be nice and then suddenly he’ll start talking because he’s just realized that it’s quite nice having you there.

Let’s talk about writing per se. Do you follow any routines when you write?

Doing all of this, running these projects, keeping an industry happy, collecting data, worrying about money, developing the team’s careers properly and continuing to write. I can’t tell you how hard that is. So when you ask, “Do I have a routine for writing?” all I can say is, “I don’t know.” I think I used to once, but now I just try to sit down and write.

Is there a particular time of the day when you do that? Anything you need to do first?

Well, it depends on the type of writing that I’m doing. For new stuff, when I’m actually starting to write something, I’ll usually try to set aside days for that. Something that I’ve never come to accept in myself, even after all these years, is that at the clean sheet stage, it takes a day to get into it. And that is actually part of the writing time. I always think I’m only productive when I’m actually writing, and yet it always takes me a day to get into it.  And that’s why you really need to set aside two days, because the second day is the day you might get some actual writing done. The first day you bugger around, and you try to copy and paste something you did before, or you take parts of your notes and you think, “Okay, maybe I’ll just copy and paste that in, and write a few things around it.” But then once I’ve done that, I’ve got something, and something is something. So I’m a big believer in something is better than nothing, because you can improve something. It’s much easier to write something that’s been written. And that’s actually one of the things I say to my PhD students when they get writer’s block. I’ll say to them, “Well, I don’t care about your writer’s block.  If that’s the case, then just come in here tomorrow and give me one page of bullet points.” It’s not ideal, but at least you’re writing. I mean, the only way you can write is to write. And it’s really hard. So for example, I’m a slash and burn writer.

Okay, what do you mean by that?

I just try to write everything down and then go through it and slash it because there’s too much. But other people, who are “every-word-is-precious” writers, they can’t write until they know what they’re going to say. And sometimes you just have to get over that. So for me it’s slash and burn. If that’s all I can do, I do that. Sometimes if I’m a bit clearer, if we’ve talked it through quite a bit, and we’ve said, “We’re going to start with this, I might even say, “Okay, I think we want three paragraphs on that,” because that can give you just enough impetus to start writing.

A minimum for you then is a day, or could you actually do less?

Well for new stuff, yeah at the very least a day. Although you know, what concentrates the mind magnificently, and I’m very good at this, are artificial deadlines. So okay, we’re going to EGOS (European Group on Organization Studies conference). Fabulous! We have to write the paper by the submission date and it’s got to be something. So that’s really helpful. I’m not interested in conferences where I don’t have to write a paper. It has to be something that makes me write.

Do you outline?

Increasingly, yes. It’ll be like, “Let’s do three paragraphs on this and some on that and, you know, there’s too many of these and that’s looking a bit too bulky, it’s disproportionate.” Especially for co-authored papers, we’ve started to do that more because I think it helps coordinate the different pieces. The idea as well is that nobody’s words are precious, and everybody’s words get changed, mine as much as anybody else’s, which I think is comforting. You’ve done your three paragraphs, they get changed, but then so does everyone else’s and you change someone else’s. So I think that’s been good.

You talked about different types of writing that you do.

Yeah. There’s the blue sky type of writing, when you start writing, and then there’s the overwriting, rewriting, and writing again. And I can do that type of writing in more places than I thought. I can do that on planes, I can do that at the gym café, pretty much anywhere. And I can do it in very short bursts as well. But even for that kind of writing I set myself these really short-term little deadlines, like “I need to get this paragraph done by four because I want to do an exercise class; so I’ll work at the gym and finish in time for the class as an incentive.”  It’s a little bit pathetic when you think about it. You know, for my first book, I actually put on a lot of weight, because I’d have these packets of M&Ms and I’d say to myself, “Okay, two more paragraphs and you can have an M&M, then it became two more sentences and you can have an M&M.”  I finished the book that way.

When do you know a paper is ready to go?

That’s another reason I like deadlines. Special issues are great for that because there’s a day it has to be in.  If there is no special issue, then there’s a moment when you think, “This has been to enough places” or “We’ll get it read by this one extra person and then it has to go.”

You do friendly reviews then?

I’ve got one or two people who I’m good with that, and they’re good with me. It’s that thing I say, “Get your friends to tell you that your breath smells because you’d prefer to know that, right?”

No sugar coating because it’s not helping…

Yeah.  And sometimes when I think the paper is pretty much ready, I send it to someone and say, “Look, I don’t mind if you don’t understand the theorizing, all I want is to know whether there is anything in there that’s not plausible? Are there any non sequiturs? Can you just go through it and mark it up?” And that way I know when a sentence doesn’t make sense and I’ve got to do something about it.  It doesn’t have to be an expert in your area, and you can do that for someone else as well.  Say, “I really don’t understand your work”, or “I didn’t understand why you did this,” and they can go back and think, “That’s because you don’t understand the theory and I need to explain it better” or “That’s because I didn’t build the stepping stone in.”

Do you write papers in terms of the journals you want to publish in?  How do you decide where to send it?

I always want to aim for the best journals, but I also want the best journals to be convinced about what it is that I want to write about. And that can be a little bit awkward.  Someone asked me about this and I just said, “Well, actually, I’m always aiming right at the top, that’s my target, and then I just tumble from grace year-after-year until I end up somewhere.”  And that’s what I like about special issues because I can target the topic, and that’s nice. But at the same time, for some things, I think, “This is a really nice idea, and I don’t want to stretch it to fit something else.  I want to actually be able to theorize about it in the way I want to theorize about it.”  And in those cases, it could be “Here’s a journal that likes this kind of theorizing” or alternatively it could be, “Here’s a journal that will require a certain form of torture to the data, but I think I’m ready for that.” Some places have a much more canonical, more positivistic approach, everything has to be justified to the nth degree, and sometimes that can ruin your creativity. So you might think, “This is a really nice idea, it probably wouldn’t stand up to being tortured to death to prove that every bit of it was valid, I’d prefer getting it published someplace else, and give grounds for future validating rather than destroy it.” So occasionally that can happen, and that doesn’t mean a lesser journal.  It just means a journal with a different way of thinking about what is robust.

Let’s talk a little about the review process.  You’ve submitted a paper to a journal and now you’ve received a response. Then what? 

I can’t look at it with much detail right away. I’ll open it and skim it just to know if we’ve been rejected or if we’re still in the running… So I have a look briefly and then I actually need to put it away for a bit.  I’m not ready to look at it more because the paper has been off my mind for a bit, I’m dealing with something else right now and I cannot get distracted.  If it’s an R&R, I’ll put it away for a little while.  I’ll come back to it later and I’ll make some space to work on it.  I know this paper needs another rewriting, so it’s like, “Oh! Goody I have another paper to write!”  It’s a never-ending story. At that point, I’ve factored it into the timeframe, I’m ready emotionally, I know it’s got to be rewritten and I can look at the thing properly. And most of the time, it’s not too bad.

One of the things we do, and I’m really happy we’ve learned to do this, is we put all the reviewer comments into a table so that we can go down them one by one thinking, “Ok, what are we going to do about this?” and then mark up the original paper. So we go through and mark up the original paper with how we’re going to deal with this, what do we need to do to the paper to change it?  You know, we need to do this and this and this, that has to go, that’s clearly problematic, that doesn’t make sense, and yeah, this part is actually pretty crappy now that I think about it. So you start to see your paper through the reviewer’s eyes.

So we’ve looked at the reviews and we’ve noted that we’re going to have do something about this, this bit will need changing, that bit will have to go, we have to make a decision on this. So that’s really, really helpful because it turns the paper not into this personal emotional thing, it’s about a job that needs doing now. And I’m looking at it with my reviewer’s eyes.  This doesn’t mean I think my reviewer is right, it just means that I’ve looked at it through his or her eyes. I’ve removed myself from it, I can step back and think, “What do we want to do with this paper?” because it is very unlikely that the two or three reviewers will have said identical things that you can just go and do.  You have to make a decision about what it is you want to do, and evaluate how it will then satisfy the reviewers.  It also means deciding who you can’t satisfy.

Another thing we do is to cluster things. Paul (Spee) for example is really good at clustering all the things that have been said about the theory, all the things that have been said about method together.  So then we can have a conversation about those specific things, which is nice.

It’s important to enjoy it. You’ll be working with any paper for a long time, so do the research YOU believe in and write about it the way you want to write. Then use the reviews to learn how to write what you believe in a more convincing way. Mostly, reviewers are saying, “Your work didn’t convince me” not, “Your work is wrong.”

What about when your paper gets rejected?

When I first get the rejection, I hate them; the blind reviewers.  Responding to reviews is a confrontational process for me; I want to convince you, so I’m angry when I can’t. But I think it’s also because I’m competitive and that’s part of the incentive to keep going.

Do you send your paper somewhere else, or do you change it before resubmitting it?  How do you respond?

I find that really hard to answer because sometimes it just depends. Part of my maturing as an academic has involved not letting reviewers do things to my paper that I don’t want. Working out what I want to say; not giving in to everything in the hopes they might let you through. Because sometimes, they won’t let you in even if you do the things they ask. And then you end up with a rejected paper that you don’t even like or believe in anymore. So it’s a difficult question.  I don’t know.

Any advice for people who are starting out?

Any idiot can do this. Don’t look at people and think, “Aren’t they amazing and I can’t do that” because it just isn’t true. There is nothing very special about me. It’s not like my ideas were better than everyone else’s.  I mean, yes, I write quite nicely but lots of people write quite nicely.  All of us who have done a PhD are above average, all of us are clever so when I say there’s nothing special about me yes I’m clever, yes you’re clever. We got PhDs, we’re clever. So that’s the common denominator: we’re all clever, there is nothing more clever about that person or that person, so just get on with it, anyone can do this. All that matters is doing it.

Interviewed and edited by Charlotte Cloutier.

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