Category Archives: Research Methods

Strategies for Managing Team-Based Research (co-authored with Akram Al-turk)

The scientific community celebrates individual achievements by conferring prestige and honors on scientists who win out in the competitive game of being the first to publish innovative research. Paradoxically, however, modern scientific expertise rests heavily upon work carried out by teams, rather than scholars working on their own. Tensions between the forces of competition and cooperation thus infuse every aspect of scholarly activities: grant writing, publishing, leadership in scientific organizations, and so forth. Thus, it is understandable that graduate students and junior scholars would be perplexed by how to manage such tensions.

We believe the key to successful collaborative relationships lies in preparing for them ahead of time, rather than attempting to deal with problems as they arise. In fact, some research suggests that the effectiveness of collaborative work is determined before any of the work is carried out. We have identified four structural elements that increase the likelihood of creating and sustaining collaborative relationships.

Define the Scope and Logic of the Project

At the start, the parties to a collaborative relationship should agree on a project’s scope and logic of inquiry. The researchers should ask themselves a few questions that will ensure that they are all on the same page. For example, will the project be open-ended, continuing until all possible avenues of interpretation have been explored and as many papers as possible published? Or, is the project more self-contained, with target journals or conferences identified and the project ended when a paper is accepted? Is the relevant data for the project already in hand or clearly identified, or will building a new dataset be a major thrust of the effort? Sharing “mental models” of the work to be done and how it should be carried out leads to effective teamwork.

In addition to being able to answer these questions, the types of goals a team comes up with will likely affect how well the collaboration goes. Although “write a paper together and get it published” is a common goal for academic collaborations, the success of the research project may depend on having a compelling goal. Is the research question challenging and (by academic standards) somewhat consequential? And, is the goal focused enough so that researchers are working toward a final product but open-ended enough that researchers have some level of autonomy and can be creative when the need arises? Interdisciplinary teams need to communicate with one another the reward systems of their disciplines, as some may place higher values on books than journal articles, or may value certain kinds of journals over others.

Agree about Responsibilities

Teams should also be deliberative and explicit about each researcher’s responsibilities.  External factors often dictate how well an organization (or group) does, but individual interventions, especially by team leaders, can lead to more effective team performance . Teams should decide whether one person will be identified as the “leader” of the project, ultimately responsible for taking major decisions (after consulting with the team) or whether leadership responsibilities will be rotated. In either case, a leader can increase effectiveness by ensuring that the research team comprises individuals whose skills and competencies complement each other and all contribute to the overall goal of the project, designing tasks that give everyone enough autonomy to make their contributions personally fulfilling and meaningful to the project and establishing norms of how the group will work and interact . Teams should identify each team member’s competencies, clarify what that member will do to move the project forward, and make sure everyone on the team knows the others’ roles.

Enforce Deadlines and Give/Receive Timely Feedback

Failure to meet deadlines often sinks collaborative relationships. However, failure to even set deadlines is probably a bigger headache. Without deadlines, members have no way of holding one another accountable for holding up their end of the relationship, as a member can always say that they’re not quite finished yet or they will have their part done “soon.” To receive the benefits of collaborating with people who have complementary skills, team members must be ready to comment in a timely fashion on intermediate products produced by others. First, team leaders can make sure that all researchers on the team are kept in the loop about how the project is going. Second, leaders can try to encourage everyone on the research team (and model ways) to provide good, timely feedback, e.g. by scheduling regular feedback sessions.

Use Coordination Mechanisms That Facilitate the Collaboration Process

Coordination and communication challenges can hinder the success of collaborative research. Although email and video conferencing services such as Skype have become ubiquitous, these technologies do not necessarily ensure that collaboration is successful. For example, although email and video conferencing allow researchers to communicate more easily, these kinds of tools may not be the best for task coordination, information sharing, and intra-project learning. One of the main challenges for teamwork is juggling multiple and simultaneous work tasks. Researchers, therefore, should use tools that help them manage these multiple tasks, allowing them to know what’s expected of them and see changes to the project almost instantaneously. A plethora of programs and software now allow for this. We recommend that researchers start with one that has low start-up costs—both in terms of time and money—and not be lured by fancy features, as they can be a time sink. Sometimes, investing in innovative technologies is worth the time, but teams should be deliberate about whether the investment is worth it for their project.

Summary

We have identified strategies for mitigating or eliminating collaboration problems in team-based research. At the beginning of a project, face-to-face meetings can establish the ground rules and expectations were all members of the team. Free riding, shirking, and social loafing are much harder when team members agree on responsibilities and create monitoring and enforcement mechanisms. Candid and timely feedback limits the damage that emergent problems can create, but requires strong leadership and commitment by all members to be effective. Finally, as in other collaborative efforts, state-of-the-art coordination and communication technologies facilitates effective team governance.

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The Impossible Necessity of History

Some book titles are so compelling that you’d feel guilty if you didn’t at least pick the book up and skim it. Such is the case with Ged Martin’s book, Past Futures: the Impossible Necessity of History (University of Toronto Press, 2004), based on the 1996 Joanne Goodman lectures at the University of Western Ontario. Despite his thoroughly convincing arguments that historical explanation, as we know it, is methodologically and analytically impossible, he managed to convince me that it is nonetheless worth doing. This is the kind of book that people used to describe as a tour de force. What’s Martin’s argument?

A small town that time has (almost) forgotten.

A small town that time has (almost) forgotten.

He asserts that the data available to historians are hopelessly incomplete, the models they build are fraught with selection bias, and our view of the past is unjustifiably judgmental. He advocates giving up traditional historical scholarship in favor of locating events in time, identifying their relationship to each other, and connecting them to the provisional present.

In terms of data, three problems confront anyone turning to the historical record for evidence about what “happened in the past.” First, throughout most of human history, very little that happened was permanently documented. Hugely significant events went unrecorded or noted with incomplete details using fragile techniques and materials, which disintegrated, burned, and were lost forever. Second, only a minuscule fraction of the population has ever been in a position to actually have their actions recorded. Much of what we do know about the past concerns that vanishingly small segment of the population some have recently labeled the 1%: elites who had the luxury of employing others to document what they did or the resources to create semi-permanent records using materials such as stone or parchment. The vast majority of the population engaged in activities that are now essentially invisible to us, although forensic anthropology and archaeology are pretty good at working with the few artifacts we can find. Third, more problematic is the tendency of those people who did leave records behind to engage in hyperbole, self-aggrandizement, and untrustworthy accounts of the role they actually played in historical events. Although the rise of modern digital technology would seem to have improved matters greatly, Martin argues that the problem still exists, but now on a grander scale. It is simply impossible to know everything that happened in the past.

In terms of model building, contemporary historians are in the unfortunate position of knowing exactly how things turned out. First, scholars are tempted to build their explanations backwards, starting from outcomes and then searching for plausible prior events, continuing back through history until reaching a “satisfactory” explanation. But, they will be working with historical materials left behind from each era by people who had their own theories of why things had happened and structured their documentation accordingly. Second, almost all events have multiple causes.  Prioritizing them and determining how much leverage each exerted on an outcome of interest is nearly impossible, given the data problems mentioned above. Martin compares this task unfavorably to the situation that laboratory scientists work with, which allows them to run multiple experiments, under conditions where they can control many possible causes, and isolate the influence of specific factors. By that test, of course, almost all social science explanations will also fail. Third, and perhaps more important, uncertainty permeates every aspect of human activity, with people facing multiple options at every turn. Even focusing on “decision-making,” as Martin advocates, doesn’t remove the problem of people having only the faintest of ideas concerning what’s going to happen next, given the action they take. Moreover, because we have no way of getting inside the heads of the people who made those important decisions, we can only speculate as to what they were thinking at the time they acted.

The “past futures” of the title refers to the fact that from the perspective of the present, everything in the past could be viewed as the realized futures of people who had little clue as to what was coming next. Today, we are their future, but it is highly unlikely that one any of them foresaw it. In writing history by looking backwards, from the present, it is tempting to make our “known past” part of our explanation by treating it as the intended future of humans who were making decisions about what options to pursue. But of course, lacking clairvoyance, they had no ability to imagine all the possible futures that would unfold. Nonetheless, the temptation to write linear, coherent narratives about why things had to happen the way they did overwhelms most scholars.

But wait, there’s more! Martin also takes historians to task for imposing normative judgments on the actions of historical figures, using contemporary values. The severity of the normative judgment increases, the further back in time the historian travels. He uses the example of people involved in the slave trade in the 17th and 18th centuries, as well as more contemporary examples. Martin’s point is that such normative judgments cloud the construction of analytic arguments, biasing the selection of cases and causal principles.

Despite the incredibly bleak picture Martin draws of the impossibility of historical analysis, he nonetheless concludes his book with the argument that contemporary social scientists “need” historical analysis. Giving up their quest for comprehensive explanations of historical events, historians can instead simply locate events in time and identify their relationships to one another. They can tentatively indicate which events were more significant than others by making comparisons to possible alternatives, now known because we have the luxury of looking backwards. Abandoning the conceit of the superior present, they can remind us that “each succeeding present is merely provisional, nothing more than a moving line between past and future.”

Discerning readers of my blog post will now recognize why I like this book so much: this is a very evolutionary argument, cognizant of the need for humility in building tentative explanations of social phenomenon. “Past futures” are always explicable, if one is willing to commit the kinds of methodological and analytic fallacies that Martin points out. Don’t go there. He argues that contemporary historiography has plenty to do, without falling into the trap of building “neat and tidy” explanations. Instead, historians can make us aware of our own ethical standpoints and caution us against ransacking the past for justifications of currently favored policies. The future awaits us, but it is probably not the one that we envisioned, nor could we.

Can you live up to the titles you choose for your papers?

Which of these two papers, on the same theme, would you read first: “Patterns of Vandalism during Civil Disorders as an Indicator of Target Selection” or “Mad Mobs and Englishmen? Myths and Realities of the 2011 Riots”? The former is wordy and boring, not reflecting the passion and chaos that typically characterize riots, whereas the latter is cheeky and informative, conveying a sense of an author who’s keen to connect with readers. Sadly, the boring title was chosen by my co-author and I in 1972 for our otherwise well-executed study of civil disorders in US cities in the late 1960s, thus consigning it to the dustbin of academic history. It reported on the only large-scale longitudinal study of small businesses that were at risk of being targeted and convincingly showed that there was an implicit logic to the choice of targets by people involved. Despite being published in the flagship journal of the American Sociological Association, it has been cited only 64 times in the past 43 years. By contrast, the “Mad Mobs” book, published only a few years ago (2011), has already been cited 52 times.

Venice vaporetto

On a vaporetto in Venice

I believe some, but not all, of the difference in the perceived usefulness of these two papers reflects their authors’ choices of titles.

So, what makes for a “good” title? Let me offer four suggestions, based on my experience with writing dozens of titles, good and bad.

First, I strongly suggest choosing a title that you must live up to – one with bold and even outrageous claims to importance. It should make promises about the payoff that readers will expect you to keep. Of course, the risk is that they will be deeply disappointed if their expectations are not fulfilled. Do not disappoint them! Set the bar high and motivate yourself to get over it.

Second, simple titles with an emotional resonance that surprise readers and foreshadow the paper’s “hook” are my goal. Finding them is arguably as important as crafting a strong narrative for your paper. Indeed, I have discovered that choosing a memorable title often completes the final piece of the puzzle that shows me the way forward for the narrative.

How simple? Entrepreneurship through Social Networks” is a 4-word title – with no colon and thus no follow-on description of its contents – that succinctly captured the essence of what Catherine Zimmer and I had to say. Published in 1986, it has been cited over 2600 times, garnering several hundred citations each year for the past decade. The paper’s narrative offers a few simple ways in which social contexts and connections can increase the likelihood of people becoming entrepreneurs, none of which were new to the literature in the 1980s. Evidently the title is a magnet for people who already believe that networks are important for entrepreneurship and just want a confirmation, in print, that they can cite to substantiate their beliefs.

Similarly, “Who’s the Boss? Explaining Gender Inequality in Entrepreneurial Teams” asks a simple question but doesn’t necessarily imply what the answer will be. From the words after the colon, it is clear that Tiantian Yang and I will be looking at men and women as bosses, within entrepreneurial teams, requiring people to actually read the paper if they want to know the outcome of our inquiry. We could have written a longer title, such as “Will Men or Women Be in Charge of an Entrepreneurial Startup?” Instead, the simple “Who’s the Boss?” suffices to provoke a reader’s interest, especially coupled with the material after the colon.

Third, I suggest choosing a surprising title. How surprising? Studies of babies show that even at a very young age, they have a strong sense of the causal interconnectedness of their world and thus take for granted a lot of what they see. By contrast, they are startled when their expectations about the world are thwarted and focus intently on where things have gone wrong. Authors can use this trick of confounded expectations to heighten interest in their papers.

In our paper on generational units, collective memory, and imprinting, Steve Lippmann and I took an old proverb and slightly twisted it, generating the title “A Rolling Stone Gathers Momentum.” Note that we only changed the last word in the proverb, but that change completely overturned the original meaning. Instead of gathering no moss, the stone now picks up speed as it moves along. The new meaning fit well with the paper’s theme, which was that a combination of imprinting and collective memory create generational units that play leadership roles in a region’s economic development over time.

Surprise can also be generated by conjuring up bizarre images, as Ellen Auster did in our paper “Even Dwarfs Started Small: Liabilities of Age and Size and Their Strategic Implications.” Strange as it may seem, the first part of the title actually anticipates quite well the papers theme, which is that small organizations are ubiquitous in the world and that few of them grow significantly. Auster and I discussed the ways in which small firms coped with their disadvantaged starting point.

Fourth, you earn a bonus if your simple and surprising title also subtly implies the paper’s hook, especially if you can do it in the words before the colon, rather than after. I published “Paradigm Wars: Donaldson Versus the Critics of Organization Theory2″ in the late 1980s, when Lex Donaldson had taken on not only what he called anti-managerial theory but also the threats to organization theory from social constructionists. My initial title was “Paradigm Warriors,” but I decided that I wanted to put the focus on the theories themselves, rather than the protagonists.

Fools Rush In? The Institutional Context of Industry Creation,” published in 1994 with Marlena Fiol, was deliberately posed as a question because we wanted to capitalize on the skepticism of the academic community at the time toward entrepreneurship. The “fools” in question are the entrepreneurs who create businesses which are the first of their kind and thus are pioneers in creating a new industry, if they succeed. We focused on the strategies that nascent entrepreneurs could use in the face of uncertain and possibly hostile institutional environments. Note that we were not calling such pioneers “fools,” but rather were using the term in the same sympathetic way that Johnny Mercer’s 1940 lyrics characterized the behavior of people who’d fallen in love. Or the people that Frankie Lymon & the Teenagers referred to when they asked “why do fools fall in love?”

Where can you find templates for possible article titles? When searching for titles, I turn to songs, movies, books, aphorisms, and proverbs. Some of my favorite titles have come from popular songs, as often the title can be used directly without changing any words, such as “Fools Rush in?” In other cases, just a few word changes are needed, such as in Bruce Springsteen’s “Blinded by the Light which became “Blinded by the Cites” when used as a title for a paper using bibliometrics to assess trends in entrepreneurship research methods. Soelvi Lillejord and I used the title of David Bryne’s concert film “Stop Making Sense!” as a title for our paper on contradictory logics in the American university system.

You should avoid overusing the work of popular musicians and other artists. For example, in a study of papers in the biomedical literature that used song lyrics from Bob Dylan in their titles, researchers found that 135 articles used just one title (“The Times They Are a-Changin’”) and 36 others over-used another (“Blowing in the Wind”). I recommend doing a search on the perspective title you are thinking of using, to make sure that it hasn’t become banal or a cliché.

Books are often good sources, and my colleagues and I found that Terry Orlick’s In Pursuit of Excellence became an excellent jumping off point for our paper on sampling procedures in organizations research, which we called “In Pursuit of Evidence.

I am fond of classic movies and so have often turned to them, borrowing “Lost in Translation” and “Even Dwarfs Started Small” directly from the films. “Lost in Translation was a paper about the cultural mismatch in modern societies between a media over-emphasis on becoming an entrepreneur versus an under-emphasis on the difficult steps required to become successful at it.

Choosing a title that is simple, surprising, and foreshadows a paper’s theme takes a little extra work, but it pays off in two ways. First, in this era of scholarly information overload, anything you can do to motivate readers to give your paper a second look is worthwhile. Second, by not settling for a plain-vanilla, boring, and forgettable title, you push yourself as an author to make sure your story is strong enough to justify your provocative title. I believe the title is so important that I often delay writing a draft until I have found a title that not only grabs readers’ attention but also challenges me to work as hard as I can to fulfill the implicit promise it makes.