2009 ASQ Award Acceptance Remarks

Comments on Receipt of the 2009 ASQ Scholarly Contribution Award for “Reconceptualizing Organizational Routines as a Source of Flexibility and Change” (March 2003 ASQ)

Martha S. Feldman

University of California, Irvine

Brian T. Pentland

Michigan State University

We are grateful to the awards committee for recognizing our work and the contribution to organization theory. We did not have an opportunity at the award ceremony to give our acceptance speech, so the editor in chief has allowed us to post our “speech.”

For those who could not be at the awards ceremony, the committee’s comments on our article are posted below:

“It is rare to find articles that take on core issues in a discipline and are able to say something fundamentally new. We believe that Martha Feldman and Brian Pentland’s 2003 article ‘Reconceptualizing Organizational Routines as a Source of Flexibility and Change’ does just that. The article takes on issues that are core to the field of organizations and have been for more than a century. But Feldman and Pentland’s reconceptualization of organizational routines is quite different than virtually anything that has been said on the topic in the past. While virtually all of organizational research accepts as conventional wisdom the notion that routinized routines give rise to inertia, Feldman and Pentland present a different view. Drawing on the work of Bruno Latour, the authors take us deep inside an examination of organizational routines and say something truly innovative about the complexity of routines. They argue that while certain aspects of routines do lend themselves to stability, other aspects foster change within organizations. They then go on discuss the implications of this framework for future research. The article is truly original and a theoretical breakthrough. It will shape fundamental lines of research for years to come.”

This article results from a remarkably generative collaboration based on some fairly simple observations. Though we had known each other for years, we had never worked together. A phone call in spring of 1999 started a series of conversations and efforts to write what we first conceived of as a literature review. Before long we found that we were both more interested in the ideas that were emerging as ways of conceptualizing some simple observations we had each made based on our empirical research.

The simple observations included that routines are enacted a little (or a lot) differently each time they are enacted. Indeed, it appears that it is amazingly hard to do “the same thing.” Another observation was that written rules or standard operating procedures are often only distantly related to what people in organizations do when they are enacting routines. These observations led us to the primary assertion of our article: routines are not entities. This observation has turned out to be surprisingly generative. It helps us understand how little things we take for granted are connected with organizational capabilities and change.

It was also, of course, hard to publish. The reviewers and editor were effusive, but not always positive. It turns out that the line between “it’s interesting” and “it’s absurd” is not clearly marked.

In our acceptance speech, we had planned on pointing out that awards ceremonies are routines and to invite the audience to see the subtle and not so subtle improvisations necessary to produce this particular ceremony. Imagine a typical awards ceremony. We’ve participated in them since elementary school, and we’ve seen them on TV. There’s a ribbon or a plaque or a trophy, delivered with a handshake and a smile, plus a photo and perhaps a brief acceptance speech. We remembered that in past years, some ASQ Award recipients got up and said a few words about how the research was conducted and how grateful they felt about getting the award. So, as recipients of the 2009 award, we had prepared some very brief remarks along those lines.

But in our case, it didn’t turn out that way. We learned later that recipients of this award do not usually make speeches. But from our point of view, the routine was disrupted. When it came time to speak, the moment passed, and we had no opportunity to deliver remarks. At first, we felt cheated: what about our speech? But we didn’t have the nerve to come between a roomful of thirsty scholars and an open bar. So we were very grateful when Huggy Rao agreed to let us add these written comments on the ASQ Web site.

In retrospect, the disruption provided a perfect illustration of our core ideas: enacting routines often requires improvisation, and these improvisations can be the source of new ways of enacting the routine. So instead of a little speech, we have these written comments. It remains to be seen whether written comments will become part of the routine in future years. Perhaps someone will make a podcast or put their comments on YouTube. Perhaps next year’s presenters (or the recipients) will make sure that there is a speech. But how much effort will have to be exerted to make sure that a speech is given? And would that be doing the same thing? Or next year’s recipients might be very happy not to give a speech. Will that be the same routine? You be the judge.

Concerning the award, we just wanted to say, “Thank you.”