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Interview with Deborah Ancona: Seley Distinguished Professor

Qualitative research takes the front seat in this interview with Deborah Ancona, detailing the importance of qualitative research and expanding upon the future of the practice.

Editor’s Note: Qualitative research sometimes doesn’t get the recognition or respect that it deserves, especially in these days where there has been so much change and development on the quant side. Here, Edward Appleton interviews Deborah Ancona, a professor at MIT, on a recent article she published in Harvard Business Review about the role qualitative research has played for leadership at two large organizations. We’d love to publish more posts about developments and new uses for qualitative research!

It’s not often that market research gets acknowledgment or even praise in distinguished publications such as the Harvard Business Review.

So it was a pleasant surprise to discover that the July/August 2019 issue contains a weighty shout-out to the role qualitative research can play at the highest levels of management. 

Deborah Ancona, the Seley Distinguished Professor of Management at the MIT Sloan School of Management, has written a fascinating piece entitled “Nimble Leadership. Walking the Line between creativity and chaos” in the said issue. 

She outlines how two continuously successful innovative companies – W. L. Gore & Associates and PARC (Xerox’s R&D company in Silicon Valley) – have adopted a consistently different approach to leadership at every level of the organization. 

The research and data underpinning her work and the case studies are qualitative. No Big Data, no AI.

In the introduction, Professor Ancona also has the following to say: “Done well, qualitative, structured research can be used to shift theory as well as practice.”

I was intrigued – and reached out to Deborah who kindly agreed to talk to me, and helps me understand more about her view on and usage of qualitative research. 

Q: Deborah, you describe yourself as a big fan of qualitative research. Why so?

Ancona: “I started my academic career in lab research looking at learned helplessness and depression, but data from the lab was all quantitative.

Essentially my fascination with and enthusiasm for qualitative research came from needing to get to the “why” in situations where actual behaviors didn’t fit prevailing theory.”

Work on her acclaimed X-Teams book (“X-Teams: How to Build Teams that Lead, Innovate, and Succeed“), started with testing theories of team process which were standard and prevalent at the time – but which when measured against sales and other performance data lead to a zero result. Aspects that had been considered most important in developing theory revealed zero correlation with sales success.

This lead directly to the “why?” question – and qualitative inquiry. 

She engaged in a series of mini-ethnographies, immersions with diverse teams in a number of companies, shadowing salespeople, attending customer visits, team meetings, cross-functional workshops – observing, listening, making notes.

This whole qualitative process leads to the X-Teams concept – that (in a very few words) internal focus leads to average performance, whereas external focus that embraces interaction with different internal departments is a reliable springboard for greater success. 

“Qualitative research helps me expand existing theory, it leads to discovering new predictive variables and frames,” she says, “and of course it’s divergent rather than convergent.”

Q: Do Qualitative findings need Quantification to gain Traction?

Professor Ancona is clear that qualitative research has stand-alone value – plus offering rich insights that can be “incredibly exciting”.

Ancona: “Just doing qual on its own really leads to great insights – it can stand on its own, allows you to push theory in a new direction. The contrast between “doing” and “thinking” and “feeling” for example is invariably a rich vein of understanding – and surfacing the insights that arise from these kinds of tensions is hard to do via any other mode of exploration.”

The interplay with quant can be very helpful in demonstrating proof of concept, she says – and sometimes that can be by including quantifiable metrics such as diary studies with behavioral logging or performance ratings within a qual study, an approach that worked for the development of the X-Teams concept.

The view that qual outputs are subjective, unreliable, and as such aren’t really “data” – is one she disagrees with. 

She points out that all data analysis is selective; it is about making choices all the time. Big Data analyses involve choosing a statistical approach, variables have to be selected, included or excluded so it is also subjective. 

Q: You suggest in the HBR article that qualitative research, when done well, can be used to shift theory as well as practice. Can you talk more about that?

Ancona: “The X-teams model has had a huge impact – it’s documented in the book, it’s taught yearly to hundreds and hundreds of practitioners, and has been covered in more than 20 peer-reviewed academic papers.”

Qual work is powerful when it’s developed into a cogent business theory or concept. 

This was true of the work Professor Ancona has completed on “sense-making” in the field of leadership.

Ancona: “Sense-making is immensely important – but it doesn’t normally appear in traditional leadership concepts.

While we identified that great leaders do sense-making, in polls of executives that ask what makes for great leadership, it seldom appears.  So qual helped us to bring the idea to both theory and practice. 

Qual has the challenge of reducing complexity to something seemingly simple – while preserving identified patterns across full systems, not just individuals.  Leadership activities across individuals have interaction effects and can result in emergent properties that no one has considered.”

Her whole model was developed by blending existing theory with new data and insights gained by listening to leaders tell stories, and then deconstructing those stories – successful leadership was in her experience doing a whole load of sense-making, even though they hadn’t thought if or labeled it as such themselves!

Q: You used qualitative research in the case studies documented in the HBR article – can you share details on how that lead to change?

The thinking encapsulated in X-teams, and the concepts on sense-making and most recently nimble leadership (as in the HBR article) has been applied across a range of industries – telecoms and pharmaceuticals are two that come to mind. 

She has a range of practical tools – which we couldn’t explore in detail due to time-pressures. 

She did summarize: change is effected in a three-stage process, cascading from 1. publishing and establishing a model – leadership, for example, then 2. teaching the thinking at MIT and other institutions and then 3. working with individuals, teams, and companies to ensure the thinking is internalized and behavior changed.

Q: How is qual research perceived amongst your colleagues at the MIT – is it taken seriously?

Ancona: “Qual is a respected core competence at The MIT Sloan School of Management. We have a rich tradition of qualitative research – there are a set of people leading their fields, doing the most amazing things.”

Her colleagues Ed Schein, Lotte Bailyn, and John Van Maanen were pioneers in the field, Kate Kellogg works a lot on the areas of innovation and change in health care contexts, Catherin Turco’s area is entrepreneurship. There are many others. 

All these areas of expertise are built on qualitative research, Deborah points out – something that perhaps is often overlooked in the world of commercial marketing and business. 

There are sticklers in the broader community, she concedes, often field-specific – for example in the areas of science and engineering. But in most business schools and management classes dealing with organizational behavior, qualitative research is very highly respected. 

Q: Where do you see qualitative research in 5 years’ time?

Professor Ancona sees certain dangers for qualitative research – it takes a long time to do, ethnographic studies, in particular, have long field periods and analysis also takes time. 

Ancona: “Younger professionals can be put off by that – academic careers are extremely competitive, there’s an urgent need to publish lots of articles.”

Secondly, she sees the areas of psychology and sociology as more prone to quantitative approaches, with the danger that some of the rich qual aspects getting lost.


The interview with Professor Ancona threw up multiple insights for me, a few stand out: the excellent standing qualitative research enjoys amongst most business schools, plus the use of qualitative data as a stand-alone to shape theory with very practical relevance in leadership thinking, for example. 

I certainly wasn’t aware that such a renowned academic establishment as MIT regarded qualitative research as a core competence. 

Maybe we practitioners need to reach out more actively to influential academics such as Professor Ancona, to foster bridges between theory and practice, and ensure a richly productive flow of new theories and compelling case studies.

My heartfelt thanks to Professor Ancona. 

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