Wednesday, August 19, 2020

Prioritize Me! Assembling and Breaking Routines in Complex Work

Organizational scholars are fascinated by routines because they are the core of organizational efficiency. People working together learn how to improve their work, especially in repeated work with measurable consequences. All routines are not equal though. Factory workers can become fabulously productive because their routines keep being examined and improved; many low-level service workers or administrative workers can also do well. The exception is often highly educated professionals, especially when working in teams. Their outputs are too complex to measure accurately, and there is not much repetition to allow improvement. How can they still work efficiently?

Clues to the answer are found in research by Waldemar Kremser and Blagoy Blagoev published in Administrative Science Quarterly. They looked at how consultants working on a civil construction project struggled to keep a steady workflow and meet deadlines. They found that the intermingled project tasks, meetings, interactions, and deadlines created a complex environment that made execution of routine work difficult even when the routines were well-known. Still, the consultants knew the importance of routines and efficiency and applied a sequence of solutions to make progress.

The first-priority solution was to follow the normal sequence of tasks, which is exactly how routines are normally done – when one task is completed (by you or someone else), start the next one in the sequence. But timing conflicts often made demands on the consultants that interrupted sequences, which led to the second priority: follow the deadlines and work on tasks labeled as urgent. Sometimes the second priority was not good enough either because multiple tasks were urgent, which led to a third priority: work on tasks requested by the person filling the most important role. 

Each step along this priority chain reduced efficiency, and the consultants knew it. Nevertheless, the steps were followed because deadlines have a special status, and ignoring important people is a bad idea. The result was an ecology of tasks that added up to progress, though often with inefficient execution because some consultants had multiple requests that needed to be done in sequence, some consultants had to wait, and many routines were torn apart because the normal sequence of actions was interrupted by deadlines or requests from high-status coworkers.

Was the result enduring inefficiency? Actually, two graphs in the paper show that the consultants learned how to deal with these time conflicts over time. One graph shows that acute time conflicts peaked soon after the start of the project and were significantly reduced after that. The other shows that the solution of catering to the most important roles took up more than half their time initially, but after consultants made adjustments, the time spent on this effort was reduced to less than one-fifth thereafter. After consultants got through that initial adjustment period, they split their remaining time equally between sequence-based and timing-based prioritizing.

Compared with work done by an assembly-line worker, the inefficiency documented here is staggering. But keep in mind that these consultants are creating and applying routines to generate never-before-seen output, and much of the inefficiency originates in the deadlines. Deadlines are a well-known enemy of efficiency, and so are complexity and novelty. Thanks to this research, we now know more about how professionals working in teams handle these challenges.

Kremser, W., and B. Blagoev

2020 "The Dynamics of Prioritizing: How Actors Temporally Pattern Complex Role–Routine Ecologies." Administrative Science Quarterly, forthcoming.

Monday, August 17, 2020

My Work Is a Calling. Let Me Tell You Why

If you are like most people, your work is somewhere between mind-numbing and mind-blowing, but you do not see it as a calling. You likely have met people who see their work as a calling, and you are vaguely envious of them (except perhaps of their pay). What makes people see their work as a calling? Or to be more precise, how do they describe their journey to a type of work that they experience as a calling?

Thanks to research by Matt Bloom, Amy E. Colbert, and Jordan D. Nielsen published in Administrative Science Quarterly, we know much more about how people describe their calling. The authors studied four caregiving professions that are richly populated by people who see their work as a calling: pastors, physicians, teachers, and international aid workers. They asked people in these occupations to talk about how they found both their calling in the occupation and their place doing it. Interestingly, they heard two different types of stories.

One was the journey toward the true self. This is the story we are most familiar with, and it involves spending time on introspection to discover oneself, discovering exemplars who show how greatness can be achieved, and listening to wise advice. This version is familiar in part because it is well captured in popular literature—any Star Wars fan can see these elements in the Luke Skywalker story. Its prominence does not mean it is fictional. It is exactly how many people find their calling, and an important part of these stories is the discovery of a better path. That could mean learning that the occupations others thought were best were not right—they didn’t resonate. It could involve getting wise guidance about one’s abilities that pointed in a particular direction.

The other type of story people told was about exploration leading to finding. This is a less familiar story that is overlooked, perhaps because it is less of a straight path. It involves departure from work that missed an emotional connection, fortuitous discovery of a better kind of work, and choosing the newly discovered work. This path toward a calling sounds less like finding a destiny, but it is equally strong and prominent among those who see their work as a calling. Departing something that is good but not great can lead to discoveries, and pursuing these discoveries may lead to work as a calling.

Maybe the second story is even something we prefer not to know about because of what it means for all those who experience their work as a regular activity and not as a calling. Is there something better out there? Would leaving the current work and exploring other activities be the way to discover a calling? It is for many others. But most people worry about risk and want to maintain their investments in their current activities, so exploration is rarely tried. Indeed, in troubled times such as these, who dares to explore unless they are forced to?

The two paths to a calling are interesting especially because the second one has so much promise for those who think they will never find a calling. It may even offer hope for those who are forced by the current crisis to stop their work and look for something new. I’ve seen social media posts reminding us that “What you do not change is what you choose.” For those seeking change in the form of a calling, perhaps finding it is as simple—and daring—as choosing again.

Bloom, M., A. E. Colbert, and J. D. Nielsen

2020 "Stories of Calling: How Called Professionals Construct Narrative Identities." Administrative Science Quarterly, forthcoming.

Tuesday, July 7, 2020

Media and Management: Are Firms Easy to Control?

Who do firms answer to? Among researchers and the press, there has been much talk about how firms are willing to ignore a wide range of environmental and social concerns. This discussion is often coupled with the observation that firm pay inequality drives economic inequality. On the other hand, many firms were pioneers in the Black Lives Matter movement, and before that they put pressure on states seeking to enact discriminatory laws. So, which is it?

In research published in Strategic Management Journal, Andrew Shipilov, Tim Rowley, and I looked at whether firms respond to one particularly influential actor – mass media. We examined a very controversial firm action – changing the governance structure to give the board of directors greater control over the CEO and top management team. This type of change is a good indicator of whether the firm is responsive or not, because it goes against top management interests but had significant press coverage for a while.

The key observation we made is that media not only talks positively about what are good governance structures; newspaper articles also describes individual firms. Articles can contain praise or critique. Articles can even contain emotional words, which can be either positive or negative. A person reading a newspaper article describing the governance of a firm can easily find out whether the firm is viewed positively. If that person is the CEO of Chair of the Board, a negative article could be a reason to reconsider the current governance.

Did this happen? Fortunately, newspaper articles can also be read and interpreted by laptop computers, so we asked ours to look at them. We found that firms were indeed responsive to press reports, and they responded in more ways than we imagined when we started the research. First, does a firm improve governance when it gets negative press coverage? Yes. Critique from the press is a problem to solve, and the solution was to act – not to ignore it.

Second, what did firms do when it received positive press coverage of the governance? They improved it further! The press discussing governance set the agenda, which pushed the firms to make subsequent improvements, especially because many firms received press coverage with praise exactly because they had improved their governance. So, they made further changes in response to this praise.

Third, firms also learnt from each other. Many boards of directors are interconnected because the same person serves two firms. These connected board members were like bees spreading the pollen of good governance: when one of their firms had been criticized for poor governance, they advised other firms to avoid this fate.

Firms are not unresponsive: they answer to society. The reason they are often thought to be unresponsive is that they are selective about when to respond, and who to respond to. Any issue that becomes important in mass media and a source of praise and criticism will get their attention. As suggested by their recent responsiveness to social issues, and as we showed in our research, they can respond quite powerfully.


Shipilov, A. V., H. R. Greve, and T. J. Rowley

2019 "Is all publicity good publicity? The impact of direct and indirect media pressure on the adoption of governance practices." Strategic Management Journal, 40: 1368-1393.

Monday, July 6, 2020

Firefighting in Organizations: Understanding Time and Timing

We often use the term “firefighting” to express that we are solving urgent and serious problems in organizations, and anyone who has been involved in firefighting knows how important it is to act at the right time and synchronized with others. I have certainly seen things fall apart when someone responds to a problem too late or when someone responds so soon that others are unable to coordinate. Too fast and too slow are both problematic. How, then, to make organizations reliable firefighters?

To study this problem, Daniel Geiger, Anja Danner-Schröder, and Waldemar Kremser studied real firefighters in an article published in Administrative Science Quarterly. Their idea was that the problem of coordinated responses to rapid and unpredictably changing situations is something that firefighters face so often, and need to address so reliably, that we can learn from how they prepare and execute. Importantly, fire departments are just like other organizations in that they usually do not face significant surprises, so they can develop routines for normal situations and be ready to adapt when a fire or other emergency goes off script.

What did they find? Interestingly, the concepts of routine, duration, and event, which organizational scholars care about and think that real workers do not pay attention to, are central to how firefighters organize. Before acting they plan (“triage”) their approach. When multiple teams are needed, they pace themselves to be in sync. When problems are discovered, commands are used to react to the event and change the approach.

This does not mean that firefighters work as fast as possible, contrary to what one may think from television and movies. Exactly because teams may be out of sight of each other but need to be synchronized, they have to pace themselves carefully. Exactly because they can encounter surprises such as suddenly learning that a person is missing in a burning building, they need to be organized so they do not over-commit but can respond flexibly. The pacing and the caution slow them down, but in return they get reliability and flexibility.

Are these approaches effective? We don’t know that they are the most effective possible, but they are routinely used and flexible enough to help firefighters address situations involving significant risk to lives and value, as well as very unpredictable events. They seem robust.

How are these approaches developed? Firefighters are trained, of course, and the training gives them the basic routines and ability to flexibly respond when a situation changes. Indeed, the simulated fires used in training are designed to contain surprises. Following the training, they gain experience in handling a wide range of firefighting tasks, starting in the role of a team member who follows team leader instructions and learns by observing experienced team members. They learn to take cues from how others react to alarms, and they learn the firefighter and team leader mindset.

This mindset is particularly interesting because firefighters think and talk about time a lot. Using their words, they want to “get ahead of time” always, and they fear “running behind.” The key skill they develop is to quickly understand the situation well enough to choose the right routine and to coordinate actions accordingly. Routine, duration, and events are exactly the concepts our theories obsess over, and firefighters put them together in a very flexible and robust way.

Thursday, June 18, 2020

Between Two Chairs: The Power of the Bridging

One of the differences between practice and science is that in management practice, the person with a clear identity, focused expertise, and undivided loyalty is valued greatly. In science, we often find that this person is too narrow to respond to a complex world. Indeed, we regularly publish findings suggesting that more complex people are more useful to their organization.

Is this true also at the highest levels of management? One way to answer this question is to look at boards of directors, as Jiao Luo,Dongjie Chen, and Jia Chen did in research published in Administrative Science Quarterly. They looked at directors who had studied or worked outside China but then returned and became board members. They examined whether these board members helped introduce the novel (in China) practice of donating to corporate social responsibility (CSR) initiatives.

The reason such returnee board members might be less influential than other organizational members with complex backgrounds is simple: power. The board of directors is the most important decision-making body in an organization. It makes decisions through voting because there is no central authority, and board members may not come to agree on the right decision. That is different from what happens further down in the organization, where an idea-rich person can become recognized and promoted by someone higher up, to the benefit of both.

So are returnee board members more effective in promoting CSR than those who stayed in China? The authors found that the answer is yes butas you might expect given boards’power games—under certain conditions. First, they need allies. More returnees in a board help, and interestingly, returnee directors also become stronger when they have strong local political contacts. In an interesting twist, the directors returning from nations in which political contacts would normally be useless are especially influential if they have political contacts.

Second, the returnees are helped by conditions showing a need for CSR. As in any power game, showing that your side is the right one for helping the community, and getting potential allies that way, can help push the opposition into conceding.

The benefits of having a diverse background and seeing a decision from multiple angles are well known. Whether they translate into actually making the right decision is less well known, and it is very useful to learn that allies are necessary. After all, the main reason that the person with clear identity is trusted more is that they are more common, so they more easily form allies with those like themselves. For people with complex backgrounds, this task is harder.

Luo, J., D. Chen, and J. Chen2020. "Coming Back and Giving Back: Transposition, Institutional Actors, and the Paradox of Peripheral Influence." Administrative Science Quarterly, forthcoming.

Friday, June 12, 2020

Shopping for Judges: How Firms Try to Manipulate Legal Decisions

Many people are not aware that the US legal system facing corporations is much like a shopping mall that lets the plaintiff choose jurisdictions just as freely as we choose between the Adidas, Nike, or Puma store. And plaintiffs choose for the same reasons we choose a shoe store – price and fit. They want quick decisions, because they are inexpensive, and they want decisions that fit their wish. Which is to win, of course.

Thanks to research by Maxim Sytch and Yong H. Kim published in Administrative Science Quarterly, we now know more about how plaintiffs choose jurisdictions. The authors find that the choice is often guided by social connections, a way of choosing that sounds odd but is actually very effective. To understand how this works, there are two things we need to know.
The first is that although the law is said to be the same for everyone, it is not. Legal cases involve communication and interpretation, so whoever can tailor their message to the judge has a better chance of winning.

The second is that communication and interpretation are learnt. That matters because sharing law school education means sharing this type of learning, as well as the feeling of coming from the same stock. Sharing work experience matters too, because people who work together practicing law, as newly minted lawyers do when serving as clerks for judges, learn how their colleagues communicate and think.

Knowing these two things, we can start understanding how a patent lawsuit, which is what Sytch and Kim studied, is filed. The law firm (patent lawsuits are not handled by in-house lawyers) looks for judges who attended the same law school as one or more of its lawyers or for whom its lawyers served as clerks. The firm picks a jurisdiction that has such connected judges. If it gets the judge it wants, the firm’s lawyers tailor the language in their filing to match the communication and interpretation of the judge. And then they win – not always, of course, but much more often than they would if there was no connection or no tailoring of the message.

The increase in win likelihood is stunning. Having studied at the same school at the same time as the judge multiplied the likelihood of a win by 4.6, and having been a clerk for the judge multiplied it by 2.8. Tailoring the lawsuit further increased the likelihood. Clearly, we cannot say that “all corporations are equal before the law.” Those who pick law firms that get the judges they want do a lot better.

Is there no risk to this behavior? Well, the way it works is that a law firm chooses the jurisdiction (Federal District Court), but the judge is chosen randomly within the jurisdiction. Because the law firm looks for social connections, it may actually sacrifice some human capital when assigning its lawyers to the case. That, in turn, means that a loss is more likely if the judge they’re hoping for does not get assigned to the case. The downside is not huge, though: the firm is just over 10 percent less likely to win the case. So, we are looking at a one-sided bet.

Clearly the practice of law is in some jeopardy if it is done in such a club-like fashion. This is especially so because under the US legal system, decisions establish precedent, so any decision in favor of the plaintiff that pushes the boundary of what a patent claim can cover has future consequences. These consequences are already seen in the form of “patent trolls,” which are corporations that acquire (buy) patents not to make products and do business but just to file lawsuits against other firms. Patent trolls benefit from the ability to threaten firms into offering settlements (paying without even going to court), which is more likely when law firms skilled in jurisdiction choice keep winning their cases.

Tuesday, June 9, 2020

Are Fraudsters Innovative? Real-life Ocean’s Eleven

Do we admire fraudsters? I know you want to answer negatively, but there is a great deal of admiration of the clever fraudster expressed in popular culture, as seen in novels and in movies such as Ocean’s Eleven. Much of the admiration has to do with how clever and innovative fraudsters are, unlike most of us. From an outsider’s point of view, it is almost as if someone with a known history of deception in business and private life could get sufficient votes to win an election to a public office.

An important premise of the admiration is that fraud and innovation are found in the same people and the same firms. So, maybe those who fraudulently get money are the ones who will use it most innovatively? Whether that is true is the topic of research by Yanbo Wang, Toby Stuart, and Jizhen Li recently published in Administrative Science Quarterly. Their idea was simple and powerful. One of the main ways that firms do fraud is by misstating their financial statements. For example, a fraudster might report huge losses and no wealth to the tax authorities and tell everyone else that he is a billionaire. The benefit of the fraud is to get something valuable – paying less taxes while getting trust and resources from others.

Wang, Stuart, and Li were able to find data proving that such fraud took place because they could compare Chinese firms’ regular financial statements with those they reported when applying for innovation grants. Obviously, reporting success can help a firm get innovation grants, even if the report is false. After all, when the state grants innovation funds it acts like an angel investor or a venture capital firm – it chases success.

For those of you who value honesty, I should start with the authors’ finding that half the firms were honest. How you react to this finding depends on what you thought was true, of course, but it can be either relief or disappointment.

What follows is worse. Fraud pays. Exaggerating success helped firms get money, so the final pool of firms getting innovation grants was less honest than the initial pool of applicants. Also, fraud leads to waste. Honest firms winning grants increased their hiring overall, including R&D hiring, whereas fraudulent firms winning grants only increased non-R&D hiring. It is unclear what exactly the fraudulent firms were using their innovation grants for, but it clearly was not pursuit of innovation. Logically, they would succeed in innovating only if they were smarter than the honest firms to begin with. Were they?

What follows is even worse. Fraud produces smoke and mirrors only. Honest firms winning grants produced more innovations that they patented, whereas fraudulent firms winning grants did not. However, the fraudulent firms excelled at producing utility patents, which is a form of patent that establishes legal claim over a non-innovative feature of a product. Utility patents can be ways of claiming progress when there is none, but they can also be a way to get the legal means to become a patent troll.

Clearly this is one type of fraud that did nothing good for society and in fact produced significant waste of resources. And why should we expect otherwise? The brilliant (and good-looking) fraudsters in Ocean’s Eleven are fiction, and the fun of fiction often lies in that it is very different from reality.

People still have illusions that invite fraud, because success looks so wonderful that even those who should have better judgment often do not stop to ask whether what they are seeing is true. For example, in retrospect it seems strange that the bold claims of innovative blood testing by Theranos could seem true. They were still able to recruit a stellar board of directors including people like Riley Bechtel of the famous Bechtel Corporation, William Foege, who had been with the CDC (yes, the people trying to save the U.S. from Covid-19), Fabrizio Bonanni who had been with the biotech firm Amgen, and James Mattis, Marine Corps general. Of course, it ended well for James Mattis, who was awarded for his good judgment in Theranos by being picked as President Trump’s Secretary of Defense.

Fraudsters win because others are naïve and optimistic. They win especially easily when lack of transparency enables fraudsters to tell different things to different people. So when we know that information is being concealed, we should pay even closer attention.  

Thursday, June 4, 2020

I Did It My Way: Finding Allies When Solving Problems

Firms often run into problems. The most common one is that low performance causes unrest in the board of directors and shareholders. More unusual ones (but still too often) are safety problems with the product, pollution from the production, disputes with the employees, and so on. When there is a problem, managers and board members look for a solution, and the question is, which one to pick?

The question is important for the firm because different solutions have different merit. It also reveals a lot about power and politics in the firm, and especially when the board of directors makes the decision. This is because each board member has learnt from their experience and knows some ways of solving problems well, other ways less well. That sets up a power play between different fractions of the board with different experience and different solutions to the problem. Finding out which side wins is the topic of research by Cindy Man Zhang and myself published in Academy of Management Journal.

The context was acquisitions of other firms in China. Globally, acquisitions are a frequent solution for firms trying to improve their performance -- paradoxically so, because most acquisitions are bad for performance. Still, it is hard to find a board that is not confident enough to think they can do better than most others, so acquisitions happen a lot. The key feature of acquisitions in China’s market economy with many regular firms (not state-owned firms) is that many acquisition targets were available, and these came in two types: regular market-based targets and the more unusual state-guided acquisitions, which were firms that the state very much wanted to see acquired by another (wealthier, more capable, or better managed) firm.

Now the power play is clear, right? Market-based acquisitions are identified by the acquirer and are firms that promise economic benefit in some way, such as synergies or opportunities to downsize. State-guided acquisitions can also bring economic benefit, but probably less, though they earn political capital with the state. A director with experience in the private sector, especially outside China, wants nothing to do with the state-guided acquisition and prefers the market-based one. A director with experience working for the state is comfortable following state directives and suspicious of methods for assessing the economic benefit of market-based acquisitions. Game on: there are two potential solutions, each with supporting board members.

It looks like we could determine what solution is chosen just by counting votes in each direction and seeing which one wins, but it is not that simple. What about the director with no state or market experience? What about the director with both? What if the state-directed alternative is economically very attractive (or the opposite, very unattractive)? We cannot treat board members as robots who do one thing only, regardless of circumstances. What we need to consider is that each side tries to build a coalition of like-minded directors, but also draws in all others who might join because they start out in a neutral position.

What we found was more interesting and also more intuitive. Counting votes does predict the type of solution provided we take into account the in-between directors – those with no clear loyalty to the state or market, or those with split loyalty. These in-between directors are very influential on acquisition decisions because they can join either one of the coalitions and can change sides depending on how good each alternative acquisition target is. Experience matters in firms because each decision makers wants to “do it my way.” Power and politics matter because there is more than one way, and decision makers need to build coalitions.

Zhang,C.M., H.R. Greve. 2019. Dominant Coalitions Directing Acquisitions: Different Decision Makers, Different Decisions. Academy of Management Journal 62(1)44-65.

Wednesday, April 29, 2020

Ineffective Efficiency: Designing Organizations for Surprises

Those of us who teach management are used to handling a paradox common in firms and other organizations: the most efficient and admired firms are often those that fail most spectacularly when facing unexpected problems. This is, or should be, a reason for modesty for those teach or manage, and it is also be a reason to think about the source of failure.

In research published in Industrial and Corporate Change, I examined this issue with PeterW. Glynn and Hayagreeva Rao. We did not embark on a study of failures in famous firms – it has been done so many times before. Instead, we modeled different ways of designing organizational structures to see how well they performed. The idea behind the model is that, in addition to whatever else it does, any firm faces a sequence of incoming problems that it needs to spend time solving, and it matters how quickly these problems are solved. This is an easy conceptual model that takes some advanced math to solve; and looking at it we got some surprises.

First, problem solution times can vary tremendously, especially when the firm is busy. This is important because efficiency comes from not having too many resources at hand, which means that efficient firms are busy. It is one reason that success and failure are so closely linked.

Second, managers can make the problem worse. Adding any level of approval of a solution multiplies the time it takes to finalize, which is very problematic when the solution time is already long. Large span of control (many subordinates), as we see in many lean organizations, makes this problem worse. It is another reason that success and failure are so closely linked.

Third, teams can solve the problem. If they communicate well, a team will much more rarely have very long solution times than an individual, even if the individual has exactly the same expertise as all team members combined. This sounds surprising, so I should be quick to add that communication slows down teams significantly.

Fourth, smart rule-breaking can help solve the problem. Specifically, a worker who selectively solves some problems without forwarding the to the manager for approval can reduce the number of problems that take a long time to solve. Similarly, a worker who simply tosses out some problems instead of solving them can radically reduce the number of problems that take a long time to solve. Naturally, rule-breaking is only good for the firm if the workers can identify problems that don’t need approval or don’t need a solution.

These are simple facts useful for putting together an organizational structure and its processes. A designer who knows them can make the right choices between efficiency today and resilience tomorrow, because they dictate how much slower reactions to surprises are when a structure is set up for efficiency. Perhaps the main lesson is exactly in understanding that this is a trade-off. Efficiency is great until the day it isn’t, and it instead becomes the source of failure.

Wednesday, April 22, 2020

Similar but Better: When Product Comparisons Are Traps

One of the oldest forms of advertising innovative products and services is the comparison with existing ones. Whenever a firm can argue that its innovation is similar to an existing product, but better, two things happen. First, the similarity makes acceptance easier. Second, the improvement makes changes to the innovative products easier. What could go wrong?

Research by Greta Hsu and Stine Grodal published in Administrative Science Quarterly gives one answer to how a strategy of comparison can go wrong. They looked at the growth of electronic nicotine delivery products – vape devices – and how the makers of such products took steps to get them quickly accepted. These steps in turn led them into a trap of their own making.

The starting point is that the cigarette industry is large and highly profitable. After all, even taking taxation into account, cigarettes are vastly overpriced wrapped dried leaves. Cigarette customers are addicted customers (at least addicted to the product category), which is even better than having loyal customers. The only problem for cigarette makers is that the health damages are well known, and the industry is shrinking. Smokers do not quit in great numbers – the product is addictive after all – but more old customers die than new customers appear.

Actors outside the cigarette industry invented superior systems for delivering nicotine and other flavored vapors through well-controlled electronic devices. They then faced the dilemma of how to market this innovation. What to name it? How to have it regulated, or try to avoid regulation? How to market it? A series of decisions led them onto the path to “similar but better,” including naming these devices e-cigarettes.

In many ways this was a natural path because cigarettes are also delivery systems for nicotine and other flavored vapors. The new systems were more complex but also much more controllable, so they really were similar but better. But positioning them that way instead of emphasizing distinctiveness was still a choice, and it turned out to have a series of consequences. On the positive side, some of the innovators got acquired by major cigarette makers and earned greatly from that. Also on the positive side, the major cigarette makers added their marketing muscle and made e-cigarettes widespread very quickly.

Then there was the negative side. The e-cigarettes are efficient nicotine delivery systems, which is a problem because the addiction to smoking comes from nicotine, not from other parts of the cigarette. So, these devices were similar in addictive properties and better at delivering nicotine, a point that anti-smoking activists immediately understood. They were also quick to notice that one maker started adding tastes that made e-cigarettes appealing to youth, as a way of recruiting new users. As a result, campaigning against e-cigarettes increased, and public opinion has turned against them. A good thing too, because a while after these products became popular, a wave of deaths from vaping THC additives showed that these products can be dangerous in ways that regular cigarettes are not.

So “similar but better” is a choice, and when the basic product is bad for health or for any other part of life that we value, it is not obvious that it is the best choice. If over time we confirm that these products actually are healthier than regular cigarettes, then calling them e-cigarettes and making other comparisons has been a serious mistake. An alternative name was easily available, after all. Using e-cigarettes is called vaping (a simplification of “vaporizing”), and the devices could have been called vapers. Instead, a vaper is now someone using an e-cigarette. Just words, you may say, but words have consequences.

Hsu, G., S. Grodal. 2020. The Double-edged Sword of Oppositional Category Positioning: A Study of the U.S. E-cigarette Category, 2007–2017. Administrative Science Quarterly, forthcoming.

Friday, March 20, 2020

Are Pandemics Worse than We Think? Adding Loss of Inclusion to Loss of Lives

Now that the world is dealing with the Coronavirus turning from an epidemic to a pandemic, it may be time to talk about something we learnt from the Ebola virus. This is a lesson from research by April Wright, Alan Meyer, Trish Reay,and Jonathan Staggs published in Administrative Science Quarterly, and it concerns the social distancing that many places in the world now practice to mitigate the effects of this disease.

We understand that social distancing is inconvenient. In Singapore, which currently has a mild form of it because the Coronavirus is controlled well here, temperature checks when going into certain buildings are inconvenient, we eat at restaurants less often than we would like, and a shopping center (such as the one housing my gym) is a place to think twice about entering. Other places are much worse off, with people quarantined to their dwellings except for emergencies, and all community meeting places and arrangements canceled.

What this research points out is that places of social inclusion are essential to society. Places of inclusion are where people gather to have their needs provided by society, from private actors, government actors, or voluntary associations. They include the sports stadium of the local team, the unemployment office, the church, and the soup kitchen for the homeless. All these are places that provide practical goods and services, but they also serve a symbolic role of defining the community and affirming people’s inclusion in the community.

The importance of places of social inclusion was shown prominently when their research at a public Emergency Department (ED) in Australia suddenly involved the Ebola epidemic. ED doctors and nurses handle many kinds of risks to patients and themselves, but Ebola was unusual because it was an unknown situation, and one that could lead to exhaustion of ED resources and even temporary closure of the ED. This was a situation that invoked fear and a feeling of threat because the physicians understood that turning away any patients was more than failing to provide medical services; it meant an unmet human need. Although most people rarely interact with EDs, they are places of social inclusion that need to stay available.

To manage the Ebola situation in addition to the regular claims on their resources, the ED rationed resources carefully and enabled resource use whenever possible. Doctors and nurses also went to extraordinary lengths to avoid closing down and to keep the ED safe for both patients and employees. In the end, many ED personnel dealt with the situation by reasoning that the Ebola risk, although new, was not so much greater than the risk posed by violent patients or other infectious diseases, which they already dealt with routinely.

If we tie this research to the Coronavirus situation, we should be aware of some differences. The personnel at this ED were very conscious of its role as a place of social inclusion and did their best to stay open and admit patients. And when all was said and done, they had treated no Ebola patients, only some suspected cases. Is that what we will see in the current situation? I doubt it.

Not all places of social inclusion recognize that they have this role, and few are staffed by individuals who have taken an oath to protect the patient and the community, as many doctors do. The Coronavirus will see many places of social inclusion close, by their own volition or by public policy. Few places of social inclusion will be as safe from infections as the Australian ED studied in this research. Ebola was rare and not very contagious but was feared because it was so grimly deadly. The Coronavirus is now widespread and appears to be more contagious than the flu, and deadlier.

For a while, places of social inclusion will be lost, and this will be a great loss to communities and their inhabitants. A significant measure of community resilience will be how quickly the places of social inclusion can open again and serve their community. In the meantime, let’s hope that communities can improvise safe places of social inclusion, as Italians have done by singing from their balconies.

Wright, A. L., Meyer, A. D., Reay, T., & Staggs, J. 2020. Maintaining Places of Social Inclusion: Ebola and the Emergency Department. Administrative Science Quarterly, forthcoming. 

Wednesday, March 18, 2020

Emotions in Sync: How Teams Adjust for the Best Performance

Imagine a team of any size doing a task that calls for constant coordination and accurate execution. Sound difficult? It is very difficult, and that is why organizations typically prefer to distribute tasks across specialized roles and over time. The Charlie Chaplin movie Modern Times made fun of this approach in its production line scenes, but they are actually an accurate depiction of how assembly is often done these days, and for good reason – it is the most efficient approach.

But some teams need to coordinate quickly. A soccer team does so in response to the other team. An emergency unit team does so in response to the patient condition. Even teams that rehearse in advance to gain perfect execution may need coordination to avoid small mistakes accumulating and getting out of hand. A concert performance by a band, orchestra, or choir would be an example of this. A planned surgical operation or construction of a building is another. Thanks to research by John Paul Stephens published in Administrative Science Quarterly, we now know more about how such coordination is done. He studied a special kind of large team: a choir performing classical music.

The starting point is that each member of the team is heedful of the others, especially those nearby. They adjust to others’ pitch, volume, and tempo, and they influence others as well, helping them pick the right pitch, volume, and tempo. When a team comes together, these mutual influences and members’ knowledge of the ideal output mean that their efforts are in sync, and their emotions are too.

Emotions matter greatly for quick coordination because they adjust what happens when the team is falling apart. And any kind of quick coordination could lead to a team falling apart, with each member being anxious about their part of the task performance or upset about others appearing to do their part incorrectly. The feeling of being out of sync triggers adjustments, because each member will pay special attention to any and all cues that can improve the performance. They use their knowledge of the output, their knowledge of the skill set and current output of each other member, and their knowledge of their own skill set and current output. Once the team knows they are no longer in sync, there is mutual effort to recover.

This is where leadership counts the most. For a chorus, the conductor is always up front directing, but this person is actually not so important if they have rehearsed well and are in sync. If their performance is falling apart, however, increasing the attention to the conductor is a major cue that helps recovery. One sign of greatness in a conductor is exactly this ability to put a performance back in sync, to reunite the team. Much of a conductor’s leadership occurs when composing the performance through the variations rehearsed in practice sessions, but an essential part of such leadership emerges when recovery is needed during a concert.

The same process is found in more extreme versions in smaller teams with distributed leadership, such as those that combine different forms of specialists who engage in a single production. To continue with the musical performance comparison, a string ensemble has first and second violin (and sometimes more), viola, cello, and sometimes bass too. There is no conductor. Instead, a team like this has skilled members who each knows their specialty and the ideal final performance. The team usually comes together in sync during a performance, but when they fall apart, they turn their attention to their leader—the first violinist, who sits front and center and is easily visible by all ensemble members.

True leadership emerges when teams need to reunite.

Stephens, J. P. 2020. How the Show Goes On: Using the Aesthetic Experience of Collective Performance to Adapt while Coordinating. Administrative Science Quarterly, forthcoming.

Tuesday, March 17, 2020

Friends in Low Places: Independent Regulators Help Entrepreneurs

Here is something that is so well known in business, and so contrary to norms of fair competition, that we prefer not to teach it in business schools: For a large established firm, one of the best hammers for beating down competition from new ventures is influence over legislators. One of the best ways of wielding this hammer is to help them create cumbersome, expensive, and demanding legislation for new firms entering the business. Any kind of excuse will do. For example, societal concerns for safety and the environment can be twisted in ways that generate legislation with the main purpose of making it harder to establish new ventures.

How can that be good for the large firm? After all, they need to expand their business now and then, and they will face the same legislation. That’s true, but unlike entrepreneurs, they have friends in the legislature who can create exceptions when needed. So, is there any way for the entrepreneur to enter a heavily regulated industry? Research by Jake B. Grandy and Shon R. Hiatt published in Administrative Science Quarterly shows one way this can happen: by receiving help from regulators.

Why would regulators help entrepreneurs when legislators help established firms? This is a question that has two answers. The first answer is because they can: Legislation is usually written with some leeway, and regulators can interpret it to allow new entrants. Often, they will do so because strict interpretations can be challenged through appeals. The second answer is because they can: Legislators have many issues on their agendas, and they often grant regulators freedom to act on their own either by legislating some independence or by supervising regulators only loosely.

Grandy and Hiatt tested this effect by examining delays in granting permissions for hydroelectric power plants. For such permissions, the independence of the regulator has no consequence for established firms – but for entrepreneurs, an independent regulator makes all the difference. The timing matters because the application and approval process can take many years. If the regulator is fairly independent, that period can be reduced by a year or more. But if legislators have reason to curtail the regulator’s independence, the application period can instead increase by many months.

These accelerations and delays are important because they are where costs and benefits are found in this industry. The regulator can impose conditions that slow down a project and make it costly, but in the end, nearly all the applications are granted. Granting an application does not mean that the power plant will be built, however: The entrepreneur may have exhausted their financial resources by the time a project is approved, or required modifications may have made the project unprofitable. All of this means that help from regulators is necessary for entrepreneurs – and for a healthy level of competition in regulated industries. 

Grandy, J. B., & Hiatt, S. R. 2020. State Agency Discretion and Entrepreneurship in Regulated Markets. Administrative Science Quarterly, forthcoming.

Thursday, February 27, 2020

When is Flexible Work Time Inflexible?

Most readers of this blog have private offices with doors that can close when we want to work without noise or interruptions. Colleagues understand the difference between a closed door and one that is slightly or fully opened, and they adjust accordingly. The same doors also give privacy, which is highly valued. Some readers of this blog also work for an organization that has a policy of flexible work time, and I am willing to bet that they value this flexibility.

Many employees, in many organizations, work in cubicles, which is an entirely different situation. As a research paper by Leroy Gonsalves in Administrative Science Quarterly shows, flexible work time is often much less flexible than people think. As he discovered, the cubicles are one reason for the inflexibility.

What is the connection between cubicles and inflexible flexible work time? Visibility. Flexible work time means that people can arrive and depart from work at times they select, provided they spend enough time working. But workers in cubicles are seen by others, so the early riser can’t come too early because it means leaving before the others, and the late riser can’t come too late because that means arriving after the others. When people gather, there can be informal norms. Norms can become toxic if they are connected to ideas of effort and productivity, and norms guide people’s visible behavior.

Many small behaviors demonstrate visibility and make the work time inflexible. The morning greeting is an acknowledgment of arrival, less formal than stamping a time card but nearly as controlling. Walking past an empty desk in a cubicle raises the question of where the occupant is, and also serves as a reminder of the question others will consider when walking past one’s own empty cubicle. The effect is to remind everyone of the need to arrive exactly at the normative time.

How did Gonsalves discover this source of inflexible flexible work time? He studied an organization that reorganized its office to save space, eliminating cubicles assigned to specific people and replacing them with dynamic workspaces. In the new office, work stations were classified by activity, and employees would move around during the day depending on the type of work they did. These were professional workers who carried a laptop around that contained everything they needed for their work.

The big surprise was that the new, smaller, and flexible-use office also triggered much greater use of flexible time. The workers quickly realized that the visibility was gone. An empty desk said nothing because it was not assigned to a person. Greeting someone in the morning, or not greeting them, also said nothing because it was unclear what part of the office someone would be in and what time of the day that person would have started work.

With the visibility gone, workers immediately started using the flexible work time policy the way it was intended. Flexible work time lets workers adapt to their circadian rhythm, improve their commute, and adapt to temporary work requirements. Arrive late if you are a late riser, avoid the worst morning rush hour, and work longer hours when needed and shorter hours to even out the worktime. All of these are possible as long as the visibility does not impose a norm that creates an inflexible flexible work time.

Organizational theory is often about unintended consequences. An employer saves office rental fees through using cubicles and unintendedly ruins its flexible work time policy that is supposed to improve the workers’ lives and the work. An employer saves even more office rental fees by replacing cubicles with flexible work spaces and inadvertently converting its workers from surface ships to submarines, who take full advantage of their stealth. I am sure the submarine workers are happier with their flexible work time, and maybe they are also more productive, so this was a good unintended consequence.

Gonsalves, L. 2020. From Face Time to Flex Time: The Role of Physical Space in Worker Temporal Flexibility. Administrative Science Quarterly, forthcoming.

Tuesday, February 25, 2020

How to Get Paid More at Work? Extend your Turf!

The title is not clickbait – research on organizations can be very practical. One thing that organizations often do is to create specialized jobs. The reason is obvious – specialization means repetition and regularity, which builds skills and routines and reduces irregularities. When done well, specialization creates efficiency. The “when done well” part is important to keep in mind, because specialized jobs naturally do a smaller proportion of the organizational tasks, which means that more specialization could mean more kinds of jobs, or some jobs that are general and cover the gaps between the specialized jobs, or a combination of the two. All of this is well known to those who design and operate organizations.

But what does specialization do to worker pay? That’s the topic of research by Nathan Wilmers, a professor at MIT Sloan School of Management, published in Administrative Science Quarterly. The question is very interesting because it is commonly assumed that wages are determined in some labor market that rewards workers first by observable skills, such as training and education, and later through performance on the job. The problem with this conception is that it assumes that observable skills map cleanly onto organizational tasks. This assumption is never quite correct, and it gets worse in organizations with highly designed jobs.

Instead, consider jobs organized by the degree of task specialization, and consider wages not as set in a market but as an implicit negotiation between worker and employer. A highly specialized job usually means that there are many potential occupants and that the post-hire training to do the task is easy. Probably the specialist isn’t pre-trained before hiring, but that does not matter because the training is inexpensive. That means lower wages, because a worker occupying a specialized job is expendable. In organizations, narrow job turf means low pay.

A general job that covers the gap between specialized jobs is exactly the opposite. First, efficient job design requires having many specialists and few generalists covering the gaps, so the generalist is necessarily rare. Second, the generalist work is complex and specific to the job design of the employer. Again, the generalist isn’t pre-trained, and it takes a while for a newly hired generalist to be efficient. In the implicit wage negotiation, the generalist has a strong position. In organizations, broad turf means high pay.

Wilmers found sizable effects when analyzing the data. Workers who equally split time between tasks would lose 11 percent of their pay if they were split into groups that specialized in one task. A worker who moved from having the average level of generalization to the 95th percentile of generalization would gain more than 8 percent pay. These differences in pay levels mean that increases in job turf are well worth fighting for.

Two additional notes are worth considering. The estimates I cited above are among the more conservative estimates of how big the differences were in those organizations. Moreover, the data analyzed come from a single type of organization, which means that the effects could be bigger or smaller depending on the employer analyzed. In fact, chances are that in most firms, the advantages to having a job with broader turf are greater than in this analysis. You see, Wilmers analyzed labor union employees, and unions are known to favor pay equality.

So organizations that pursue efficiency seek specialization, and workers who want high pay seek a broad turf. Clearly this is an area of work design that involves negotiation, because smart workers will not willingly accept a more specialized job. They will fight for their turf.

Monday, February 17, 2020

My Failure, Our Failure: When Do Firms Fire Suppliers?

Interorganizational networks can be many things, but one of the most consequential is made up of the exchange ties that follow components downstream to a firm that assembles the final product. These ties are consequential for many, because the component makers and final product assembler all rely on the cost and quality of the components, and so do the final users. Having a familiar component supplier is wonderful because “tried and true” testifies to quality, so any signs of failure in existing components is a small crisis for the assembler. This situation is also interesting to researchers because it shows how organizations make important choices.

What better place to study it than in Formula 1 racing car assembly, as David R. Clough and Henning Piezunka did in a paper published in Administrative Science Quarterly? Their study gives an interesting and surprising answer to how firms decide when to fire component makers. Firms look to the performance of their own product, which is expected, but also to the performance of competitors’ products using the same component. And here is where the research findings get surprising. If competitors using the same component are also doing poorly, the firm will stop using the “tried and true” component and switch to another supplier. Shared fate with the competitors does not make firms complacent but rather makes them more eager to improve.

Why does this happen, and especially in a race where the whole point is to do better than the competitor? If many cars slow down, your car is not slowing down more than many others. The key is that firms learn vicariously from each other, and they can be very objective in assessing their options when the stakes are high. A competitor’s car doing poorly when holding a shared component is already a warning sign that could lead a firm to drop the component from its own car, and if the firm’s own car is also doing poorly the warning gets louder. Firms learn from their own experience, learn vicariously from the experience of others, and put the two forms of learning together to make difficult choices such as replacing a key component made by a familiar supplier.

In business, interorganizational ties such as supplier–buyer relations are important because they help build trust and reputations for responsiveness when problems occur. In the end, however, what matters more is the actual quality, and then a different kind of tie may be just as effective: buyers compare themselves with each other and use the information to assess the supplier. Performance matters more than trust.

Wednesday, February 12, 2020

The Usual Choice: One More Reason Males Are Favored

We know several reasons that men get ahead of women as employees and entrepreneurs. There are cultural beliefs that men are better for work and more committed to it than to family life. Men in powerful positions tend to promote men because they are similar to them. And many occupations and forms of entrepreneurship are seen as archetypically male, suggesting that parents might consider advising their daughters against training to become a plumber or a computer programmer. Given all these biases, would it be possible for one more to exist?

Research by Mabel Abraham in Administrative Science Quarterly has uncovered one more form of discrimination in a sample of entrepreneurs. It is a subtle one, but the effect is strong. Suppose an entrepreneur wants to initiate a network connection with someone else in order to start resource exchange -- as a customer, supplier, or collaborator. Would it matter for a woman whether she initiates that contact directly or whether she does so by asking another entrepreneur to make a referral? The answer is yes. If the woman is engaged in a typically male activity, her contacts are much less likely to refer her to their contacts. Why? Because women would not be the usual choice for a transaction partner in that activity, and people worry about how their referrals are judged by others.

Importantly, this effect is specific to women. Men engaged in typically female activities are just as likely to be referred to contacts as women. Women and men in neutral activities are just as likely to be referred to contacts. It is only when referring women to their contacts in typically male activities that people stop and think: is she the usual choice, or is there something wrong about a woman doing this occupation or building this kind of venture? Abraham’s analysis showed that the difference in results was sizable. If an occupation was between 50 and 60 percent male, a man could expect to get about 5 more referrals than a woman would get each year, and this gap grew wider in occupations with higher percentages of men (see the graph)

This difference is important because selectivity in referrals occurs before any of the other biases. Once a woman has been referred to a contact, that contact might still hold beliefs against the suitability of women as entrepreneurs or might be a male who prefers to interact with other males. Biased referrals mean that the potential connection can’t even decide whether to discriminate (or not). The absence of a referral is already a form of discrimination.

Given these effects, no wonder women entrepreneurs have to build their own business networks: they are not getting help from others if their occupation has a majority of men – as most highly paid occupations do. Abraham’s research showed that when making direct contacts, rather than referrals, there was no difference between women and men. So contrary to one popular belief, women aren’t too shy to build networks. Instead, it is sometimes their male network contacts who are reluctant to refer them to others.

Saturday, February 8, 2020

Success Lies in Failure? How Social Movements Learn from Their Own and Others’ Experience

Firms are often targeted by social movements seeking to reform them or to get their help in changing society. The result can be a tug of war between a social movement with committed members and a clear cause but few resources, and a firm with resources and a broad agenda focused on profits. A key element of this tug of war is the people caught in between – firm employees who agree with the social movement.

Thanks to research by Rich DeJordy, Maureen Scully, Marc J. Ventresca, and W. E. Douglas Creed published in Administrative Science Quarterly, we now know more about who the likely winners are in such a situation. They looked at many dimensions of social movements, and the one that struck me most was the effect of early success versus early setback. They studied social movement organizations campaigning for domestic partner benefits to be offered by firms, an action that costs firms some money (not much) and can expose them to conservative counter-movements. Interestingly, they found that too much early success could be a bad thing.

Most people look at social movements as disconnected pieces and conclude that any social movement organization with early success is a good outcome. But this is not true. A social movement is usually an ecology of separate organizations, and these observe each other, learn from each other, and stimulate each other. The problem with early success is that it may have little to teach because the circumstances are special; it leads to stagnation if the successful movement organization has nothing left to do; and other movement organizations are less likely to interact with the successful and stagnated organization. The “one win and done” model does not sustain a social movement.

But isn’t an early win better than facing early setbacks? That depends. The authors found that opposition from target firms often led to refinement in the strategies used by movement organizations, and it kept the activism high. Repeated blocking by the target firm could make a movement organization stagnate, but often the movement organizations were able to find some approach leading to progress. These were exactly the movement organizations that stayed active and continued to wield influence over firms. Other movement organizations observed them and stayed in touch with them to learn how to overcome resistance and were stimulated by their activism and success.

The key to understanding social movements is not to focus too much on any single movement organization, but instead to look at them as an ecosystem and study their interactions. Interestingly, this is also a good way to analyze how firms overcome adversity. Learning from other firms is always central in how firms adapt to the environment, and a full view of the ecology of firms can help us learn how they overcome mistakes and adversity.

We have learnt much from looking at organizations one by one, and we will learn even more that way. We have also discovered how many more lessons are available when we look at ecosystems of organizations, and this will continue to propel our research progress. For managers, the key insight is that other organizations may already hold the key that unlocks the stagnation their organization is trying to shake off.

DeJordy, R., Scully, M., Ventresca, M. J., & Creed, W. E. D. Inhabited Ecosystems: Propelling Transformative Social Change Between and Through Organizations. Administrative Science Quarterly, forthcoming.

Monday, January 20, 2020

Learning from Others’ Mistakes: When Ships Go Too Fast

Can you think of an innovation that looks very promising, especially because so many others have started using it? Can you recall any such innovations that have been disappointing? In consumer markets, cold-press juicers have spread widely and have been marketed by their positive health effects, but there is now evidence that they do more harm than good. Their sales are slowing. In business markets, airlines have long known that larger airplanes were better, and were lining up to buy the giant Airbus 380 and the slightly smaller Boeing 747-8, but they stopped after realizing that the new generation wide-body aircraft were more economical.

There are many cases like this, including worse mistakes than these two. This raises the question of how firms can quickly understand that a new innovation will disappoint, and can stop themselves from adopting it. This was a question I examined in a paper in Strategic Management Journal on the fast ferry innovation, which was briefly popular but soon proved to be a very specialized type of ship. The problem with fast ferries is that they were too fast and too heavy (they carry cars as well as people). Making such a combination go fast is a significant engineering feat, but it is also very expensive, and few routes can charge high enough ticket prices to make it profitable.

Shouldn’t this have been easy to discover? Not really. Fuel prices fluctuate, and maintenance costs are hard to estimate in advance. It is a lot easier to make the cost calculation after buying and operating a ferry (or a few ferries), but then it is too late. Still, the shipping firms learnt how specialized fast ferries were, and it took “only” about five years for this knowledge to spread. Importantly, the shipping firms learnt from each other.

Here is how it happened. Each firm that started using fast ferries accumulated experience with the costs, and this experience must have leaked. We know this because sales of fast ferries made additional sales to nearby shipping firms less likely. Some firms gave up on their fast ferries and sold them in the second-hand market (at a discount, of course), and this also made additional sales less likely. Resales seem like even stronger reason not to buy, but actually the effect of giving up was about the same as the effect of using a fast ferry. Firms learn from the high costs just as much as they learn from resales.

This is a natural finding except for one important detail. If a firm is operating an expensive piece of equipment with disappointing results, it will soon be clear that selling it is the best option. But, in order to sell it without losing too much money, it is important that the costs are kept hidden. This means that the information about the high costs must have leaked from the shipping firms using fast ferries despite their best efforts to keep them hidden.

Inter-organizational learning is hard to stop. Firms learn from the mistakes of other firms, even the mistakes that they try to keep hidden!

Monday, January 13, 2020

Woven Networks: Why One Type of Contact Isn’t Enough

Most people who work know that it is important to have friendly working relations with other workers, especially with managers. Researchers call these relations network ties and have found that they are great for getting work done and improving career outcomes. It is less clear to most, but very obvious to business school professors, that those who are or want to become managers are especially interested in network ties, and not only with other (higher-up) managers. They try to connect with anyone who can be useful, including various specialists in the organization.

A special version of these ties is formed between technologists making inventions and managers launching new products. They need each other, and each knows they are competing with others in the organization who are trying to use other innovations to launch other products. Out of mutual interest in their careers (and to be helpful to their employer), they may partner up, exchange information, and then – importantly – try to influence others to get their innovative product approved for launch. In a recent paper in Administrative Science Quarterly, AnneTer Wal, Paola Criscuolo, Bill McEvily, and Ammon Salter document what may be an especially good way for these partners to influence others for the sake of launching innovative products.

The authors discovered that a special structure – the woven network shown in the figure here – is best for these technologist/manager partners to pursue. In the figure, a manager and a technologist who are collaborating to advance an innovation are both connected to peers and seniors in the organization, and they are both connected to other managers and technologists. In other words, each of them is connected to people who occupy different roles at different levels. This allows them to create buzz for the innovation and to influence their bosses. What’s new about that? Here’s the key: the technologist networks with people in various role sets, and the manager networks with different people in those same role sets. The results of this specific type of influencing create a particularly strong advantage.

Technicians and managers have different knowledge, different goals, and different interpretations of an innovation. A manager always sounds more credible talking about its commercial features and less credible talking about its technological features. For the technician, it’s the other way around. By tapping into this particular kind of networking, the team helps both kinds of information reach people in different functions and at different levels of the organization. The team’s joint influence over different people within a given role/level gets reinforced when those people then talk to each other about the innovation’s potential.

How big are the effects of such interwoven networks? A modest change in the degree of this type of networking increases the likelihood of innovation launch by about 8 percent. In management studies, and especially anything that has to do with innovation, that is a big effect. It is interesting that the effect is so big and the behavior needed to get it is contrary to what many people do. A geeky technician will mostly speak to peer technicians. An instrumental technician will mostly speak to senior managers. Each of them will be missing influence with important roles in the organization, and they will have a better chance to succeed if they are paired with a manager who networks with people in a variety of roles and encourages the technician to do the same. In networking, as in so many other aspects of bringing a new product to life, teamwork is key to producing the best possible result. So let’s start talking—and not just to the people who already know what we know and think how we think.

Ter Wal ALJ, Criscuolo P, McEvily B, Salter A. 2020. Dual Networking: How Collaborators Network in Their Quest for Innovation. Administrative Science Quarterly, forthcoming