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Keep calm and carry on: An interview with Royston Greenwood

Royston GreenwoodInterview with Royston Greenwood
Telus Professor of Strategic Management
School of Business, University of Alberta

I had heard of Royston Greenwood long before I met him. I had heard stories of him “tearing students apart” at conferences, and always wondered whether there was any truth to them. It wasn’t until I was a post-doc that I got to see him give feedback to someone first hand. It was at a paper development workshop. And yes, he was pretty harsh and direct. But he was also crystal clear about what this person needed to do to get their paper at a level that would substantially improve its chances at getting published. I was thoroughly impressed. There was no sugar coating here, but there was some astute, concrete and very practical advice about “where to from here” which was very much worth swallowing one’s ego for. The whole time, I couldn’t help thinking: “Wow! That must be so hard for that person!” but also, “Wow! That is amazing feedback!” And I began to think that I could seriously use a mentor like that for my own work… When I did finally meet Royston, he proved to be gracious, super friendly and genuinely committed to helping students and newly minted PhDs (and others, I’m sure!) navigate the treacherous roads of academia, which is not something we can say about everyone we meet. Do read on as there is lots to learn from someone who has been sailing these rough waters for quite some time already!

Let’s begin with the first question I’ve been asking pretty much everyone. Where do your ideas for articles come from?

It’s changed over the years. Early in my career, my ideas came from interacting with practitioners. It’s like putting your foot in the water. When I think back, very rarely have I gone to the literature first, where I say, “The literature said this and therefore I thought I should go out and test that.” I don’t think I’ve ever done that. In more recent years, mainly because of my old-timer status, I often get my ideas from doctoral students. So for example, someone from Italy came to Edmonton. She was an accountant and she was studying corruption. We had several conversations and I got very interested in corruption from an institutional perspective. And so now, I’m into corruption.

How would you describe your approach when it comes to developing these ideas?

When I go in the field, I never go in with a blank slate in my mind. Over time I’ve developed a perspective that I use to try and understand organizations. The challenge for me is to recognize that there might be other perspectives speaking to this issue. I recognize that challenge. When I’m looking at a problem I know that other people are probably also looking at it – so, I’m saying, you know what? I think there’s an institutional story in this. I don’t know what the institutional story is, but I’m trying to understand the world from that perspective. There may be other perspectives that I’m not familiar with, and sometimes you inevitably move into those in order to learn more – doing that is one the most exciting parts of the job. I like going outside the institutional perspective – although I don’t think I do it particularly well – because it clarifies for me the scope and nuance of the institutional ‘take’.

How do you know that an idea is good enough to turn into a publishable paper?

I don’t think I can say I know when an idea is going to fit with the journals. I think there is always an element of surprise in the review process. For example, these last twelve months I’ve had a paper that failed to make it, and I still don’t really understand why. On the other hand, there have been papers in the past that I was very nervous about, and then I’d be surprised with a highly positive response. It just shows that I really don’t know what is ‘good enough’ or not for a journal.

Are you saying that sometimes you submit something to a journal that you’re unsure of and then you’re surprised when the reviewers respond quite positively, and then at other times you go in thinking, “This is really good,” but then it doesn’t make it?

Not exactly. Every paper I submit I think is brilliant. Ok, scratch that – I’m joking. But when I submit a paper I do think the paper is in good shape. I don’t just send stuff in. But reviewers don’t always agree. So even when a paper goes in and I’m thinking, “This paper has good ideas, they’re exciting ideas, we’ve really worked it out,” I’m still very nervous because of the more random aspects of the review process. For example, recently I had a review from a very prestigious journal, and one of the reviewers said, “What can you learn from one case study?” Well! I thought we were over that! I thought that in the field we had matured about things like that.

When you say these ideas are exciting, what qualifies as exciting?

Because it excites me. It’s very simple.

Is it your experience then that helps you assess whether your idea is exciting for others?

I’m not writing it for other people’s excitability, to be honest. Especially in the early stages, I’m not thinking about reviewers. I’m thinking: “This is an interesting problem. It’s got me interested. How can I understand it?” Then I just go and do it.

When do you actually start writing?

Day one.

Day one as in the day you get an idea?

I don’t start writing on a paper, necessarily. I start with the hardest part of any paper, which is also the first and last thing you ever do: the Introduction. So for example, I’m working on a paper now. I know it’s about status. I know the status stuff out there. So what I start by doing is drawing on paper what I think it is that I’m interested in.

You mean draw as in sketch?

Yeah! And that’s both a strength and a weakness. You can say things that you can’t draw, and I’m aware of that, but that doesn’t stop me from drawing because the very act of drawing clarifies things in my head. It’s important for me to do it, because it sharpens my thinking.

And writing then?

I start writing the problem almost day one, and then I’ll write summaries of the literature where I ask myself, “What do we know about this issue?” I do my own summaries. It’s very time consuming, but when you get to my age you need them because you forget things. Let’s say I want to write about sustainability. I’ll ask myself, “What do we know about sustainability?” I’ll go to Web of Science and search for a very highly cited paper on this topic. I’ll look at who cited that paper, and I’ll rank those papers by their citation impact. Then I’ll read maybe a dozen of those papers to try and get a feel for what they’re talking about. After that, I’ll start organizing this literature. And all along, I’ll be asking myself, “Is this talking to my problem? How does it help me or not to understand this problem?”

Do you take notes as you go along?

I print all of the papers off and I use a highlighter as I’m going through them. Then I write a summary. It might only be four or five paragraphs long. In any case, it won’t be long. Once I’ve read and summarized enough papers, I’ll start clustering them around themes. So for example, themes in institutionalism: How do organizations respond to x, how do organizations deal with y… You know? So I’ve got these clusters of papers, and it’s almost like I’m doing data analysis with the literature, building second order themes and aggregate themes, so that I feel as though I understand it. Meanwhile I’m also digging into my actual data.

So you’re actually doing these two things at the same time?

Yes, but it’s not, “Here’s the literature, what is it telling me about x in precise terms?” In the beginning it’s much more about reaching a broader comfort level and a general understanding of what the literature has been saying about sustainability or about whatever other topic I might be interested in. And gradually as I’m summarizing, I build up what is almost like an essay. It’s not a grammatical essay, it’s notes, but still.

Then what?

When I work with Bob Hinings we agree on who is going to go away and write the first draft of the paper. That first draft will contain lots of gaps, as it essentially just sets out the frame of the paper: “Here’s what we’re trying to do, why we’re going to do it this way, here’s the basic idea that seems to be coming out of the analysis, etc.” So Bob will go away and produce a first draft paper. It will be incomplete, the style will worsen halfway through, but he’ll bring it anyways, and he’s always very happy to show it.

He did tell me that, yes…

Whereas I won’t let him see anything until I think I’ve got a really, really good paper. One of the embarrassing things I do is a lot of word nerding. I’ll agonize over a sentence or two just to get it absolutely right. My “first draft”, the one that is shown to somebody, is more like my 20th draft. And that 20th draft might actually be the first of 20 more still to come. So there might be yet another 20 drafts before my “first one” is even let out of the room. But I know that I have to be ready to change it when I get feedback. I may have gone down a cul-de-sac and, if so, Bob or whomever let’s me know!

How long do you spend on a typical day writing?

I don’t set out a time for writing. I mean if I’m working on a paper and it’s at that point where you’re actually trying to write the paper, it’s every day. And it’s difficult. There are some writers who will say: “I’m going to write X hundred words a day” and then they’ll quit. That’s not me at all.

You just keep going? Can you afford to carve off entire days to write?

Depends on what day it is. If it’s summer, yeah. During term time, it’s more difficult. But basically I like to focus on one paper. Typically, I’ll have one paper on the go at once.

So you don’t work on multiple papers?

My understanding is that it’s the other gender that can multi-task. I can’t multi-task. Or not easily. I can only do one paper at a time. It doesn’t mean to say there aren’t others underway, but I always have a dominant paper. Just give me one, let me work at it. I’ll agonize over it for quite a while which is why I just want to do one paper at a time.

How long is that, when you say “quite a while”?

Months.

Any rituals, habits about your writing?

First of all, I don’t type.

Really?

I’m still into handwriting. So obviously the beginning is a pad of paper. Once I’ve got a hard copy, I’ll work from that. Then I’ll get the paper typed out again with the alterations and start again. I always work from hard copies.

You actually have someone who types out your papers? Do such people still exist?

We have very good support services here. And they all smile and laugh because they know I’m the old fart. I’m the useless oddball.

Do you outline before you start writing, or is your process more organic?

The answer is both. That’s why we have the diagrams. The diagram is an overview, but it’s a very skeletal one. I’ve always said that writing papers, especially qualitative papers, is like a potter working with clay. You don’t really know what the pot is going look like until you’re done. With qualitative work, you’re going backwards and forwards on your data. You’re thinking it through and as you’re doing that, you’re thinking: “This doesn’t make any sense” or “This is interesting.” I don’t ever do research and then write the paper. That’s not the way it works for me. I start with this basic thing: “I want to understand this problem”. The literature out there is not really helping, so I go out and start collecting data. But I don’t just collect data. All the time that I’m collecting, I’m also thinking about the data. Inevitably some of the ideas in the readings that I’ve been doing start to either illuminate what I’m seeing, or they don’t. So then I’ll say, “I’m not finding x, y or z. Why am I not finding it?” And then at some point, after going through that process a few times, I’ll start writing the paper properly, even though I’m still negotiating with the data and trying to figure out what exactly is going on. It’s as vague as that.

Do you feel that you need to have some kind of introduction spelled out before you do that though? That’s what you seemed to be saying earlier.

In some ways, the introduction is an overview of where you think you’re going, or what you think is coming out. I always insist on my doctoral students bringing me the introduction to a paper, and really hammering home, “What exactly are you saying here?” But I think in my own work, when I’m writing, I tend to start with the theoretical context and an empirical problem.

What do you mean by that exactly?

It’s me trying to harness the literature as I understand it. So for example, on that corruption paper, it would be like saying, “I’m interested in understanding corruption, and there’s literature on corruption which does a, b, c. But missing from that literature is any attention to this kind of issue. So it’s really writing about the literature in a way that harnesses the literature to your issue. So when it comes to writing a paper, I think I tend to start with the literature. But then, I don’t write papers from page one to page fifty. I don’t think I can ever do that. Once the introduction is done, or rather, once the theoretical context is done, that sort of inspires me to do the theory part. And then the theory part gets me going on: “Here are the insights” (or ‘contributions’, as people like to say). “Here are the main points I want to get to.” I know what they are by now, so I’ll sketch them out. Then I’ll start talking about the analysis and findings. The last thing I do is the methods section. I hate methods.

You have to explain what you did.

I know what I’ve done, it’s a matter of saying it in a way that is succinct and convincing to the reviewers. With qualitative research, one of the things they say time and time again, is “show and tell”. And that’s always a challenge, because you think you’ve shown it, but then a reviewer will say, “I don’t see it. I don’t see how you got from A to B.” Ann Langley has got a wonderful phrase in her paper on how to do qualitative stuff where she says, “At the end of the day, you don’t know.” You don’t know how you got from that data to this idea. It’s inspiration. It’s an imaginative leap, but one way or the other, you don’t know how you go there.

How DO you get there, do you know?

No idea. Part of it is talking to people. Partly it’s walking about, you’re doing something else, and all of a sudden an idea comes into your head and you think, “You know what? That speaks to that.” How do you get that original, let’s call it “imaginative insight”, I don’t know. It’s a kind of fuzzy feeling that there’s something going on here. And at the end of the day, well… you either have an idea or you don’t. And believe you me, there have been times when I’ve been unable to understand what the heck was going on. Despite all my efforts to understand it, I can’t.

Do you ever get writer’s block?

Yeah, I think so.

And when you do, what do you do about it?

I stop writing.

How long do you to stop for?

Well, there’s writing and there’s writing. If it’s diminishing returns, where all of a sudden it’s not coming easily, a two-hour break will usually overcome that. But when you’re struggling to put the whole package together, there can be moments when you think, “I really have to put this down for a couple of weeks.” Sometimes more. Walk away. It’s amazing how you discover, when you come back, just how inadequate the paper you thought was quite good is.

Let’s talk a little bit about the review process. So you’ve submitted a paper to a journal, and now that email is in your inbox. How do you react?

Well, it depends. Let’s imagine that a letter comes in from the editor. You know it’s going to be a decision. I immediately look at the decision. I don’t read anything after that, for the moment. It’s just nice to have the decision, and then I walk away. If it’s a reject I’ll leave it for at least a week. I think all of us get a bit frustrated with reviewers. We sometimes think that they’re a bit out to lunch. So you have to be in a calm frame of mind to engage. Like that comment I got – “What can you learn from a case study?” – I mean, when you get advice like that, you don’t want to be in a bad mood. At my age, I still get angry, but I’m not going go out and murder somebody.

How do you deal with difficult reviewers then?

I start by reading the editor’s letter. What is the editor really pointing us to? I’ve been very much helped in the past by editors who do a good job of singling out, “This is what we think you’ve not done. This is where we think you need to put your emphasis.” In essence, I’m trying to understand, from the perspective of that experienced editor, what is missing from the paper. I’ve got to get that right, because editors are not only experienced, but they’re also going to be making the final decision on the paper. So you might as well understand what it is that you failed to communicate. So I’ll spend 50 percent of my time on that: trying to address what the editor is talking about. I’ll turn to what the reviewers said only after that.

Is that not risky?

I think one of the big challenges today is allowing authors to have their voice. We’re so driven to publish in the top journals that we’ll do anything to get in. The risk is that we’ll accept criticisms, comments, and the suggestions of the reviewers much too easily. I think there’s a tendency to treat those reviewers as dogmatically attached to their own comments – which may well not be the case. I think we need to recognize that they’re only making suggestions and we have to question how we might respond. The drive to publish makes us a little over-keen to satisfy the reviewers. And I’m like, “Just a minute! This is not what I’m trying to do in this paper.” If it’s a big issue that’s being raised, then you have to try and deal with it. But sometimes, doing that can abuse the story a little bit. For example, one of the things I consistently get is “There’s too much in this paper. Cut it down. Focus on this.” I know it’s the weakness of what I do, but at the same time, life is complicated, and sometimes I have a hard time just pruning back. In my talk at the Academy I said, “Today’s research often resembles salami slicing.” And sometimes, just to pursue the analogy, as a writer you want to include the whole damned salami! You want to push for one idea explored more fully rather than sliced too narrowly.

Are you suggesting then that we should be pushing reviewers back a bit more?

I think that there are two parts to that. One is: I do think we should have the courage to push back a little bit. But what I’m also saying is that our tendency is to think that reviewers are dogmatically attached to their ideas, when often they’re only really saying, “I’m intrigued by the paper, and I think you need to do this.” Or “Have you thought about this?” That doesn’t mean that they think the paper can’t possibly succeed. But I think we tend to think that way. We need courage at the appropriate moment to push back. And we need the courage in our ideas and enough – how can I put this? – we should appreciate that the reviewers are reviewers. They’re not a firing squad saying: “We’re going to shoot you.” They’re open to ideas. We should respect them as our colleagues. So what I’m saying is that at times, you have to have the courage to say to reviewers, “Well, we think you’ve got it a little wrong.”

Sometimes you get editors that say something like, “Please have a look at what these reviewers have said and respond accordingly.” How do you deal with those?

This has not happened to me, but in such cases I think I would tend to treat the reviews as data. Can we aggregate up to some basic theme? That’s what I would try and do. I think the spirit of dealing with reviewers is like that. These guys are trying to say something to us, because they’re not convinced by the paper. So how do we make it? We ‘know’, or we hope, that the ideas in the paper are good because we’re excited by them. But how do we convince these guys who are clearly not convinced? We can’t let the hurdle of clarity get in our way on that. That is how I tend to think about it. What is it that they’re not getting? Why are they not getting it?

In your view, how does one develop one’s capacity to write well?

No idea, really. Americans are going to hate me for this, maybe the Canadians too, but I was fortunate to be brought up in an English education system that expected people to write essays. When I went to university, you wrote essays. Multiple choice? Never heard of it. Essays. You wrote, you wrote, you wrote. And I think that background me helped enormously. I also love reading – especially novels and history books. I think that reading well-written books rubs off on you.

So one last question, what recommendations would you give to aspiring qualitative writers?

We all know how difficult publishing is. You’re going to get papers rejected. So my advice would be: “Don’t take it personally.” It’s not you. It’s the paper. Moreover, some of the most famous papers in our field were turned down the first time round. We’re talking of authors like Mark Granovetter, Paul DiMaggio and Woody Powell, John Meyer and Brian Rowan. So, keep a rejection in perspective.

Mark Granovetter’s embeddeness paper was rejected?

His “Strength of weak ties” article was rejected. DiMaggio and Powell’s 1983 paper was rejected. Meyer and Rowan was slightly different. They sent a paper in and it got rejected. Then they sent another paper to the same journal, which was the 1977 paper, and the editor basically overruled the reviewers to keep it in. So rejection is not a personal thing. It’s part of the review process. The paper may not be any good. It doesn’t mean that you’re not any good. That’s the key. You’re going to get rejections. Live with it and carry on.

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