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Go where the energy is: An interview with Martha Feldman

Martha Feldman

Martha Feldman
Professor of Planning, Policy & Design, Management, Sociology, Political Science and Nursing Science
Johnson Chair for Civic Governance and Public Management
University of California, Irvine

Given our overlapping research interests, Martha and I gravitate around similar circles and our paths have crossed on several occasions. But until quite recently, none of those occasions ever gave rise to anything that went beyond the rather impersonal “Oh! It’s such a pleasure to meet you!” Not that Martha is unapproachable (quite the contrary), or that I’m shy (I can already hear people laugh about that one), but rather that circumstances were such that the opportunity to get into a more substantive conversation simply never arose. That changed last summer at the AOM meeting in Philadelphia, where quite by chance, Martha and I were staying at the same hotel. One morning at breakfast, I was alone, and Martha came right up to my table and asked whether I minded our having breakfast together. Would I mind?!?!! (if one of your favourite athletes or artists came up to you in a hotel lobby and asked: “Would you mind if I sat down here and had breakfast with you?” what would you say??) Obviously, I was delighted. And our conversation in Philadelphia gave rise, not so long afterwards, to this one. In this interview we delve a little more deeply into the more intuitive aspects of academic writing. I hope you like it.

We can start with the same question I’ve asked everybody up until now – where do your ideas for writing come from?

I just read the interview you did with Jennifer (Howard-Grenville) and she said that her ideas come from her data, and I would say that’s mostly true for me as well. I would say that my ideas come mostly from empirical puzzles. Karen (Golden-Biddle) uses the word ‘puzzle’. For me, a puzzle is something that I’m puzzling over, it’s kind of an intuition that something is really interesting. “Look at what that person did!” Even the theory pieces I’ve written, I think they basically come from that same place: I’ve noticed something happening over lots of cases, or in different places and somehow I feel that we’re not really capturing what’s going on.

Can you think of a specific example of that?

Well, for example, the research that I did that led to the routine dynamics idea: I was studying residence halls at the university. And I knew that I was studying routines – that’s what it started out with. But it had started out with: Why are routines so stable? What can we learn about this by looking at it ethnographically? What creates this? What are the mechanisms of stability? I started following this particular group because I’d been talking to them. I’d told them that I wanted to study routines and they said, “Oh, we’ve got these really stable routines, you should come study us.” So I did this ethnography, I spent a lot of time hanging out with these people, between four and five years. And after all that time, I was like, “But your routines have changed!” Over that time period, I watched all kinds of variations and I didn’t really have a very good way of explaining them from the theories that we had.

Ok. But then why routines in the first place? What got you interested in them to begin with?

I studied routines in my dissertation and that really came from studying with Jim March and being interested in decision-making and how choices get made, and his theory always had included routines as a part of that. In fact, both Michael Cohen and I ended up spending a lot of time on routines and we’re both Jim March’s students. So my dissertation was about report-writing routines in the federal government and about why they’re so stable, even though people don’t read the reports: Why do people keep doing that? You know, they just keep writing these reports and complaining that nobody reads them. But they keep doing it anyway. And so there I argued that the stability really comes from a kind of longer view, and if you zoom back you can see that these reports really are being used in a variety of different ways.

How long did you spend in that job?

Almost two years.

How did you avoid, under those circumstances, going native, as they say?

Mostly by writing detailed field notes.

You were able to keep that up the whole time?

Oh yeah. I mean, I’m sure there were times when I did a lot less and times when I did more. It made a huge difference in terms of my ability to write something when I actually got it done.

How so?

There was still a lot of processing to do at that point, and when I finished the field work I went on the job market. So I’m trying to get job talks, and I felt like I didn’t really have a handle on the story. I think it took me another six months or a year to finish, and I don’t know how you could even do that without field notes.

In your field notes, did you just write what you saw or would you also be reflexive about what you were seeing, maybe already theorizing as you were writing?

I’ve always used square brackets in my field notes, so each time I want to reflect on something, I just put them in brackets. These were all handwritten field notes.

Do you still do that? Or have you changed the way you do things since?

I haven’t done any ethnographic field work in a while. I’ve been doing a long term project, I now have sixteen years of data with one city in Michigan. I did the field work at first and then one of my PhD students picked up on it and has been doing most of the field work since, and that was ten years ago. Two summers ago we did a bunch of interviews, we taped them and had them transcribed. We also took notes, I’ve got a little book that has all the jottings, and so I could look at that as well.

Would you have a dedicated notebook for a particular project then?

I did in that case. But I’m not systematic about it. Which is not something I’m suggesting others should do! Sometimes I’ll end up without a notebook, so I’ll just grab a piece of paper from somebody. And then I have try and keep track of all those pieces of paper. It isn’t ideal.

But you somehow managed to pull it all together obviously, because you’ve written some interesting things, so I guess it all comes together at some point?

At some point, yeah.

Why don’t we talk a little bit about the actual writing that you do? So you’ve done your notes and you’ve reflected and processed and now you have to actually sit down and start writing. Can you tell me a little bit about how that happens for you?

Well, a few things that I’ve learned over the years is that I have to go where the energy is. Usually my energy is around some empirical puzzle or hunch. It might be something that somebody did that I find really interesting, or some outcome, a conversation, or a comment that somebody made.

Can you give me an example?

Well, in a piece that I wrote with Paula (Jarzabkowski) and Jane (Lê), we were working with Paula’s and Jane’s data, and Paula and I were talking and thinking about what we might write about. And Paula talked about a bunch of things. I don’t remember what the others were, because I was immediately drawn to this notion of end-to-end management. I was like, “Oh! end-to-end management, that sounds really fascinating!” It wasn’t just the phrase. It took some convincing, because Paula felt like it wasn’t central enough to what they were doing and I was like, “No, I think this is really central; I think it’s crucial to what they were doing.” But it was just a hunch. So then we started pulling out all the stuff that was in their field notes and in their interviews about end-to-end management and before very long, there was this statement that somebody had made about, “We’re not doing end-to-end management, we’re doing end-to-about-halfway-down.” And for me that kind of encapsulated something that seemed really important. It captured my attention, my imagination. And I really used that as a touchstone throughout the entire process of writing that paper.

What triggered it?

Well, Paula had come here to talk to me about this project. In fact, we were in my kitchen and she described several different things about the data – it was a long conversation, which tends to be an important part of how I co-author, particularly recently, because I’ve been working a lot with other people’s data, you know, coming into a project after the data have been gathered and doing a lot of the analysis and writing afterwards with them. So when I do that, I listen a lot and that’s when Paula mentioned end-to-end management, but she hadn’t thought of it as something to study. She thought of it as something mundane and not central to what she had been thinking the story in that case was about. And that may be because they were hearing it so much that it was something they had stopped paying attention to. I guess that’s a good example of ethnography, coming in as a person from the outside, looking on the inside. So that’s quite interesting.

So you had this long conversation with Paula in your kitchen and this idea about end-to-end management pops up, then what?

Well, then they went through all the data and found all the references to end-to-end management, things like that comment about “it’s not end-to-end, it’s end-to-about-halfway-down”, started emerging. And there were other kinds of statements like that, and it became a kind of keystone for me. Then I started working that comment: What does this mean? What does end-to-about-halfway-down mean? Where is halfway down? What happens when they get to halfway down? How do they know they’re halfway down? The emphasis wasn’t on specific amounts, but on stuff like, they’re saying, “We can’t get to the end”; “We used to go this whole route, now we can’t do it.” What happens that makes them “not be able to do it”? What does that feel like and what do they do when they can’t do it? What kinds of conversations do they have when they get to that point? What does all this have to do with this thing they called the “Chinese wall,” which in itself, is a fascinating phrase. So I thought, “Okay, so they go partway and then they hit this Chinese wall, what is it? What does it keep them from doing? How do they interpret it? Because obviously it’s one thing legally, but it’s another thing as it gets enacted. How do they enact it? How does that enactment change over time? Questions like that. So you kind of need one thing to pull on and that was an example of that in a recent paper. And that’s what I tend to do. There’s something that really grabs my attention and it serves as a kind of starting point.

Okay, so tell me more about this. How do you take it from all these questions that you’re asking about this thing that intrigues you, to actually writing? How do you go from your questioning to the next stage?

Typically what I do and what we did in that instance was write vignettes. Part of what you do is that when you write the vignettes, those then become the data that you analyze, because then you’ve created something that you can analyze and bounce off it, basically.

How many vignettes will you have written for that paper?

In that paper, I think we did three.

How many ended up being in the paper?

I don’t remember how many we did in total, but it wouldn’t have been very many. I remember Claus Rerup saying to me, “Some people think that you just find some really good examples and even if you don’t have the rest of the data, you just work those examples.” But that isn’t the way it works at all. You can’t have good examples without having the whole data, because otherwise you don’t know what to do with the examples. In my research, I’ve never felt like I needed to get all of the examples of X, Y or Z, because that’s not what I’m trying to do. Because of my knowledge of the field though, and in this case because of Paula and Jane’s knowledge of the field, we could know what were some really good examples of what they were doing when they were doing end-to-end management. Or in my earlier work, what were some really good examples of what happens with the move-in routine. And the move-in routine is an interesting example, because you have to understand what the broader, more generalized pattern that they have is and what are the things that change? What are some of the disruptions and how did they deal with them? Over the four years that I was studying that group, normally they had the move-in day for students a few days before the big opening football game. And what I remember is that during the course of the fieldwork, the scheduling of the game changed and they ended up having people move in the weekend before, so they had all these students there for a week, because they didn’t want them to miss the game. But then all these people were there without any classes starting. And that was part of the issue, because the way it was set up before, they would move in, they would start classes and then there would be the game within the course of half a week. After the schedule change though, they had people moving in, then nothing to do and then the game.

So changing the scheduling disrupted the logic that set the routine to begin with?

Exactly. So that would be a vignette that I would write up, which would have both the logic of how it happened before, but also what was this disruption and how did the people deal with that disruption? And that would give you the data to then be able to say, “Look at these things that are going on that can help you understand how people adjust or, in this case, how the routines changed as a result of… whatever.” And the interesting story there was that some of the things that they did, like coordinating with the athletic department, they’d never done before. They’d never coordinated with the athletic department before, which was made obvious by the fact that suddenly, the game was at the wrong time, right? But also then, and for at least the years after that, I saw that they continued coordinating with the athletic department on a variety of different issues.

So you’ve written up your vignettes, and I guess more ideas emerge at that point, so then what?

Then you start working those examples. And that’s very similar to what I was saying with “it’s not end-to-end, it’s end-to-about-halfway-down.” You kind of say, “Okay, what were they doing here and why did that work and how does that relate to anything else? And how does that help us to understand how they manage to recreate end-to-end management? So on the one end, they create a product and on the other end, the product gets serviced in the context in which it is used, right? So somehow they have to span that distance. Before, they used to do the whole thing, as one company. But then they had to split off both ends and it reminded me of when – in the U.S. – Ma Bell broke up into the Baby Bells. And so they’re still producing this product, but about halfway down they have to pass it on to a whole bunch of other companies, including one company that used to be their company and they have to treat all those companies as if they’re the same. And their company still has to get the servicing done for their part of that market, okay? So they couldn’t just say, “Well, we got it halfway down the field – I always thought of it as a football field – and we’re not responsible for what happens after that”, because part of their company was still part of the group that was doing the servicing at that other end.

But what I’m hearing though is that you’re still thinking about this data, right? You’re still in that process of asking questions about the vignettes and what are the possible relationships or links or puzzles or patterns or whatever. But let’s say you figured it out now, you know what you want to say about these vignettes…

Oh! that never happens. I doesn’t happen because you’re just continuously figuring it out: “Here’s this interesting thing, here’s another interesting thing,” you know? If the data are complex enough – and in an ethnography I think they always are – there are a lot of things to notice.

But then, when do you start writing?

Well, that is writing. The analysis always happens in the writing. It could also be something visual, so writing isn’t always just text, right? It could be a picture, it could be a table, it could be anything. Anything that helps you engage with the data. It isn’t a recipe. It really has a lot to do with who else is involved, what kind of data we have, and what the data are telling us. And it’s also what we each have to bring to it. You have to kind of let that unfold.

Would you say then that it evolves in different ways with perhaps a repertoire of practices that you can pick from to make it happen?

That’s a nice way to describe it. And remember what I said earlier; you have to go where the energy is. That’s pretty critical, having a sense where there is energy and excitement and vitality.

It sounds like there’s a big intuitive part to this as well?

There’s a huge intuitive sense.

But where does that intuition come from, do you think?

I think everybody has it. It just depends on what you’re curious about. Karen (Locke) and Karen (Golden-Biddle) and I have actually written about this. I really believe that in our field, we have tended not to give permission to people to use their intuition.

Are you referring to your paper on “Making Doubt Generative”?

Right. And that’s not always easy. I’ve had a lot of people say, “Well, you can’t back that up.” But I’ve also had a lot people who have said, “If that’s your hunch, then go with it and see if it works out.” Obviously, at some point, you’re going to have to back it up, but that doesn’t mean that you have to have all of your ducks in a row before you come up with an idea.

Do you have any routines or rituals that you follow when you write?

I don’t think so. I tend to write at home but I can write pretty much anywhere. I grew up in a big family so I could do whatever, anywhere. These days I tend to be more driven by deadlines, and if I’ve got some deadline breathing down my neck and I’ve just got to get it done, it doesn’t really matter where I am. And I’ve been in that mode long enough that I don’t really remember a time when I could say, “Oh, I have to have this particular setting so that I can write.” I mean, my son was born twenty years ago, and as you know, time becomes really scarce when you have kids. Any open little window of time is time, because otherwise you’d never get anything done, right?

Do you need long periods of writing time or can you piece it off into little snippets?

I can do little snippets.

Even the more creative stuff, or blank page writing?

Yeah, because a lot of the ideas are happening before I open the computer. And a lot of that stuff is going on when I’m taking a shower or making breakfast, or whatever. And so it’s just kind of like grabbing the computer to jot down some notes. A lot of what I like about stopping and writing something out is that as I write it, I’m like, “Oh no, that’s not really what I want to say.” Because you see, I don’t tend to think in words. So the fact that there’s this kind of ongoing flow and then I have to stop to put it into words, it really changes things a lot. So that kind of working back and forth between that sense of what’s going on and the words you use to express it is a really important part of the process.

So writing contributes to your thinking?

Oh, yeah. And this also happens later on, when we get to the: “How does this relate to any questions in organization theory?” which tends to come quite a bit later in my thinking. I used to really hate that part of the process and now I like it a lot more because I’ve learned that it also helps me think; you know, think about, “How has some similar question been dealt with? What are those studies and what have they done that’s different from what I’ve done? Where do I see that I’m adding something?” As I get older and as I’ve developed as a scholar, I find that more and more doing that is very similar to engaging with the data.

But you’ll still do the data first?

Usually, yes. Although sometimes now I will also be reading the literature and I might say, “Gee, you know, that’s not really the way I think about it,” which I don’t think is unrelated to empirical work.

That’s kind of cool to think of the literature review as another way of engaging with the data. So those are like parallel processes that you have to bring together somehow to create a cool story.

Exactly, exactly.

Do you ever get writer’s block?

I don’t think so. But that’s related to this idea of going where the energy is, right? So I would get writer’s block if I said, “I have to start here and I have to end there and today I have to do step five.” And that’s probably why I don’t do it, because I’m quite sure I would be completely blocked if suddenly I told myself that I had to do step five. So I just go where the energy is. I’m always curious about something and so I use that as a way to get into it.

Okay, so now it’s done. It’s finished. How do you decide that a paper is ready to go?

Well, I make a lot of mistakes, so I don’t know that I’m very good at that. And I’ve gotten a lot of things rejected. But then, that’s also part of the process. I guess there’s some kind of threshold, but I don’t know where it is. These days, I give a lot of talks, and I find that those are really helpful in terms of seeing what people’s reactions to an article are.

You mean invited talks?

Yeah. But before I was doing a lot of that I would do a similar thing with people I’m talking to or with friends. There was a period in my career for example when either Jane Dutton or Leslie Perlow read basically everything I was working on.

They were like part of your circle of friendly reviewers?

Right. So those kinds of things are really important. And something that happens often, I find, is that people will identify something cool in a study and I’ll be thinking, “But that’s not really the main point (I was trying to make.)” I mean, you may think it’s cool, or think that is what makes the paper interesting, but I don’t. And what that tells me is that I’m not yet getting across to them what I think is interesting about my story. So then I have to work on it some more.

Sometimes the problem with friendly reviews is that people are too nice. You really have to find someone who’s willing to be brutally honest with you.

That’s right. Jane and Leslie were good in that role because they would each say something like, “Oh, this is so fascinating!” and they would have lots of reasons why they thought that, but then they would tell me everything that was wrong with the paper. Or rather they would pose a lot of really difficult questions that I needed to address.

How do you deal with that? Let’s take the scenario where you’ve sent in a paper that you thought was ready and it comes back with reviews. And the reviewers are basically sending you in a different direction from what you had in mind and with which you’re not comfortable.

Yeah, I don’t go; I don’t do that.

So you’ll withdraw your paper?

Well, I’ll look at the reviews and see what they think needs to be done, and I interpret that as… I mean, it’s part of the same data analysis; it’s like, “How did they get there from what I wrote and how can I write something that gets them someplace else?” So it’s more about taking on the responsibility of, “I wrote something that led them to that conclusion. But I must have written it wrong, because I didn’t really come to that conclusion.” So sometimes that works and sometimes it doesn’t. I remember one paper, I had submitted it to Human Relations and it was like in its third round, and I realized that there was one reviewer that the editor really cared about and that person was never going to see the story the way I saw it, so I withdrew it.

Oh wow, after three rounds? How hard was that?

It wasn’t that hard. I mean, it was kind of disappointing, but I also felt the paper had changed and gotten better. In the end I submitted it to Organization Science and it was published there.

What about situations where you’re dealing with reviewers that are sending you in three different directions?

I’m trying to think of an instance when that’s happened. The ASQ (Administrative Science Quarterly) piece I wrote with Brian Pentland, we had two reviewers that went in one direction and the editor and third reviewer went in another direction. And we totally agreed with the two reviewers going in the first direction, but disagreed with the other reviewer and the editor. And we used those to figure out, “Okay, these are the people who don’t get what we’re saying, so how can we speak to them?” They’re giving us clues about what they don’t get and why they don’t get it. So we didn’t change what we were saying, we changed the way we were saying it. I remember in the first review letter, somebody said, “I don’t know what the organizations you studied are like, but in my organization we follow the hiring routine exactly as it’s written,” and we were like, “That’s impossible! That can’t possibly be true.” So the challenge became: “How can we talk to this person who thinks that people follow routines exactly as they’re written?”

How much of that do you do in the paper and how much of it do you do in your response to reviewers letter?

That’s a good question. I can remember times when I’ve taken a conversation offline. When Claus (Rerup) and I wrote that paper for AMJ (Academy of Management Journal), we did that a number of times. For example, we had one reviewer who really didn’t understand grounded theorizing and who thought that to do grounded theorizing, you needed to have a completely blank slate. So for that we’d do some kind of offline. A small part of that may have gone into the paper, but the longer discussion was really about trying to educate a reviewer who probably wasn’t the appropriate reviewer to begin with. But like in the ASQ paper, we took that person as part of our audience. We didn’t say, “This person is just an obstacle to get past”, but rather, “This is an example of a representative reader and how can we get this representative reader – smart person who happens to have had a completely different background and therefore a completely different way of looking at these things – to see what we’re trying to say?”

You’ve worked collaboratively with others on several projects. What has been your experience of writing with others?

It varies a lot. Some people like to have more order and some people like to work on different things, some people like to have things for a long period of time and mull it over and others like to do really quick turnarounds. So for me, it’s good to be able to be flexible. With every co-authorship, it’s a matter of figuring out how we can work together. Having a wider repertoire of practices and approaches to choose from … the wider your repertoire, the more stuff you can play with, right? I think it’s worked out for me because I learn a lot in the process. I mean, co-authorships are learning opportunities for me. The only point of co-authoring is to be able to engage with others. And that is one of my rules – I don’t like to parcel off a paper, as in somebody writes this part and somebody else writes that part. Everybody has to write and feel comfortable with everything in the paper. And so the ideal co-authored paper is one where you really can’t tell who wrote what. And that takes lots and lots of conversations and lots and lots of iteration, and you’re learning from each other as you’re doing it. That way, you’re really developing something together. When you’re done with it, it’s not your paper or my paper, it’s our paper.

Some people literally write together, side by side.

I’ve heard of that, but I don’t do that. I do like to use Google drive, to take notes on a project and for writing. Monica Worline and I have done several projects using Google drive. Karen and Karen and I use it too – mostly for having a common set of notes from our conversations. We’ve also used it to write papers. Most of the time, though, we are not writing on the paper at the same time. What generally happens is we pass something back and forth. Perhaps I should also mention that I don’t like using track changes.

Really? Why not?

I mean, for some purposes, like when you really want to draw attention to something, I like it, but for the most part I think it tends to make you feel like I own this text and you own that text. So again, I like to feel that we all own the text. If you make a change, and somebody else reads it and they’re fine with it, then it’s fine and it doesn’t matter who made the change or when the change was made. What matters is: “If you read this, do you like it?” So the ideal for me is just to take a draft as “here’s the document,” as if I was working with myself, right? What would I do then? I would pick up the document, I would read it, I would make the changes that I think need to be made. We don’t usually track changes for ourselves.

Have your co-authors always been comfortable with this? Because I can see this being an issue with some people…

Yeah, which is part of the reason why it’s important. Sometimes people will start out wanting to do track changes, but pretty soon, I think they’re ok with not doing it anymore. I can’t think of anybody who has said, “No, I really want to know everything that you’ve changed.”

Ok, so let’s move on a bit. You’re one of those people that people identify with a specific area of research. To what extent has identity influenced your work, or vice versa?

I think it’s been a great thing. And it’s really helped me deepen my questions. I’ve had so much to do with this one area that I can see clearly what the open questions are. And that’s been good. But it’s also true that I do a number of other things, and so I don’t feel limited by it.

What about in terms of managing a person’s career: Is it important to have an identity, do you think? Is it something that people should work towards? And then feeding on that, what advice would you give to people starting out?

I think career-wise, it is useful to have an identity, but I wouldn’t want to have an identity that didn’t kind of emerge naturally. So the advice really goes back to: “Go where the energy is.” I often say this to my students, “What’s the point of doing this if you’re not really interested in it?” Because it’s not like you’re going to make a whole lot of money and it’s not like you can get really famous. The only reason to do this is because you’re interested in it and you think you can make some kind of a contribution to some part of the world that matters to you. And if you’re not motivated by doing that, then the career seems kind of empty.

Anything else? Mistakes to watch out for?

Oh, there are lots of those. And that kind of puts me in the editor’s hat. This is something that motivates the work with Karen (Locke) and Karen (Golden-Biddle), and that has to do with people thinking that there’s a formula for doing this work. They try to find it and follow it. But often, the result of that, I think, is that they end up writing things that are technically proficient, but that don’t have any life to them. This is particularly true when it comes to qualitative work. And that just doesn’t work; being technically proficient on its own doesn’t produce insights that get people excited.

So how does one nurture that, in your view?

Part of it is being interested in it yourself, and part of it is being able to say it in a way that gets people interested, right? Finding that sweet spot where you say something and the other person goes, “Oh yeah! I get it!” And then remembering how you said it. Figuring out how to engage that in your analysis and how to engage that throughout the rest of the writing and analyzing process.

So your goal is to create a connection between what you say and how you say it that hopefully triggers that kind of reaction in your real and imagined audience?


Interviewed and edited by Charlotte Cloutier


Feldman, Martha S. (2000); Organizational routines as sources of continuous change; Organization Science; 11(6); p. 612.

Jarzabkowski, Paula J., Jane K. Lê and Martha S. Feldman (2012); Toward a theory of coordinating: Creating coordinating mechanisms in practice; Organization Science; 23 (4); p. 907.

Locke, Karen, Karen Golden-Biddle and Martha S. Feldman (2008); Making doubt generative: The role of doubt in the research process; Organization Science; 19 (6); p. 907.

Rerup, Claus and Martha S. Feldman (2011); Routines as a source of change in organizational schemata: The role of trial-and-error learning; Academy of Management Journal; 54 (3); p. 577.

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