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Accounting for words: An interview with Richard Whittington

Richard Whittington

Interview with Richard Whittington
Professor of Strategic Management, Saïd Business School, and Millman Fellow in Management at New College, Oxford University

It was my good fortune to be Richard’s post-doctoral student in 2009-2010. I had applied a strategy as practice lens to my dissertation work, and here I was, working with THE guy whose work was critical to building the field itself. I viewed it as such a privilege. I was also a little bit in awe, feeling rather intimidated and out of place amongst the many Oxford over-achievers I met while living there (my flat neighbor was a concert pianist AND a prize-winning math PhD guy who did advanced geometry calculations to figure out how to get a new sofa through the very narrow entrance of our building). Perhaps because of this, it never occurred to me to ask him about his writing habits.  I was probably too worried that I’d be discovered for being the imposter that I felt I was (doesn’t she know how to do this already?). Fortunately (mostly for me, I expect!), we’ve stayed on good terms since (we are still working on a joint project) and when Richard visited in Montreal last Fall, I figured it was time to remedy this oversight. I like this interview as it goes into a bit more depth about the genesis of ideas by showing how our ideas are so often connected to our experiences, beliefs and the circumstances we find ourselves in. We also discover that while he is a self-proclaimed “word accountant,” Richard is a keen supporter of a bit more daring and creativity in the way we write. Read on to find out more!

So let’s start as I do with everyone. Where do your ideas for articles come from?

Articles only?

Well, it doesn’t matter.

These days, one gathers such a clutter of collaborators, including yourself, in so very many odd ways that I don’t think there’s a typical process. Earlier in my career, I think many of my ideas originated with my original training or ideologies.

Your background is in history, right?

Yeah. So background in history, social theory and sociology. My first job was as a sociologist. And history was informing my projects quite a lot at the time, for instance the stuff I did on the spread of large diversified corporations in Europe during the post-war period or even earlier, or work on the rise of small firms.

How did you get into the whole strategy-as-practice field then? In the early 90s, you wrote something about bringing the sociological lens to the study of strategy…

Well, I had that sociological training and inspiration. So it wasn’t terribly hard because if you look at SMJ (Strategic Management Journal) or indeed many other management journals in the 1980s, they were not very sociologically informed. There needed to be a way in for somebody like myself, who can barely add things up. Which meant my having to find a way of justifying a more qualitative approach to strategy. So there was that predisposition to go in that particular direction and then there were one or two prompts. And one of them was failed consulting projects, for which I could find no help in SMJ.

Why were you interested in that?

I had to earn a living. A British academic salary wasn’t much to raise a family on.

What was the other prompt?

I was doing some executive education, actually, and I came across this call for papers in Long Range Planning. And quite by accident, it all came together. They were calling for something new and I thought, “Right, I can do something.” Although I had written something which had referred to strategies and practice earlier, I hadn’t really thought it through or written it through until that 1996 piece in Long Range Planning.

But what of that 1992 piece, in which you talk about structuration? Wasn’t that a precursor?

Well, I’ve always been into Giddens, who is a practice theorist. And when I was in Paris in the early 1990s, I attended a series of lectures by Pierre Bourdieu. So all these things converged. So what you need is that sort of predisposition, to use that phrase, and some accidents and maybe a sort of basic dissatisfaction with what’s going on. At least, that has been the case with me.

Was it not rather risky though, at the time to go that route?

Not really. The downside for me was low because I really wasn’t interested in doing what SMJ (Strategic Management Journal) was doing anyway. And the British academic system wasn’t competitive in the same way it is now, especially in being so focused on publishing in mainstream top journals and nothing else. I was even able to write a little textbook, which I would never advise anyone to do now, certainly not at that stage of their career.

You’re referring to the What Is Strategy book?

Yeah. What Is Strategy and Does it Matter? And I’m glad I did it, but it was a different world back then.

So how did you get into strategy then? Was your PhD thesis on strategy or did that just emerge later?

My thesis was on the sociology of strategy and more specifically on strategic choice. And that does go back to ideology and things like that. In the 20th century, large corporations were the most important new institution. They were also the institution we knew least about. We knew quite a lot about the state and we knew quite a lot about religious institutions. But we didn’t (and still don’t) really know much about the firm as an institution. And personally, I believe in agency. So there’s an ideological orientation there. In the early 1980s, I was a director for a little trade union organization in Manchester. At the time, a lot of firms were making choices about whether to keep this factory open or that factory open or close them both. And often the answer was close them both. My job was to help the trade union understand the strategy behind that and give them information to challenge it. If there is agency, there’s choice; there are alternatives. You can challenge decisions like those. If you believe it’s all only profit maximization or market deterministic forces, then you can’t challenge it. So that’s where that came from.

Of the stuff you’ve written, do you have any favourites?

Well, I have some which are NOT my favourites. But What Is Strategy was fun to write. The Long Range Planning piece was fun to write.

What made them fun?

Well, What Is Strategy and Does It Matter? was a joke. Or sort of a joke, with deliberate ambiguity right in the title. And I don’t think anyone had really tried to do a book like that before in strategy. So that was fun to write, it was interesting.

Why?

Well, there are a few jokes in it.

So you like to integrate humour in your writing?

Yeah, but I don’t think everybody would necessarily notice the jokes. Some might not find them at all funny. But I don’t like writing in a purely plain style. I like it when there’s a bit of twist and turn in the writing, that’s maybe what I mean by joke.

Something a little bit unexpected?

Yeah, exactly.

So how do you generate that? We are in academia after all, and there are certain conventions that you need to follow.

It’s easier to do in a book or a chapter because you have more control, so I prefer that. It’s probably not possible to change the style of the top journals, but we can all do more to make our discipline more interesting or provocative by using the opportunities in books or book chapters. Book editors should encourage this – they don’t have to ape the journals; they should be doing something different. Of course, some journals like Organization Studies and Strategic Organization do encourage a more provocative approach, with their essay sections for example, so those are good places to try. It’s worthwhile talking to book editors and journal editors as well to see whether they will buy something a bit different. It can be really refreshing writing without second-guessing the criticisms of some anonymous reviewer looking over your shoulder. The more we do that, the fresher our writing, I think.

Let’s talk a little about your actual writing. How do you start? What do you do first?

The beginning.

No outline?

I do outline. The beginning is the outline. Ann (Langley) was laughing last night, because the only thing she remembers about writing with me is my word budgets. She was basically saying that I’m an accountant at heart.

A word budget. How does that work?

I have written quite a lot of stuff with coauthors, and some will sometimes write 5000 words where 500 is all that is required. And it’s awfully difficult to tell them that they’ve wasted two or three days of their life on that. So when it comes to collaborative writing, word budgets, talking a lot about them before and during the writing, is quite useful.

That supposes that you do a pretty detailed outline before you start.

Oh, yeah. A fairly detailed outline and I have a word budget for each section of it.

So on your outline, you’ll write “introduction”, I’m going to talk about x, y, z, and it’s going to be 200 words?

More or less, so yes, as you can see, I’m an accountant! I’ll break budget sometimes, but if you’ve got seven and a half thousand words or whatever for an article, you’ve got to be fairly disciplined. The slowest thing that one ever does is write. There’s nothing more stupid to do than to write unnecessary stuff.

How did you develop this system?

Well, it probably goes back to being trained as a historian in a university where you had to do two essays a week, every week. And that meant that you had to read a lot faster, and write a lot faster, and be fairly disciplined about it. What probably reinforced that for me as well was doing my PhD in the early 1980s when word processors were non-existent and you had to rely on a typing pool to get your work typed up. So here you are, a 24 year-old PhD student, you’re paid nothing and your status is low. The pool is this bunch of middle-aged women, presided over by the necessary dragon. You go in and say, “Could you type this please?” And then the next day you go in again and say, “I did it all wrong. Could you type this now?” Well, let me tell you, you don’t do that more than a couple of times. So you learn to choose your words carefully. Back then, cut and paste was a physical process.

Do you have any rituals that you follow when you write? Any habits?

Cup of coffee, and I read the Financial Times at least twice. It takes me a bit of time to get into it. And then when I do, especially if there’s a bit of time pressure because of a deadline, I try and write the introduction. I will work quite a lot on the introduction, because that’s a bit like the outline.

Before you write anything else?

Yeah, but it slightly depends. If it’s collaborative work where I’m not really sure who is doing what, then clearly not. If it’s highly empirical work and analysis is ongoing, maybe not. But if I start an article not knowing what I’m going to say, I feel uncomfortable. I actually tell my PhD students to never start a research project until they know what the answer is.

Okay. Can you elaborate on that?

Why would you want to dedicate three or four years of your life to a project you don’t actually have a view about already? They have to have a view. They need to know what it is they want to show.

What do you mean by that?

Well, going back to my PhD for example, I wanted to show there was human agency in the decisions of large corporations.

You have a hypothesis, is what you’re saying?

Not one I want to refute, and not one I want to test. One I want to demonstrate. A thesis rather than a hypothesis.

But if people do that, wouldn’t that colour the way they look at the data?

Yeah.

Wouldn’t it make them force fit their data into pre-determined categories, making it say things that it’s not saying?

“Force fit” is a bit strong. The idea is to show things that are there that others wouldn’t necessarily see.

And that’s okay?

It’s what happens all the time. Empirical research is just a way of helping you think harder about stuff. In social science, it doesn’t prove anything definitively. And I’ve done quite a lot of quantitative work or worked with quantitative people over the years. It’s not to say that research is not useful. And it’s not to say that you don’t learn stuff and adjust your views. But everyone has a basic ideology, and that’s what drives the research, whether they know it or not.

Let’s talk a little bit about writing with others. So you’ve written things on your own and you’ve written things with other people. How is the process different in each case?

It’s very different. When you write with others, it’s more difficult to say what you want to say.

What makes collaboration work for you?

Discipline. People deliver on time what they promise.

But do you do that all the time?
No, I don’t.

So communication then …

Is utterly important.

Are you one of those who prefers working on one project at a time, or are you okay with jumping around?

I’m a jumper-arounder. Or a pushed-arounder. I mean, you have to be incredibly disciplined or selfish to say, “All I’m going to do for a week is this.”

When do you feel that an article is ready to be submitted to a journal?

One thing I try to do once I’m finished writing is to give whatever it is a cooling off period. So if there’s time, there’s no deadline or something like that or the coauthors aren’t too impatient, I will let it sit over a weekend or several days and then come back to it. I always find that when I do that there are things that can be better expressed. Quite often, once a paper is published, you wish you could have changed just that one sentence. So that cooling-off helps you avoid that. I’m a bit bad at tweaking stuff, because I do like to get the phrases nice. It’s something I think is worth working at. I also think that part of persuasion is the authority of the text. So if you don’t quite believe that the empirics prove anything, then you’ve got to be attentive to the way in which you write. Because writing up research is a rhetorical practice. Style is also important. I mean, we all read a hell of a lot. Writing well shows that you respect your audience. If you can’t be bothered to write nicely for them, then you’re disrespecting them.

How do you nurture the ability to write well?

I read a lot of novels, quite a lot of history.

Any favourite authors?

Well, I had to rearrange my books the other day and I realized what a large proportion of my life I’ve devoted to Doris Lessing. There is something very nice about her writing. Actually, sometimes I reflect on how it goes in our field when it comes to reading: you read all the great stuff at the beginning of your career and by the end of it, much of what you’re doing is reviewing for journals, stuff for which you’re about to recommend revise and resubmit or reject. So you’re reading worse stuff as your career goes on. It’s a necessary process, but over time one’s reading trajectory does go into gradual decline.

Which suggests that from time to time, we should go back to reading the classics?

Absolutely.

So you’ve decided that your paper is ready. You’ve given it the cooling off period. You’ve gone back, and you’ve tweaked and you’ve re-tweaked it. It’s ready to go and you’ve submitted it to a journal. And now it’s come back and it’s a reject.

Well, sod it, I do get rejects! But there are a lot of journals out there and there are lots of ideas. I used to say this about research grants, “You don’t get many research grants, but actually the effort is never wasted.” You know? Because you get some feedback and then you move on.

You don’t take it personally.

By and large, not. I mean, occasionally, once or twice, I’ve known who the reviewer was and I thought, “Well, I know you know who I am, and I’m not buying you a drink at the Academy next year.” But otherwise, no, not too personally I hope. That’s easier to say after getting tenure, of course.

What about R&Rs?

Oh! R&Rs are just our bread and butter, aren’t they?

What do you mean by that?

Well, they’re just part of the process. You’re mildly glad to have an R&R and then you just get on with it, go through the points as best you can and tick them off.

Have you ever found that the review process forces you to say things you don’t really want to?

I don’t think I’ve ever been subjected to a review process which has really distorted what I wanted to say. Basically, I think the R&R process works well. And I think that most reviewers, much more so than it used to be, are pretty professional.

My last question, or rather my second to last question, touches on researcher identity and whether it’s important to have one. What are your thoughts on that?

For an early-stage career person, it probably is a good thing to develop an identity, if you can. And there are two reasons for that. Firstly, in the labour market it’s important and valuable. And secondly, you should be researching stuff that you believe in, that you believe is important and that you have some ideological position about. So that must be part of your personal identity as well as your brand. So identity has two senses here, brand and personal beliefs. Going back to what I said earlier, maybe book chapters can be useful for building a research identity, being somebody with something different to say. Also conference appearances and panels. Nowadays, blogs could be useful too. Of course, not everyone can do this identity building straightaway, which takes us back to what I was saying about planning and budgeting. There are so many unreliable people out there, you can be extremely useful to the discipline just by being reliable and competent. You know? If you haven’t yet found that thing that you want to say, you can just go out there and be useful and you’ll do well, because a lot of people aren’t.

Any other newcomer advice?

There are lots of ways of making a career, so don’t get too hung up about research. Having some kind of balance is probably best. Actually, I think a lot of American scholars are very committed to their teaching quality in a way that’s not always the case in the UK. And that’s a good thing. Because mostly, teaching is what pays the bills.

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