Believe in your story: An interview with Wendy Smith
Interview with Wendy Smith
Professor of Management
Alfred Lerner School of Business at the University of Delaware
I am recently back from our field’s main annual conference (every discipline has one, you all know what I’m talking about – David Lodge’s Campus Trilogy might have only been a monograph if there hadn’t been academic conferences he could satirize!) Ours is hosted by the Academy of Management (AOM), and it’s a very big affair, attracting 10 000+ attendees. It’s the place to see and be seen, as most of our field’s heavy hitters attend. First-timers are routinely overwhelmed, and the organisers have to organise special activities just to help them navigate 100+ concurrent sessions, endless “off” and “on” social activities, and too-many-to-count “unmissable” events. FOMO is ubiquitous, as is a generalized feeling that everyone else is a million times more productive than you are. The AOM conference is our field’s annual beauty pageant, an opportunity for everyone to showcase their best work, and by the same token, the opportunity to hide just how painful producing that best work actually was.
Step in Wendy. I met Wendy when she visited at HEC Montreal. I interviewed her over breakfast at her hotel, the venue proved to be a bit too noisy, and so we resumed our conversation over the phone a few weeks later. What impressed me most about Wendy was her brutal honesty about the very real pain she went through in the early years of her career, trying to get her first single-authored paper out in one of barely a handful journals that actually seem to matter anymore in our field. By all accounts, today, Wendy is one of AOM’s “heavy hitters”. She has an impressive pedigree, an impressive publications list and as Associate Editor at one of our field’s most prestigious journals (Academy of Management Journal), she also acts as a judge of what our field considers is outstanding work. But as she shares here so forthrightly, getting to where she is today was anything but a walk in the park. So all I can say is, “Thank you.” Thank you, Wendy, for humanizing this process, and sharing the good AND the bad. The blood, sweat and tears; the moments of self-doubt and the feelings of utter discouragement that inevitably rise up when yet another paper did not “make it”. You help anyone and everyone who has ever felt deflated after AOM realize that everything is relative. One person’s high is another person’s low. Focus on subjects you are passionate about, work hard, persist: it will come together in the end.
Let’s start with the question I ask everyone to begin with. Where do your ideas for research papers come from?
To answer that, I think I have to go back to how my research emerged. I came to grad school in the wake of the Enron and WorldCom fiascos. In contrast to these massive ethical fiascos, Ben and Jerry’s and the Body Shop and all these hippie organizations that had emerged in the seventies were starting to get some traction around social responsibility. And I thought, “This is what I want to study” – organizations and social responsibility, something like that. But my advisors at the time were working on organizational change – and explore and exploit and models of change, and had access to amazing data on how senior leaders think about change. At first, all I could think of was, “This is not what I planned on studying!” Organizational change didn’t seem half as interesting to me as thinking about how they managed their values and their commitments to the world in a broader way. So I spent a lot of time struggling with this.
But then a few things shifted for me in how I thought about this. First, I realized that there was value in learning how to do this kind of research, whether or not the topic fit exactly within my initial research interest. I also realized that this was a real problem that had real impacts on people, even if it didn’t fit within the limited sense of social impact, which for me at the time sort of boiled down to a very narrow sense of having a statement of social responsibility. So my thinking shifted towards a much broader understanding of what social impact looked like in the world. What also shifted was that I became quite intrigued by this question of how managers think about the relationship between today and tomorrow, which introduced me to this whole world of paradox and dialectics and tensions.
So where did paradox come from?
When I was an undergraduate student at Yale, I was introduced to David Berg, who is the author, with Kenwyn Smith, of a book called “Paradoxes of Group Life” which was one of the really early texts that looked at, from a group perspective, at this notion of paradox. David handed me a copy of this book, which I shelved, because I didn’t really know what to do with it at the time. When I was in grad school, we read a piece by Berg and Smith in my groups class with Richard Hackman and I remembered having their book on my bookshelf. I went back to it and thought, “Oh my God! There’s something really powerful and unexplored in these ideas.” At the time I was studying this explore-exploit tension, and I realized that maybe there was something there that could be applied to my context.
I then remember going to Mike Tushman, my advisor, and saying, “I think there’s something about this paradox idea that might be useful for how we think about explore/exploit”. He said, “Go for it. There’s something important here, I totally support you.” His support was really important, because along the way, several people said to me, “I’ve tried to use paradox in papers, it doesn’t work. Leave it out.” At the time, paradox was either this hippie, alternative kind of idea, or it belonged to philosophers or mathematicians who were trying to articulate something that logically was completely impossible. Many scholars didn’t think it really belonged as a way of understanding organizations.
So this would have been when?
Probably around 2000, 2001. In 2000, Marianne Lewis published what became an AMR (Academy of Management Review) best paper for that year, which was her paper called Exploring Paradox. I remember reading a piece by Warren Bennis in which he talks about stalking his mentors. I like to say that I stalked Marianne, because I just boldly emailed her and said “I have to meet you.” We met at the Academy, it was probably 2001 and I feel like the rest is history. It was the beginning of an ongoing conversation that led to a really fruitful and generative collaboration.
That’s a pretty cool story. Why don’t you tell me a little about your first major writing effort, something aimed at publication. How did that play out?
My first major effort was writing up the data for my dissertation, which was really hard, and took a really, really long time.
You would have started that when?
I started collecting the data for the paper that would eventually become the AMJ-2014 (Academy of Management Journal) in 1999. I had started collecting the data before I started my Ph.D. and continued through my Ph.D. I graduated in 2006 and continued to work on it until it was published in 2014… so a really long time.
We do tend to vastly underestimate how long these processes take.
A couple of things made this paper really difficult for me. So one of the things, which is very much part of the art of publishing, was trying to figure out what conversation I was joining. So I had this rich data about how these senior leaders were grappling with an existing product and an innovation and I probably framed the paper like eight different ways, because the question always was, “What’s the theoretical frame and what’s the conversation that I’m joining?”
Another problem was that at the time, I don’t think I really knew how to write a qualitative paper. I was doing what many people were doing then, which was to quantify qualitative data, which was not the most effective use of qualitative data. One of the “ah-ha” insights of the paper was about how leaders used practices to differentiate and integrate as a way of managing paradoxes. Differentiating practices to pull apart paradoxical poles and identify how they are distinct. And integrating practices to help identify synergies. But rather than providing a rich description of differentiating and integrating and showing how they each worked and reinforced one another, I instead counted practices. In my first draft, I had this table that looked very management consulting like. Dots, half dots, circles that were sort of like high-low – which I used to quantify the extent to which the top management teams used these practices, which totally stripped away all the richness of that data. And so part of that was not knowing how to value the richness of qualitative data.
Finally, I needed to better understand the difference between a process and variance oriented model. I don’t think I really understood process orientation back then. I was very much in variance mode – so trying to show how independent variables impacted dependent variables, but doing that with qualitative data. So basically, with that first version, I didn’t know how to frame it, I didn’t know how to use the data well.
Do you remember how many times you submitted that paper?
A lot. I think it went through three or four rounds, at three or four different journals before I had a hit. So like multiple times.
So being persistent paid off.
Yeah. But it was painful. I remember thinking, “If I counted up the number of hours I spent on this one paper, or if I thought about whether that was a valuable use of my time and whether it made any difference in the world, I might cry.” I had this running commentary in my head that nobody was going to read this paper except my advisor and maybe my mother, and my mother won’t get past the first paragraph. There were moments where it felt quite futile.
You must have felt that there was something there, a story that was worth telling.
I do think that I believed in the story, and I think that this notion of simultaneously differentiating and integrating to address competing demands felt important. I also really believed in the idea of paradox – the idea that successful leaders need to manage paradox. That was a story that I believed still needed to be told better. There’s also an instrumental piece. I needed papers published for tenure and I kept wondering if I’m going to end up losing this job.
Okay! So a lot of pressure! How did you end up dealing with all that?
In terms of writing up qualitative work as a single author, one of the things that was a huge help is this idea of having a “travelling companion”. Marya Besharov and Spela Trefalt wrote a book chapter on this where they talk about people who write single author qualitative papers who have a “traveling companion”– someone who is familiar enough with their data that they can actually jump in with them and help them work through it. Marya and I served as travelling companions to each another as we wrote our single author qualitative papers – I knew her data well and she knew my data well – and so when it came to these nuanced decisions like, “Is this a third or second level construct, and how do I think about that?” she had a good enough sense of my data that she could ask me very pointed questions that helped me think it through. I think that’s why co-authoring qualitative papers is so much easier than going at it alone. I would get stuck for days and days on my single authored paper because I was not able to pull away and think about the problems I was running into differently.
And what about writing itself, how did you go about that?
I should start by saying that the way I write now is 1000% different from what it was then. The way I experience writing is also completely different. I love this concept of rapid prototyping – you try something, you get some reflections down and if you get stuck, you get outside opinions and you quickly shift if it’s not working. I didn’t do that enough in my first paper. Now I co-author papers. I’m a very social thinker. I know what I think when I say it, in a kind of Weickian way. So before I sit down and write, or if I’m stuck, I will often schedule a meeting with either a co-author or a friend to have a conversation about these ideas. That’s often where insight and energy will be generated for me.
I also love this idea of mind mapping – getting the ideas that are unformed and unstructured in my head out, and so I will sometimes do that. And often I will write little snippets of ideas as opposed to sitting down and writing an actual paper. I think we often fail to see that there are multiple steps to a paper. The paper itself is the final product. How do we get to that point? What are the steps to get there? And then how do we support the development of the paper over time? For me, I have to talk about the ideas. I have to experience them. Sometimes if I’m in a conversation and something sparks my interest, I’ll write down a note or I’ll type up a paragraph on it. And I’ll start building from there.
Do you have a system for collecting these bits and paragraphs of ideas?
That would be nice! Sometimes I have a notebook on me, which I’ll scribble in. I also have a file on my computer for each project, where I’ll keep notes.
Can you explain this process using one of your papers as an example?
The AMR (Academy of Management Review) paper that Marianne Lewis and I wrote in 2011. She and I are similar in that we both write around a figure. So we talked about it. We spent a lot of time thinking about what this figure could look like. And then, we started to write around the figure.
So you collectively worked on a figure?
Yes, we sat down together at her kitchen table in Cincinnati and crafted a figure. Then we went back and forth to clarify it: What do we mean by this? And this, and this? With little notes attached to each piece of the figure. Sometimes we create a Powerpoint of the figure; or if that is too constraining, we might just take a photo of it and put it in our files. Then I’ll start pulling all the little pieces we wrote about what we mean by each part and try to structure a paper. I’ll then go back and write those specific parts.
You’ll do this before writing the lit review?
Yes, quite often. So for example, in an empirical paper that I’m working on with Marya Besharov on social enterprise, we also spent a lot of time thinking about our data structure, and the relationships between our constructs, turning them into a figure before we actually started writing the findings. We wanted to know what our big “ah-ha” or interesting idea was before we got fully invested in the literature. Good qualitative papers can be framed in a lot of ways, and so the question is, “What “ah-ha” made the most sense in terms of what literature?”
But you didn’t go in blind.
No, of course not. We had multiple literatures in mind and in fact, we spent lots of time going back and forth on multiple different literatures, trying to figure out how to frame the paper. And that was a very iterative conversation with what we were finding. So as we’re doing this, you know, deep dive into the data, trying to figure out and articulate what’s interesting in the data – part of doing that also involves questioning what is interesting, for what conversation and how are we framing it? Like those were ongoing – it’s not a block of time here, a block of time here. It’s not deciding what general theory we’re contributing to. It’s more, “What are our specific contributions within the theory?” So it’s much more micro iterations, micro-shifting. So we’re constantly shifting between what is the big literature, and within that, what interesting constructs are already there that resonate with the new ones we’re proposing? How do we frame those, and what are the relationships between them? What do we know based on what’s in the literature, and what do we not know? Those two pieces… we’re always going back and forth between them.
Deadlines are great for moving things along actually, because often a figure gets created in service of a research presentation – which could be informal at one of these developmental community brownbag lunch things, or more formal, as in a full-scale research presentation where we have framed our literature, identified a gap and here is how we’re going to contribute, and so on, but where we haven’t actually written the paper yet. So the presentation is basically an outline for the paper. So that certainly keeps things moving along.
Since we’re partly onto this already, perhaps we can talk a bit about co-authoring.
I love co-authoring. At an OMT PhD and Junior Faculty Consortium, Marya told the junior faculty that “We have learned to co-author together over time.” And it really was a process that has shifted and emerged over time. She and I have very different strengths and we have had to learn to appreciate each other’s strengths and learn how to work through the differences of our styles. She is much more focused on the details and nuances of our message, whereas I’m more focused on the big picture and big message. I’ve really valued being able to work with Marya, both to appreciate her strengths and to learn from and with her.
For me, co-authoring was never hierarchical, it was very much a collaboration. I learned this from Mike Tushman, who treated me as a collaborator even in the role of being a doctoral student. With all my collaborators, we have these long, involved conversations, working through each decision together. We don’t have a process where one of us writes and the other edits. We’re both invested. We’re not advising each other on a decision, we are making the decision together. We are both weighing in and figuring out what to do and I think that there’s different feel to that. A different level of commitment.
Who takes the lead usually, when you work together?
It’s really very dynamic. So, for example, right now, we’re deep in the revision of a paper. We are bouncing sections back and forth between each other, where one of us will work on one section and the other will work another section and then we’ll swap. Or we’ll comment and then have long detailed meetings about the nuance of how we frame something, how we discuss something, and so on. There are some ways in which she takes the lead, and others where I do. So it’s very much a fluid and dynamic process. Authorship is really shared. It’s something we don’t even know how to express, in terms of authorship order. The only way we’ve figured how to deal with this, is to just trade-off on authorship order.
What about writing itself, any particular habits, or rituals that you follow?
I’ve become a morning person. I used to think that I could stay up late and be able to come up with coherent thoughts and finish something, but then I realized that it was the biggest waste of time. So I wake up early and just jump in. I don’t look at email, I just jump in.
Yeah, in my pyjamas. Ideally, I wake up at 5:00 in the morning, before my kids wake up. Those hours are kind of magical. Like the world can’t touch me. I wish that I did this more often – not look at my email before breakfast. Just jump in. Ellen Langer, who is a social psychologist at Harvard and was one of my advisors used to talk about the problem of “getting into it” time. This time felt really mindless to her – how can we overcome or condense this “getting into it” time, that sort of anxiety you get when you sit down to write. The am-I-going-to-produce-anything-worthwhile-today anxiety. I can do this if I jump into a paper mid-idea but even if not, I’ll at least have a sense of what is the one thing I need to get written. Before I started doing this, I could spend an hour trying to write one sentence and think it’s crap. Part of learning to become more efficient was learning to let go of that inner critic, which is an incredible time sink.
How do you do that?
Well at this point, I think it’s me publishing a couple of papers and going back and reading them and going, “Hey, these aren’t half bad.” I once worked with a coach to help me get part of a paper out because I was just so stuck and I remember her saying to me, “You can say: “Thank you very much for your criticism, but I don’t need it now.” I could talk back to my inner critic who was limiting me.
What was the issue around this paper?
It was my dissertation paper and the blockage was – how many times can I be rejected? I can’t write yet another revision. I just couldn’t figure out how to get myself out of all the pain around it.
You must have been working on other things at the same time?
Yes. And that actually was tremendously helpful. Getting other work out simultaneously made a huge difference because I could see the process. Some papers are easy, some papers are hard. Working only on a hard paper just sucks all the energy out of you.
And throughout the whole process you keep questioning your ability by saying, “It must be me. Nothing’s coming through. Maybe I’m having delusions about whether this job is for me.”
How would you describe your writing process?
Well, to start, I don’t write linearly. Now that I write mostly with co-authors, more often we negotiate, “I’ll craft this section, you craft that” and then we’ll switch. And I completely trust my co-authors – I can say to them, “What I just wrote is crap, it’s just to get some ideas out” and they’ll help me develop the ideas. And vice-versa, because we know that this is part of an iterative process. So again, for my empirical work with Marya, I think we started with the findings section and the model, and then went back to the methods, and then the front end and discussion. It’s almost like we moved outward from the paper. The model, methods and findings have to fit together. The lit review and the discussion have to fit together. As we are writing, we are checking to make sure everything aligns.
I also often step away from a paper and try to articulate, “This paper is about X.” As Anne Huff articulated so well, each paper is a contribution to a conversation – one that helps advance the conversation in some interesting way. So when I think about this, I ask myself, “What is an important comment in that conversation and how is this paper going to advance it?” I also think about that as an editor. To me, “making a theoretical contribution” means answering the question, “Is this going to advance a conversation in the literature in an interesting way?” It’s the answer to “What’s the big ah-ha, the big insight, or the gem that comes out of this paper? And can this paper articulate it?”
One of the greatest challenges of writing a paper is to be able to move seamlessly from the details to the big picture – because you have to have that one point and you have to be able to substantiate it in significant detail, but I think that some people never get to that big ah-ha. They are so stuck in the details, they never get to that big piece. So I’ve tried to train myself to always be thinking about that, as a writer. And it’s a process to find that, because it’s not obvious.
When you’re reading a paper then, where do you typically go looking for this big “ah-ha”?
I will usually start by looking at the figure, and ask myself, “What’s interesting here? What are they trying to communicate?” Then I’ll go to the abstract …in an ideal world somebody should be able to encapsulate their big ah-ha in the abstract or in the beginning of the discussion section or at the end of the introduction section. Somewhere there.
Let’s talk a bit about the review process. How do you deal with rejections?
I usually put the rejection aside after I get it and don’t analyze it until the sting of the rejection wears off. But I do think it’s important to get back to it soon after. In reading the rejection, I’ll ask myself, “What can we learn from this process? And part of that is asking “What part of this is good, generalizable insight and what part of it is idiosyncratic to the focus or perspective of that one reviewer?” One of the things that I’m seeing now as an editor, is that there is an idiosyncratic aspect to the process, in terms of who is reviewing your piece and what their particular tastes are, which I think is useful to know. It’s important to remember that you’re writing to three or four people, right? The editor and the three reviewers. So if they said no to you, to really learn from that, you need to ask yourself, “What’s more general about their comments and what is more idiosyncratic?” It’s not always easy to assess this though, which is why a group like the one you are running in Montreal, where you get other people’s opinions on the reviews you’ve received, can be helpful for getting some perspective on them. It may or may be not useful to take a reviewer’s particular sensitivities and do something with it. So other people can help you be thoughtful about that.
How quickly after a first round of rejection will you resubmit the paper elsewhere and how much do you change the paper before doing so?
It really depends. If reviewers who feel like they are the stewards of the literature we are citing are telling us, “This is not going to fly,” we probably need to give some thought to how we might reframe the paper, which probably involves revising it somehow before resubmitting. If it’s more a case of using a concept, like paradox, which some people just hate, then it’s more a situation of having ended up with the wrong reviewer. If you’re confident that this is the conversation you’re having, that there’s a legitimate conversation around it, that you’ve made a good case and that you just happened to fall on a reviewer who was not part of that conversation, then you can probably just go ahead and resubmit it somewhere else.
Have you ever had an R&R where reviewers asked you to do things you didn’t want to do, to the point where you decided to withdraw your paper?
No. We have had R&Rs where we were asked to do things that seemed like the reviewer did not really understand what it was that we were trying to communicate. And we’ve had other reviewers trying to write the paper that they think should have been written. This is always a risk with qualitative data – since it is possible to write multiple, really good stories based on the same data. So it does happen sometimes where a reviewer thinks, “Well, actually, what’s really interesting here is…” which is something that is quite different from what you’ve written. It may be that both frames are really justifiable. And we have had that, and in that particular case, we went back to the editor with a phone call to ask, “Help us understand this review. Were we too narrow in our focus on the framing, or was the reviewer just not able to see where we were going?”
I have heard stories of decent papers being rejected after the first round because the editor felt that the authors’ chances of making it through the review process with this particular group of reviewers were slim. Have you ever run into something like that, and if so, can you tell me a little bit about how you think authors should deal with that kind of situation?
It’s so funny you ask. I just wrote that letter! The authors had framed their paper in a way that really was not working. So the framing had to be changed, which would involve a significant amount of work, in addition to other problems that needed to be fixed, of which there were many. The dilemma however is that the reviewers were experts to the original framing, which is normal, since they were chosen because of it. As an editor, I had to think about what to do. In these cases, what I sometimes do is write both a rejection letter and an R&R letter, and then I sit on them for a bit. In the end, it was not clear to me that I would be able to pull this review team forward on this paper. To me, rejecting the paper felt like a gift to the authors – as it gave them the chance to really rethink their paper without being committed to the existing review team, and resubmit it elsewhere. Of course, it probably did not feel like a gift to them. As an editor in this type of situation, grappling with the feeling of, “Oh, could I have taken this forward?”, I try and offer them a very thoughtful editorial letter – not to substantiate my decision – but more to give them very clear suggestions for how they might take it forward, with better chances of actually make it through the review process.
Some years ago, I remember hearing Nelson Phillips at a paper development workshop tell people to make sure they had good data, because if their data is really good and “cool”, the editor would probably give them a chance. And I think that might have been true for a while, but the bar keeps getting higher and higher, right? And so my sense is that now, that may no longer be enough. Do you have any thoughts about that?
There are lots of editors and people might do things differently. For me, the most critical filter for the first round is, “Do you have enough data to triangulate your story?” It’s great to have an interesting context and interesting data but do you have enough data to really substantiate and triangulate the claims that you’re making? So for example, if you’re looking to build a long term process model, and you have 20 interviews in time one, and two in time two; or you have 50 interviews in time two and a couple of retrospective insights in time one, it casts doubt on whether you can actually substantiate the claims that you’re making.
Any top of mind advice for those starting out?
We started out by talking about how long it took me to publish my first qualitative, single-authored paper. It was important to me that I was working on other papers at the same time. There’s always the question of how many projects can you work on at the same time, and I do find it challenging to work on too many at once, but having a few ongoing projects, some of which you might qualify as “low hanging fruit”, can be a good thing to develop energy around writing, to have small wins, to learn the craft. Having other manuscripts published and other work moving forward allowed me to gain a sense of accomplishment both emotionally and cognitively, which was really helpful for working through the bigger, more challenging stuff.
Interviewed and edited by Charlotte Cloutier.
Huff, A. S. 1998. Writing for Scholarly Publication. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
Lewis, M. W. 2000. Exploring Paradox: Toward a More Comprehensive Guide. Academy of Management Review, 25(4): 760-776.
Smith, W. K. 2014. Dynamic Decision Making: A Model of Senior Leaders Managing Strategic Paradoxes. Academy of Management Journal, 57(6): 1592-1623.
Spela Trefalt, Marya Besharov. 2016. The journey from data to qualitative, inductive paper: Who helps and how? In Handbook of Qualitative Organizational Research: Innovative Pathways and Methods. New York, NY, United States: Routledge, 2016. K.D. Elsbach & R. M. Kramer. (401-410)
Additional references (introduction):
Lodge, David (2011); The Campus Trilogy; Penguin Vintage Classics; London: UK. Includes: Changing Places (originally published in 1975); Small World (originally published in 1984); and Nice Work (originally published in 1988).