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Find your question: An interview with Mike Pratt

Mike PrattMike Pratt
O’Connor Family Professor
Phd Director, Management and Organization Department

Boston College
Carroll School of Management

I first asked Mike whether he’d be open to doing an interview for the blog almost two years ago.  It was hard to nail a time, but we finally managed it when I found out, quite by coincidence, that we would both be in London (UK) at the same time (for totally different reasons!).  Mike was a bit jet-lagged, as he’d landed at Heathrow that very morning, but you can’t tell that from the transcript. Mike’s a practical guy, and this comes through quite clearly in the interview.  How to write with others, how to manage your pipeline, how to approach the review process – no nonsense, practical stuff. No wonder he’s as productive as he is!  I need to change my ways… perhaps I’ll start by installing a whiteboard in my office.

Where would you say your ideas for research projects come from?

They mostly come from me paying attention to what’s going on in the world. Sometimes they come from me paying attention to the research I’m already conducting. For example, I started a study of firefighters with a co-author because I was interested in intuition, but then, when we listened to what they had to say, it became clear that this was not their core problem.  Rather, they were saying lots of stuff about meaningful work.  This lead to more questions, such as how someone’s approach to work influences his or her motivation, because how you approach your work has a big impact on other things. So this idea got me thinking, which took me in directions I wouldn’t have expected.  Likewise, during this same study I read something to the effect that firefighters weren’t fighting fires anymore, and I thought, “That’s got to be a problem for them.” So here again, I picked up on something that set me off in different directions.

Okay so you have an idea, you’ve figured this out, and you know, ideas are –

Easy.

A dime a dozen.

Ideas themselves are a dime a dozen. Good ideas are not. The trick is figuring out which ones are worth pursuing.

So how do you pick the one you’re going to work on and then, what do you do once you’ve made that choice?

I tend to go with an idea and mull over it until it seems like it is no longer working. One way in which I think I’m different from some other people is that I love to write. I love the writing process. I did some creative writing when I was young, I had an English teacher who was really supportive of creative writing. I like that stuff. For me it’s not a burden to write. So I’ll just write. A lot of stuff gets worked out through writing, so I write stuff down.

I also talk about my ideas. Presenting to colleagues and at conferences, is huge. Getting other people’s perspectives is critical, especially when you’ve spent all this time studying a population, however many years, and you work to get their perspective and have a really rich idea of what’s going on. But you also need to see the forest from the trees, right? And I think it’s difficult to see the forest.  So talking with people, and trying out different kinds of things, seeing how people respond, helps.

It’s hard for people who are just starting out because it’s not like they get invited to give talks that much. And the process at conferences is often quite limited in terms of how engaged people are.

So what did I do early in my career? Two things. If I can’t present, I’ll share what I wrote with someone.  It need not be someone who is also an inductive, qualitative researcher.  Just as long as they are interested in the topic and are willing to read it. Getting different perspectives is always useful.  You never know who you will get as a reviewer so this helps you prepare for anything. I’m also a really big fan of brown bag lunches – getting a group of people together to share their work.  I started my own micro-community at Boston College on work, identity and meaning (WIM), where anybody can present. You don’t have to be invited, if you’re in the area and you have something to say, you can just ask and we’ll say “Sure! Come and present”.

So you mentioned that you enjoy writing.  But how do you go about it exactly? Do you just sit there and type up whatever pops in your head? Do you follow any ritual?

I don’t think so, that’s the problem: sometimes I think I should. Most of the time, I start to write, and I realize that I need to read something more on whatever topic I’m writing about. So I’ll stop, read some more and then go back to writing.  It’s kind of messy. It’s not like I start out at 5 o’clock in the morning, I put my pens and pencils – or more likely, keyboard, just right and all that. I just don’t.

Some do.

I know!  And in some ways I think it would be awesome if I did!

A way of getting your mind into that space.

I do to try to block out times to read and write.

Every day?

No, but I should. I think that the longer you are in any job, you get asked to do things you may not want to do. I don’t find committee work all that exciting, I don’t really have an aspiration to be a dean. People ask you to do stuff all the time and it gets difficult to find time to do the stuff you like doing.  Just before I started my sabbatical last year I was thinking, “Wow, I really like to write. I have to remember that.”  So lately, every day, I’ve tried to end the day with 5 to 10 minutes of writing. I find that I’m in a better mood when I do that. It’s like working on having better habits:  I’m going to write every day and this is the topic I’m going to write on. It’s hard to keep up though, stuff happens. If somebody’s in crisis, you make a choice and I find my own stuff is the easiest to give up. Student is in trouble – am I going to protect my writing day? Let’s not be a jerk and help this person out. But I do try to block out time.  And if ten minutes is all I can spare, then so be it.  It’s better than nothing.

So you prefer writing at the end of the day?  Does that make you an evening person?

Well, yes and no.  I’m a former evening person who had to become a morning person because he had kids. My natural rhythm is to work at night. When I was in graduate school, when I was writing my dissertation chapters I would stay up until 5 or 6 in the morning. And then I’d email my advisor, Jane (Dutton) just as she was waking up, “Here’s what I’ve done for the day.” Then I’d sleep until about 10 a.m. or so and start the day again.

Nowadays, I’m usually up at 5 a.m. or thereabout, I work out at the gym, and then I start my day triaging and putting out fires. Some people, like Karl Weick start their day by reading and writing. I wish I could do that. I suppose I could, but I’d have to be more like “I’m going to ignore everything else” and I’m just not good at that.

So how do you manage then? How do you fit it in?

Well, I obviously have to find time, so you just do it.  On some papers, we do writing blitzes, which can be productive. I’ll have a co-author come up – if they’re here, it’s easier, and we’ll make progress.

Ok, let’s talk a bit about that.  Writing with others. How does that work for you?

I guess I try to figure out – what do they need? So I have students or co-authors who are great theorists but who are not so great with data. So you try to be that person they are not. I do find with writing at least, it’s nice to have one person – whether it’s me or the other person – be the lead. So that either you’re responding to stuff or you’re driving the process. I find that if you don’t know who’s driving the process, it quickly gets frustrating. Even though it might not sound that way, I do like it when there is some efficiency in writing. I’m not going to have two people work on the same section. Or one of the things I hate, you’re working on something and you don’t realize your co-author’s working on the same thing and then you end up with these two different versions, and you have to figure out what to do with them, which is never easy given how attached people get to their writing, So I try to avoid that.

Is that something you make explicit with your co-authors – whose taking the lead on this?

Yes, as in “who has version control now.”

Is that the language you use?

It’s something I picked up from a doctoral student.  That’s how he said it and it kind of works: “Who has version control over this or that?” There may be times where I write the methods section and they write something else. So I may have version control over one section and they may have control over another.  The idea is that I should not be working on a section that another co-author is currently working on.

Ok, so there’s leading in terms of where the paper is at, like ping pong, being clear on whose ball it is. But there’s also leading in terms of who is pushing stuff out and who is in responsive mode. Is that something you talk about as well?

You learn the hard way that you want to have these conversations in the beginning of any project.

In terms of authorship, you mean?

That’s usually what it boils down to: are you going to be first author on this or not? If you’re first author, what are your expectations? So usually the first author will write the first draft. It doesn’t always work that way, but that is usually my rule of thumb.

Being clear certainly helps avoid misunderstandings down the road. 

Yeah, something I try to avoid at all costs.

So if someone comes in for a writing blitz, how does that work? 

To clarify, this is usually for a paper that has been started already – that has a draft. Blitzes are often used for revisions. But the specifics vary. In general, in the morning, we’ll usually talk about big things and what we have to do.  So the morning is about mapping out what needs to be done. And that’s helpful, as this is a time where we’re playing around, we can go this way or that with this, that kind of stuff. And then after that, we’ll usually break up and each do our own thing.  We might, for example, each agree to revise a section of a paper. Later we’ll meet up again to see how things are going. We’ll have another set of discussions, and ask ourselves, “Where are we at now? Is this working? Is that working? Do these things fit?” It’s like – talk, plan, work, regroup, switch, regroup, and you keep doing that until you’re done.

And how long does that go on? A couple of days? A week?

Usually a couple of days only because it’s difficult to carve out anything more than that for them and for me. Two or three days would be pretty good.

How much do you manage to get done in two or three days?

Never as much as I want, that’s the short answer. But usually quite a bit. I may talk about finishing a paper but the more I do this process, the more I don’t think it’s good for that. I think that finishing requires another set of skills. This blitz process is really good for going from nebulous-ness to structure.  It’s good for solving problems. Face to face discussions are really good for that.

Do you have a pipeline?

Yes, but I am perhaps not as intentional as I could be. Ideally, you want things that are in the beginning phase, things that are in the middle phase and things that are almost finished. But that’s kind of wishful thinking because our publication process doesn’t exactly work that way. So you may have things that you think are at the end but they aren’t. That said, I like to have projects in various phases – I like to have some things percolating, some things that I’m analysing and some things that I’m writing out. So I think I sometimes get the right mix, but as noted, you may be thinking or hoping that a few things are mature and moving off your plate, and then a journal editor and reviewers have other ideas.

How many papers are talking about here, roughly? 3? 5? 10? 15?

Lots, I don’t know. On my whiteboard I list all the different projects I’m working on, what they’re doing and where they’re at. Currently I have about a dozen or so in various stages – from the galleys/proof stage to the initial draft stage – though I don’t have projects in data collection on this board.  For projects in the writing phase, I’ll have an arrow pointing right, which means a paper is under review. When it comes back, I’ll point the arrow the other way, which means that it’s on my desk.  If the arrow is green, then it is “active” – which means I need to give it attention soon. If the arrow is red, then it is not currently active. For example, a co-author and I have an editorial on the benefits of qualitative work that is in the queue at a journal.  So that arrow is pointing to the right, and it is red.  At other times, papers are put on hold for a host of reasons – again that would get a red arrow.

How do you plan your time then?

I find a lot of it is really based the situation. So a student’s going up for a job, or there is some hard deadline that makes it such that this paper has to be a priority and this other one is going to have to wait. So if it’s an R&R that is due in three months, it moves up. And then, if there are many R&Rs, it’s the paper with someone with the greatest need that I would work on first. So if a co-author is on the job market or going up for tenure, they move up.  If you’re working on something with someone who already has tenure and it’s just for fun, then it goes down. This is why having the whiteboard helps – it helps me keep track of papers and their priority. I also try to communicate my priorities with my co-authors so they know them as well – before we start on a project.

So what happens when someone doesn’t deliver when they’re supposed too, how do you deal with that?

Then the priority for that paper goes down. Sometimes there are specific windows when I can work on a paper – windows I work out with my co-author or co-authors. If a person doesn’t deliver, then that paper is going to have to wait until the next opportunity. Not that I want to be a jerk about it, but it’s like, “Here’s the time I have to work on this. We’ve mutually agreed that this is when you’re going to get something back to me so that I can work on it. If you can’t do it, then you’ll just have to wait until a new time comes back around again.” I’ve had co-authors who just consistently don’t produce on time, and so our stuff is always in limbo. That’s life. I have a few papers that I’m not sure are ever going to happen just because of that.

Let’s talk a bit about your writing style. Would you call yourself a linear writer? Do you start with the introduction and then work on from there, step by step. Or can you start a paper pretty much from anywhere?

It depends on how stuck I am. If I don’t know what I want to write, I’ll write the methods section. That’s easy, I know how to do that. This being said, I’m also the type of writer who can dump a bunch of things on the page and figure it out later.  I’ll do that as opposed to writing an outline. If I’m working with somebody else, then I’ll probably outline because I think it’s more helpful.  But if it’s only me, I’ll throw ideas around, and write them down as they come. When I do that, then usually I’ll start with methods, then the data.  Then I’ll write the intro and finally, the discussion. Not always exactly like that, but I think that order makes some sort of sense, in terms of how the research process actually unfolds.

Methods include analysis?

Yes, so first it’s like, “What did we do?” And then it would be, “What is the outcome of that analysis?” That might be phase two.

But to be able to do that, you would probably already have a fairly clearly articulated theoretical question in your head, even if you hadn’t yet actually written it out – am I correct?

Yeah, because of the data, I often have a story line in my head. Your data is not just randomly put on the page. So yeah, you’re doing this with something in mind.

One thing that I’ve heard a lot, from reviewers and others, is that your findings should be written analytically. So it’s not just a narrative in the sense of beginning, middle, and end, there’s got to be some kind of theoretical lens that shapes or structures it.

I’m a visual guy, I have figures for everything.

So you’ll draw stuff out before you start writing?

Absolutely. On paper or on a whiteboard. Sometimes on a PowerPoint slide. I would say whiteboard most likely now. I love white boards. I only have one of them, which isn’t enough, and I have to erase it often. Although I don’t do it myself as much, people take pictures of a whiteboard we’ve worked on before I erase it.

So you have an idea in your head, but you haven’t yet written anything down…

So I’ll map out the figure, and then based on that, I’ll start writing. And it’s only once I’ve written something down that I can step back and say, “Ok, so that’s what I thought this figure is about.” I do coding by hand. I have a lot of the data in my head. I doodle, I code with highlighters and things like that. I go through stuff.  When I think I have a story, I map it and then start writing it out.  But long before I start writing, I’m coding, recoding, writing contact summary sheets of each interview, which are sort of like summarizing but are more like, “What’s interesting with this interview?” So whenever I get a transcript back, when I have time, I’ll do a contact summary sheet for each interview. And then I’ll group them somehow and I’ll look at one group of sheets, and then another. And the whole time I’ll be asking myself, “Is there anything interesting going on in this first group? In this second group?  And so on. So you really need to know your data.  You can’t write if you don’t really know your data.

So there’s a lot of work that gets done before you start writing. When do you actually get to the writing part? 

It varies. It’s really the cooking metaphor. Everything has its cook time. Some things are easy to write, some things aren’t so easy and need more time.

What do you do when you get stuck?

I try to talk to somebody. If I’m stuck, I want to talk to somebody because I’ve already gone through it – I know the game – I’ve already gone through what I think are the thousand and one things I can do in my head. If I still haven’t gotten it, I need someone to give me a fresh look at the data. Otherwise, I’ll just put it aside. That’s another thing to do. I’ve done as much as I can with this. Now I need to do more thinking. Or I need to do something else. So rather than leaving me frustrated – I don’t stare at a blank page for five hours at a time, that would just drive me crazy. So if I’m stuck, I’ll just put it aside and get back to it some other time.

Let’s talk a bit about the review process. When do you know a paper is ready to be submitted somewhere?

The rule of thumb I use is when you’re pushing commas around, you’re done. If you’re not making any theoretical changes, stop. I’m enough of a wordsmith that I can spend a lot of time pushing commas around.  But now that I’m on the other side of the process, as editor, I see it more as – is what I have written reasonable?  It has to be reasonable. Not good enough to be published, just good enough to get an R&R. Now (as opposed to before) I tend to think, “Have I given the reviewers enough data, enough ideas, such that they could say, “I’m willing to go on this journey with you?”” I know it’s going to be a journey. To me, if the review process goes well, you’re going to end up with a much better paper than when you started. In a way, you kind of want your paper to change. In other words, you want to be committed to developing your paper but not overly invested in what it is now. So that when you get the reviews back, you’re open and willing to learn from the process. Of course you want that paper to be perfect, and you probably think it is when you submit it, but if you submit it thinking it’s going to look the same as it does now after the review process, you’re setting yourself up for heartache.

Speaking of heartache – you’ve just received an email from the journal editor about a paper you’ve submitted some months ago.  What do you do?  

I read it right away. Unless I’m about to go into a meeting, then I might not look at it. But if I have the time to read it when I get it, I’ll read it then. I don’t put that stuff off. I want to know the hard truth right away because then I could start thinking about it. That’s how I approach it. It’s going to be what it’s going to be. Waiting isn’t going to change the decision so you might as well know if you’re going to be moving one way or the other. So, “This is great!” or “This is not so great, but okay,” time to change the arrows on the whiteboard…

What if it’s a reject?  Then what?

I’m very pragmatic.  I’ll ask, “Ok, so what do we want to do next?” “This is not working out, what do we do?” Everybody in this field is smart. Smart is not a distinguishing feature that will ensure you make it in this profession. Persistence is. If you get a rejection and you’re crushed by it, you can say, “What idiotic reviewers!” But you shouldn’t stop at that – lots of people don’t resubmit. They abandon their rejected papers. The way I look at it, it’s more like, “Okay, so how do we re-craft this thing?” I read the reviews – even “idiots” know something. I read them and I ask myself, “How did they come to this conclusion? What was wrong? Why?” You need to start with the assumption that the reviewers are actually trying to help you.  If you hesitate, ask yourself, “How is not starting with that assumption helpful?” If you think people are out to get you, and interpret your reviews that way, it doesn’t help you. So instead, approach “stupid” reviewer number 3’s review and now make the assumption that he or she is trying to help you make your paper better. Ask yourself, “What can I get from this?” Sometimes you’re going to say, “That’s valid” and sometimes you’re going to say, “You know? I don’t agree.” But one way or another, you’ve learned something.

One good thing about a reject is that you actually get to pick which feedback you want to pay attention to…  When you get a reject, do you rewrite the paper or will you just flip it?

I never just flip it, and send it to some other journal. I don’t think that’s a good idea. Number one, I think that by doing that, you’re losing an opportunity to improve something in your paper. Number two, and more pragmatically, I get papers back all the time. There was a time when I was on multiple editorial boards. Many people are.  It is a small profession – and the number of people with your particular set of expertise may not be that big. When someone gets rejected from Journal A and then flips a paper around, chances are, it’s going to come back to the same reviewer at some point at Journal B.  This has happened to me as a reviewer, in which case I’ll say, “Hey, I already rejected this, they haven’t done anything. I’m not going to review it again.”  The editor will ask why you are not reviewing it, and I will tell her or him.

How much do you need to change a paper then before resubmitting it? Are we talking total overhaul or just tweaking stuff?

It depends on what the reviews are. Think of your paper as a house. Most times, as an editor, if I am asking you to revise a paper – especially for a first round – I’m not asking you to add new stuff on to your house, I’m asking you to tear it down and rebuild. Often, if you just add stuff without redesigning, you end up with a really weird house. So you have to be careful. As you go through the review process, of course, one hopes you are “polishing the floors” and not tearing down.

So it depends on how critical the reviewers’ feedback is. But it also depends on what the reviewers are asking you for – are they saying that there isn’t enough data and that you have to collect new data?  If that is the case, you need to ask yourself, “How much effort do I want to put into this revision?” I try not to abandon anything, something will be useful somewhere down the line. Some papers may become part of book chapters. But if the reviewers rejected your paper and all you think it needs is a tweak, then either you had totally the wrong reviewers or you’re being defensive. If a paper was really great, it shouldn’t have been rejected, right? That could only happen if the reviewers were totally incompetent.

Has that ever happened to you?

That I thought the reviewers were totally incompetent?  I wouldn’t be human if I didn’t think that once in a while. But on second glance, I usually find something that I did not see before. That said, whether or not to go back to a journal if you disagree with the reviewers is a judgment call. You have to ask yourself, if I make these changes, is it going to make the paper better?  For an inductive piece, I also have to ask if making the changes will do undue violence to experience. Will it totally warp the perspective of the people I am studying?

What about R&Rs? Do you have a system for dealing with those?

I am not sure it is a system, but I do have an approach.  As I’ve said before, I have to ask myself if following the reviews will make this a better paper. So rather than looking at the reviews on a point-by-point basis – which I do later in the process – I first ask whether the reviewers, as a whole, seem to (a) understand what I was trying to do, and (b) have given me options to make this paper better.  For inductive pieces – even my own – I find that you often don’t get the theory right the first time through.  Moreover, each reviewer tends to read his or her own theoretical perspective into your data. Thus, you are going to get a lot of suggestions. The key issue is when are you open and when do you stand your ground?  There are times, depending on the reviewer mix, that they are pushing you towards a particular approach. But because they don’t know the data like you do, they do not realize that your data really cannot speak to the issues they want the data to speak to.  At that point, you need to be able to say “no” to the reviewers in a very nice way – otherwise, you are playing a losing game.  More problematically, you write a paper that you think is about ‘X’ but the reviewers agree it is not about ‘X’, it is about ‘Y’.  Do you change to ‘Y’ – knowing that the reviewers may not be experts in this area or do you try to find some other aspect of ‘X’? At this point, I go back to my data before I decide what to do.

Under what circumstances would you call the editor?

If there’s something I’m going through and I want to get input on – typically with regard to disagreements among reviewers, or to ask about a point from the editor in her or his letter that I did not understand. In these situations, I’ll write to the editor and be specific, like, “I’d like to set up a phone call to talk to you about X.”  As an editor, I encourage people to call.  Now certainly I don’t want a hundred phone calls per week –, but often if an author or authors have questions, I want to know. Because remember, from an editor’s standpoint, we want to publish papers. I see my role as wanting to publish papers.

Good papers.

Of course. I want this to be the best paper it can be.  So if you’re unsure, you can speak to the editor and then maybe you’ll say, “I’m thinking about doing X”. And the editor might say, “Here’s what I think will happen if you do X, here’s what may happen if you do Y.”  And then you can decide for yourself what to do – the editor cannot guarantee that any course of action will be 100% successful.  The key is to actually ask the question — if you don’t approach your editor, then you’ll never know. Speaking with the editor will at least help you think it through. I’m not going to tell you what to do, but I’ll say “Here’s the case you have to make if you go in the X direction, or the Y direction.”

How has being an editor changed the way you write?

Well, you start to build a theory for yourself about what makes a good paper, so hopefully you apply that theory when you write.

So what has changed for you?

Well, for instance now when I write a paper, I’ll ask myself, “If I were the editor, how would I look at it?” Are the methods solid? Does it look like I know what I’m doing? Nowadays, I also make sure I have enough data. I make sure I show reviewers enough data that if my theoretical framing is wrong, they can see what I’ve got. So because of my editorial experience, I have a much more refined sense of what makes a paper revisable.  Now refined does not mean “100% accurate.” But I think I have a better idea of what’s going to make it and what’s not.

But you’re still getting rejects, so I guess that’s where the luck factor fits in.

Yes. No system is perfect.  No reviewer is perfect.  No editor is perfect. I know I’m not. I try to make the best judgments I can. But in an imperfect system, some luck will be involved. I feel I have had luck – both good and bad – over the years, and am always grateful for the former.

Last question, any advice for people starting out?

I would say, “Find your question”.  For me, that’s been the most important thing. What question or questions drive you? What fundamentally interests you? I think it helps to know this, especially when you’re doing inductive research. If your research theme is Study 1 – How A leads to B; Study 2 – How A leads to B with C as a moderator – and so on, and that’s how you’re doing research, then don’t listen to me. To me, that’s a different model, right?  While I think everyone benefits from knowing their core question or questions, I think it is most critical when you do inductive research. Personally, I like to think I’m advancing knowledge, but not necessarily in a linear way.  So if you’re doing inductive research, if you know what core questions drive you or interest you, it helps you understand what contexts to look at, it helps you figure out what to read and what not to read. A now really famous identity scholar once asked me when that person was just starting out as an assistant professor, “What happens if identity goes away? What if it’s a fad?”  And my response was, “It doesn’t matter” because ultimately what you are interested in is how organizations think about themselves, right? That is a fundamental organizing problem. So whether you call it identity or something else, that question is still important. The problem stays the same, we just have different labels to describe it.  What matters is the core question – the core problem or puzzle. Or perhaps more specifically, I like to think that there are only a few core questions fundamental to organizing, but a lot of ways to answer them. The trick is to figure out how people today are answering them – what is the modern spin on your core question?

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