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Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff: An Interview with Linda Putnam

Linda Putham

Linda Putnam 

Distinguished Research Professor, Emeritus, University of California, Santa Barbara

This interview was conducted some time ago when Linda came to visit us at HEC in Montreal.  Linda is one of those people we all love to have as friend: kind, enthusiastic and funny. The life of the party. It was such a pleasure to have her, and we hope she comes again! One of the reasons it took me so long to edit this interview was its length: we talked and talked, about stuff related to writing, to research, to teaching, to politics, to life in general. Time just flew by! Linda is such a delightful conversationalist, she made me feel as if we’d been friends forever. She had me completely under her spell. I expect that when she interviews people, they tell her everything.  But not to worry:  we’ve spared you the small talk. What follows is the condensed and edited version of our conversation – filled to the brim with interesting thoughts and ideas, for you to borrow and use as you please.

Why don’t we begin by you giving me a sense of where your ideas for writing papers come from?

So there are two approaches. One comes from my own experiences and my own struggles with organizations. So for example, I was a department chair for five years, on two different occasions. I was amazed at how much my own experiences related to topics that I taught or researched. One of the first papers that I wrote on conflict and reframing came from a situation that I dealt with as a department chair.  And while I didn’t write about the situation itself, it served as a touchstone or as a trigger point for a critical idea. On that basis, I’ll go through the literature, look at theory, think through it, and try to figure out, what’s the gap?  What’s the puzzle here?

How did you transfer from this initial idea to identifying a puzzle in the literature?

I started by looking back and asking myself, “How did that come about? What went on with that?”  And from there, I’d consider the larger context where this may have occurred.  So here’s something that folks haven’t really examined very well, but we know it’s going on, so what’s with that?  For instance, I built off that experience with a colleague of mine when we developed the concept of bona fide groups.  Back in the 50s and 60s, group processes were thought to be self-contained. People saw teams almost like containers in their own right; hence, the dynamics they studied were within the team itself. So, if you looked at decision making that went on in a group, that is, identity formation or role relationships, you’d assume that there was a little boundary around the group, a little circle that concealed it. At the time, I was working in what the Dean called a super curriculum committee. The super committee was brought together with members from different departments across campus. Our charge was to develop “the perfect core curriculum”. We worked on this project for a year and a half, and we gathered data from multiple schools about core curriculum and curriculum processes. We constructed what we believed was an excellent curriculum. When it came time to get our proposal approved, it failed royally because of political issues, differences across departments, and long term concerns about winners and losers in enrollment gains. So when members of the committee got together to reflect on why the proposal failed, we asked ourselves, “Why isn’t the group literature looking at the contextual parameters in which groups work? We were representatives, but we really weren’t representing a clear group of constituents. From that reflection, my colleague and I came up with the notion of bona fide groups. Of course the development of the dimensions and the characteristics of this type of group, for example, interdependence with the external environment, came once we put this core insight back into the small group literature.

And that turned into a research program for you?

Yes, it did. That’s one of those projects that actually unfolded in a program of study for a number of scholars in the field.

Was it intentional?   

I don’t think that a researcher can know ahead of time that a research program will materialize. I remember sitting with my colleague talking about this idea. I don’t think we had any idea it would take off.  This is how research is – it’s got its own parameters, biases, and ideologies. The people who were working within the self-contained group paradigm would be protective of their views, so we had no idea if this thinking would take hold.  However, similar ideas were being developed across disciplines. For example, Deborah Ancona from MIT was doing similar work in management and Anne Donnellon published a book on teams in organizational contexts at about the same time, so we came together and organized a Professional Development Workshop at the Academy of Management to share our ideas. Then we realized that all of us were onto something new.

So you built up a community of scholars interested in this.

Exactly. Now this idea is passé. But at the time, I think it shifted the study of groups in organizations.

A sort of paradigm shift…

When people are moving in the same direction independently, I think that it signals a new perspective is emerging. For example, if you look at the culture movement, it didn’t just occur in organizational studies. It was happening in other places too. Symbols, meanings, and values began to matter, and nobody had even thought that they were fundamental to the way people worked in organizations. Scholars from different disciplines found each other and work began to fertilize across disciplines.  I think it forms a paradigm shift when this process occurs.

How do you go about actually doing that?

I do both my research and my theorizing in an abductive way. By abductive, I mean that I start out inductive and then I move to a deductive plane, and then back to inductive. So it’s iterative. The inductive part says, “That’s not quite the way it’s working in the organizing process” and then the deductive would say, “You know, maybe there’s a way to rethink a concept or what a phenomenon is.”

It would be like applying a theoretical lens to a literature and saying, “Okay, what would happen if I apply another lens to this literature? What does it allow me to see?”

Exactly.

What about writing per se, how does that happen?

For this question, I have a story. To start, I’m really close to the literature. I don’t like to extrapolate too fast.  So when I do a literature review, I do outlines of each article. Then I develop a template for these outlines that help me see a perspective, for instance, “How did this researcher look at this phenomenon? What are the definitions of the concepts that really matter? What did they find? What are some of the best quotations?” I try to capture these ideas so that when I go back to the notes, I can begin to distill and use the literature to make a point.

So you’ve created all these outlines of research articles, you have all these notes, then what?

Well, if I’m doing an empirical study, I’m guided by the argument that I’m trying to make. I iterate back and forth between the literature and the data, and thus, use the literature in a reflexive, circular way to see how it fits. Once I’m there, I go back and rethink my ideas. Sometimes I throw them out because I find they do not really relate to what I’m trying to say. What I thought I was studying doesn’t fit what is happening in the data. Then I’ll ask myself, “Okay, where did the data take a slightly different turn and what does that mean for what I’m studying?”

How much writing are you doing at this stage?  Is this all thinking, or are you actually sketching out something, an outline of some sort?

I’m definitely doing some writing at this stage. I typically do outlines. I’ve done outlines all my life. When I work with a co-author, it’s essential, because that’s how we communicate with each other. It’s also because I don’t want to spend a lot of time crafting a manuscript and then having to rewrite it.  When it’s just me, I’ll work from sketchy outlines, but when I work with co-authors, we actually divide up sections and do the outlines for each of them. We focus the outlines on arguments and the structure of our claims. For example, we might say “That’s the wrong place for this point, move it up there” or “Move that example back down there”, or “That argument should be at the end of the paper.”  So it’s a negotiation in terms of the consistency and coherence of the argument.  For me, these outlines are like templates or formulas for how to write the paper. I play with them a lot, and then, once I’m comfortable with an outline, the writing of the paper is easy for me.

Do you have any writing routines?  Any habits?

I do a lot of scribbling on the backs of recycled paper. I’m a real scribbler. So before I write an outline, I’m scribbling the overall structure and then I rearrange the pieces.  When something that I’ve scribbled points to a question that I need to address, I underline it in red to highlight it.  I have tried doing this scribbling on a computer, but I get blocked. My passion comes out when I do it this way and I’m more committed to what I’m saying.

Any other rituals? Are you a morning writer? Do you go through a process before you start writing?

I write at all times of the day. I’m better in the morning than I used to be, but I’ve always written at different times during the day. I’m clearly more tired at night, and so I’ll often do outlining or moving things around or working on references at night. I like being able to go back and forth to my notes when I’m writing on the computer. So, I spread my notes all around me in a circle. I also like sustained periods of writing more than working in snippets, although I’ve done both because it is hard to find those sustained periods.

Sometimes you have no choice.

Exactly. But I’ve discovered that when I write for an hour here and there, I often go back and wonder, “What was I thinking?” I wasn’t really into this paper, you know? I was just plugging away. It’s better to write regularly, which I try to do.  A good schedule for me might be writing every day or at least two or three times a week. Now I also do a lot more editing while I’m writing. I reorganize and rework ideas as I go. I used to try and write a whole paper at once–just a big dump to get it out. I’ve changed this practice because I’ve become weary of rewriting the entire paper. So if I am more aware that a particular section is not working, then I back up and rethink it right away rather than move forward.

You’ve written stuff on your own and you’ve written stuff with co-authors, in some cases with several at once. How does writing with others work for you? Is there usually someone who leads? 

I really believe there has to be a lead author and we try to negotiate upfront what that means.  I’ve learned to do that first because otherwise feelings get hurt. If we’ve agreed that one person is first author, then this individual’s style and way of writing guides the paper. I think it’s important to have that conversation up front. I do it with graduate students and I do it with colleagues. I believe that writing has to have a voice.  I have worked with colleagues who think like I do, but they have different voices and different styles.  I believe that a designated author’s voice ought to be given a forum.

Let’s say you’re working with a co-author and they’re lead and you’ve worked on an outline. Will you guys then parse off the work and say okay, “I’ll do this and you’ll do that?”

For the recent projects that I’ve worked on, we’ve parceled sections of the paper. One thing that we did for an article on paradox published in the Annals of the Academy of Management was to develop spreadsheets for key questions that guided the reviews of bodies of literature. We did the spreadsheets first, wrote the outline from that document, and then went back to the spreadsheet. We decided who was going to be the authority for a given area based on the bodies of literature that they were comfortable with. After that, we came back together and worked with each section.  Then we pulled them together to convey a coherent and complete argument and tried to make the voice of the first author come through in the writing.

Do you get together physically to do this, like in the same room, or is this something that you do virtually?

We sat down together to work on the arguments and the outline, but most of the time, we exchanged drafts and worked from these documents. We also scheduled conference calls to coordinate steps.  When I write with graduate students, we’ll meet physically and work together, but I’m not really comfortable with sentence by sentence joint writing.  I’m willing to have track changes be part of the process, but I’m not willing to sit there and negotiate how we’re going to write a particular sentence. So we make lists of steps, plan arguments and strategies for the paper, and often develop the outline together. Then, we usually split up the tasks, work on our own, and then bring everything back together.

When do you know that a paper is ready to be sent to a journal?

At some point, it’s just time to stop. The process reaches some degree of finality.  You have completed it, and you feel like you’ve achieved your goals and reviewed the paper enough times. Even then, I know that the paper could be better, but it seems time to get feedback on it, for example, at a conference or from a colleague. Before I reach this state, I put it down for a few days and then go back to it and ask myself, “Is this really doing what we want it to do?” “Does the paper hang together as a whole?” Are the rationale and contributions clear?” “Are particular issues well-developed?”  So I’ll review it again, but it doesn’t mean that the paper is the best it can possibly be. Sometimes I just let go because I think it’s time to do so.

So it is at a stage where it is good enough that you think it will at least get an R&R?

Yes. I believe that there was a day when having a kernel of a good idea in a paper would get you an R&R. I don’t believe that anymore, so I am tighter now about letting things go than I used to be.  I will say to my co-author, “We’ve got to get input from other colleagues on this paper”.  We need someone to tell us what we’re missing in it.

This would be before you submit the paper somewhere, you’re talking about getting a friendly review?

Yes, I ask for and do friendly reviews, but I am also burdened by them, as we all are. It matters and makes a difference in deciding whether to submit a paper.

What do you mean “burdened by it”?

I mean we do enough mandatory reviews as members of editorial boards, so how many friendly ones can we handle? I don’t want to be spending a lot of time doing friendly reviews, but I believe it’s valuable, particularly in areas where I don’t know the terrain well.  It’s also important to help others with friendly reviews.

To aid in this process, we have some new developments at conferences. One of these is called a research escalator, in which a small group of colleagues read and respond to the same papers.  These papers are nearly ready to submit, but they benefit from scholarly feedback in these sessions. In a research escalator, participants sit in small groups, often with junior and senior scholars, and for two hours they discuss two or three designated papers, often written by junior scholars.  Everyone has read the papers before the session and engages in a conversation about them during the discussion. I’ve actually seen publications emerge from this experience, so it is really, really useful. An author gets more in-depth feedback on a paper than he or she receives in regular conference sessions.

So you’ve decided your paper is ready to send in. How do you choose the journal you’re going to submit to?

Before I start writing, I have a journal in mind.  I even train my graduate students to do the same thing.  I’ll ask them, “Tell me about the mission of the journal, about the contents published in it, and about the type of audience for your paper. I’ll ask, “How does your work fit into the mission for that journal?”

Once you’ve sent your paper out and the review comes in, what do you do? Open it right away or do you wait?

I open it right away and go for the news, either good or bad.

And what if it is a reject?

Well, I just got a reject for a paper that I co-authored with a graduate student, so I can talk about that experience. It is actually a good example because it was a reject, but with two reviewers recommending an R&R and one who recommended a reject. It was disappointing because the editor went against the two R&R recommendations. The real issue, however, was whether there was enough of a contribution. But that’s always a debatable issue, isn’t it?  Is there enough of a contribution in a study for a particular journal?

So, anyway, my graduate student first reacted with, “I’m not going to read anymore, I can’t handle this.” It was important then to help her see the constructive nature of the reviewers’ comments. At the same time, a third co-author told us that our paper was good as it was and that we should just send it to another journal. I said, “Absolutely not.”  We needed to revise the paper and to respond to the reviewers’ concerns before we submitted it to another journal. We went through the paper and marked off all of the important and truly legitimate issues that the reviewers raised. I also asked the student to list everything she thought needed to be done, and then we would go through the list together. I asked her to think about how we should address these issues. Maybe we made the wrong choices when we decided to frame the paper a particular way, to leave out some issues, or to cast the main focus of the paper. Thus, we worked on the reviewers’ concerns, rewrote the paper, and sent it to another journal.

That sounds all very mature… don’t you get even a little bit upset?

Oh! I actually do.  I’m probably different in working with a graduate student than with my own paper. I got a reject with a colleague and both of us were really mad. We thought, “How could they reject this?  Why? Don’t they see the potential here?” But then, we got over it and moved on. We said, “Okay, we think the decision was wrong, but let’s not fret about it.” Maybe it was just too much to put in one paper. Let’s move past it. We need to let go of the decision and strive to improve the paper, especially the contribution that it was making. Let’s make sure the contribution is clear and significant.

Do you ever feel that reviewers are sending you in directions you don’t want to go?

Yes, clearly. Now we’re talking about R&Rs because when you rewrite from a reject decision you can choose where you want to go and how you want to deal with the issues that reviewers raised. So if they asked you to do something you completely disagreed with, then you just don’t do it, but you work on clarifying your position.

With R&Rs, it’s different.  Some R&Rs encourage you to be clearer and to develop your ideas better. In many ways, the manuscript turns out far better than it was before receiving the reviews. But sometimes, R&Rs lead you into writing a very different paper from the one you originally intended to produce. That’s often because we want the publication so badly, we focus on addressing what the reviewers want.  In this way, I’m almost relieved when reviewers contradict each other, because it provides you a license to return to your purpose and to control the responses to reviewers.

Because you can exploit them?

Exactly. So I’m almost happy when I get one reviewer who says, “Go this way” and one that says, “Go that way” because it forces the editor to come forward with specific suggestions, which can be very helpful or the editor might say, “Just deal with it.” Either way, you can shape the revision via your responses to the reviewers.

Which do you prefer?  The directive editor that says, “Do this, this, this, or the one that says, “Figure it out?”

I find the former to be the most helpful.  Maybe it’s because of the editors that I’ve had who provided suggestions that were very good.  I’m glad when an editor actually acknowledges a contradiction between different reviewers and indicates a direction for developing the revision. It is very helpful when the editor notes that some concerns are very important while others may not be so critical. Authors feel that they have to address every single point that the reviewers offer. So I appreciate it when the editor says, “These are the four main things that you need to attend to” or “I’m not sure that asking you to do X is relevant for this paper.” Editors who recognize that the authors do not need to write a totally different paper actually help with the review process. Good editors give you license to challenge reviewers who make comments like, “You didn’t cite this or that literature,” which is tangential to the paper. The authors can indicate then that some reviewers’ comments might be very interesting, but would take the paper in an entirely different direction.

Have you ever been in a situation where you challenged an editor’s decision or recommendations?

We actually had this debate regarding the rejection that we received, the one I mentioned earlier. We decided not to challenge the editor’s decision since we felt the grounds for it were justified.

And what about with an R&R?

I don’t usually go back to the editor unless I can’t figure out what to do regarding the reviews. I imagine that an editor will say, “You’re going to have to figure it out yourself.”  However, I know a colleague who challenged an editorial decision based on protocol issues and she was successful in doing so.

Like a reject?

Yes, there were protocol problems and the author said in a gracious and effective way, “I should have the opportunity to do a revision based on these concerns.” The editor finally went along with it, and the paper eventually got published.

You probably have to have good reasons to do that.  You can’t just call the editor and say, “Hey, I disagree with your decision.”

Exactly. For our rejected paper, I think that authors have to read between the lines. In our case, I think the editor was making a judgment call that had very little to do with the reviewers’ recommendations. It was focused on, “Do I see this piece making a difference and being appropriate for this journal?”

I’ve also been told by some editors that reviewers can sometimes be almost be too nice. They’ll be super constructive and positive in their review, but then will write to the editor and say, “Why did you send me this piece of crap?”

That’s right and thus the reviewing process can be tricky.  Then the editor has to take charge and explain in his or her letter to the authors, “Although you didn’t see it in the review, this person also found multiple, deep-seated problems with your paper.”

You talked about voice earlier, authors have a voice, but they also have an identity. How does your identity shape the way you write?

Part of your identity is your topic area–what you are known for as a scholar. Thus, identity might refer to why you are a specialist on a particular topic or why you adopt a particular theoretical framework.  Some of a scholar’s identity stems from writing. I think that writing is also a contribution—a publication that you as an author are proud of. Knowing that readers find your article useful, clear, accessible, and valuable is a contribution. I also want my name linked to a publication that I’m proud of. I think that when I’ve had difficult moments with co-authors, it often centers on what I want my name attached to.

If you were to pick two or three things to which you attribute your success, what would they be?

Well, I think the ability to push the envelope is one. In publishing, you have to take some risks and venture onto the cutting edge. I think that it leads to innovative and creative contributions. But also you have to be able to stay grounded in a body of knowledge that already exists. I’ve worked with a number of very innovative people who simply can’t hook into the existing literature. So it’s being on the cutting edge, but knowing how to fit into mainstream work. I believe that issue makes a difference when it comes to publishing new ideas.

The other thing is perseverance. At one time, people quit or dropped opportunities saying, “Oh! That revision is too hard” or “It’s too much work.” Now, however, you can’t really afford to do that. So perseverance and the ability to chart a course of action are important. Also, authors should not be too disturbed by the small stuff.

Don’t sweat the small stuff.

Absolutely.  Don’t sweat the small stuff and instead embrace the challenge.

Interviewed and edited by Charlotte Cloutier

References

Putnam, Linda and Cynthia Stohl (1990) Bona fide groups: A reconceptualization of groups in context; Communications Studies; 41(3); p. 248-265.
Putnam, L. L., Fairhurst, G. T., & Banghart, S. (2016). Contradictions, Dialectics, and Paradoxes in Organizations: A Constitutive Approach. The Academy of Management Annals, 10(1), 65-171.
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