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Academy of Management Journal

2011, Vol. 54, No. 3, 432435.



Editors Note: the adoption of less conventional approaches to

tackling large, unresolved problems.
This editorial kicks off a seven-part series,
Publishing in AMJ, in which the editors give Of course, few AMJ submissions will deal with
suggestions and advice for improving the quality topics as globally significant as reducing poverty or
of submissions to the Journal. The series offers combating hunger. What AMJ submissions can do
bumper-to-bumper coverage, with installments is deal with large, unresolved problems in a partic-
ranging from topic choice to crafting a Discussion ular literature or area of inquiry and tackle those
section. The series will continue in August with problems in a bold and unconventional way that
Part 2: Research Design. -J. A. C. leaps beyond existing explanations. Often that leap
will engender new paradigms or open new pastures
At the moment of this writing, there are 64 sub-
for scholarly discourse. For example, Ferlie,
missions in the hands of AMJ reviewers, who have
Fitzgerald, Wood, and Hawkins (2005) took on a
been asked to critically evaluate the merits of those
grand challenge in asking why evidence-based in-
submissions relative to the mission and goals of the
novations failed to spread in the health care indus-
Journal. Although those reviewers will read their
try. Innovation diffusion is an issue of vital im-
assigned manuscripts carefully and thoughtfully,
portance in a number of literatures, and the focus
their recommendations to the action editor will
on health care innovations lent additional weight
depend, in part, on a choice made years earlier: the
to the topic. Ferlie et al. (2005) then confronted
topic of the study. The seeds for many rejections
the topic in a bold and unconventional way by
are planted at the inception of a project, in the form
going beyond linear models of diffusion and ar-
of topics thatno matter how well executedwill
guing that factors that could seemingly aid diffu-
not sufficiently appeal to AMJs reviewers and
sionsuch as professionalization could in-
readers. Likewise, many manuscripts ultimately
stead create nonspread.
earn revise-and-resubmits as a result of topic
This conceptualization of grand challenges pro-
choices that gave them clear momentum, right out
vides a crucible for melding discussions of theoret-
of the gate. What is the anatomy of a topic that, in
ical usefulness and the broader perspective that
our opinion, creates that sort of momentum at AMJ?
individual and societal benefit can accrue from
Our editorial will focus on five distinct criteria of
economic and entrepreneurial activity (Brief &
effective topics: significance, novelty, curiosity,
Dukerich, 1991; Ghoshal, Bartlett, & Moran, 1999;
scope, and actionability.
Schumpeter, 1942; Sen, 1999). Understandably, ev-
ery topic choice cannot introduce a new paradigm;
Significance: Taking on Grand Challenges the cumulativeness of scholarship and the progress
of social sciences require us to build on prior work.
A starting point to consider when selecting a Moreover, the grandness of unresolved problems
topic is whether the study confronts or contributes will vary from literature to literature over time.
to a grand challenge. The term grand challenge is Nonetheless, posing each topic within a grand chal-
credited to a mathematician, David Hilbert, whose lenge framework provides voice to a studys raison
list of important unsolved problems has encour- detre; it allows the author to articulate how the
aged innovation in mathematics research since the study solves a piece of a larger puzzle, and in so
turn of the 20th century. Grand challenges have doing, moves the field forward with rigor and rel-
been applied to diverse fields in the natural sci- evance (Gulati, 2007).
ences, engineering, and medicine. Examples of
grand challenges used by the United States Na-
tional Academy of Engineering include engineering
Novelty: Changing the Conversation
better medicines and making solar energy econom-
ical. The grandest of these challenges are reflected Like many other top journals, AMJ also empha-
in the United Nations Millennium Development sizes novelty in topic choice. Given that scientific
Goals to eradicate global poverty, disease, and hun- work can be viewed as a conversation among schol-
ger. The fundamental principles underlying a ars (Huff, 1998), one simple way to check the nov-
grand challenge are the pursuit of bold ideas and elty of a topic is to consider whether a study ad-
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2011 Colquitt and George 433

dressing it would change the conversation that is Curiosity: Catching and Holding Attention
already taking place in a given literature. Does the
Although a novel topic may draw a reader in, it
study merely add to the momentum created by
takes something more to catch and hold their atten-
existing voices, or does it cause heads to turn as the
tion. The best topics for AMJ spark and maintain
conversation darts in an entirely new direction?
curiosity. In this context, curiosity can be seen as
Sometimes that new direction is created by adding
an approach-oriented motivational state that is as-
new vocabulary to the conversation, in the form of
sociated with deeper, more persistent, and more
new ideas or constructs, and sometimes that new
immersive processing of information (Kashdan &
direction results simply from new insights not ar-
Silvia, 2009). Daviss (1971) index of the interest-
ticulated by prior voices.
Novel topics can often result from knowledge ing is one useful way to describe how to arouse a
recombination, with something new being cre- readers curiosity. According to Davis (, topics are
ated by building a bridge between two literatures or interesting when their propositions counter a read-
disciplines. Fields that draw from within them- ers taken-for-granted assumptions. For example, a
selves for extensions of ideas tend to become more study focused on showing a seemingly good phe-
insular over time, reducing the likelihood that nomenon to be bad would arouse curiosity because
novel solutions will emerge (George, Kotha, & it challenges the readers initial expectations.
Zheng, 2008). The organizational theory and strat- Another way to think about arousing and main-
egy literatures often refer to knowledge recombi- taining curiosity is to use mystery as a metaphor.
nation as a way to generate new ideas. The prem- Alvesson and Karreman (2007) argued that interest-
ise is that organizations generate new and creative ing research topics flow out of breakdowns: sur-
solutions by exploring new technological domains prising findings in ones own data or the extant
for inspiration and recombining the ideas that literature that cannot be explained by methodolog-
emerge with knowledge already resident in the or- ical issues or existing explanations. Breakdowns
ganizations (e.g., March, 1991; Rosenkopf & Nerkar, provide an opportunity for scholars to use their
2001). In extensions of this argument, Ahuja and imagination, and they signal the potential existence
Lampert (2001) found that organizations must over- of a mystery: When asking more questions, hang-
come three pathologies of learning to create novel ing around . . . and walking to the library and read-
breakthroughs: the tendency to favor the familiar ing more books fails to be sufficient, a mystery is at
over the unfamiliar, the tendency to prefer the ma- hand (Alvesson & Karreman, 2007: 1272). Interest-
ture to the nascent, and the tendency to prefer ing topic choices then arise out of a desire to solve
solutions that are near to existing approaches, or reformulate the mystery. Such topics are be-
rather than completely new. lieved to arouse more interest than the more typical
These three pathologies dubbed the familiar- gap-spotting approach to generating research
ity trap, the maturity trap, and the nearness questions (Alvesson & Sandberg, 2011).
trap become worthy considerations when choos- Indeed, we can carry the mystery metaphor one
ing a topic for AMJ. Picking a topic that is too step further by considering why mystery novels are
familiar may result in a study that is perceived, at so absorbing and engaging. Consider Agatha Chris-
best, as a marginal extension of an existing conver- ties And Then There Were None, wherein ten
sation. Picking a topic that is too mature raises guests find themselves trapped on an island man-
concerns about a contribution that is viewed as too sion before being murdered, one-by-one, in accor-
redundant. Similarly, topic choices that represent dance with the Ten Little Soldiers nursery
spaces adjacent to existing literatures could be seen rhyme. The story is a page-turner for one simple
as too overlapping and as departing radically reason: the reader does not know the ending. Un-
enough from existing perspectives on the core fortunately, the ending of many AMJ submissions is
phenomenon. Agarwal, Echambadi, Franco, and clear and obvious from the title on, even without
Sarkars (2004) study of spin-outs represents a the spoilers provided in the typical academic
topic that avoids the familiarity, maturity, and abstract, because only one conclusion seems plau-
nearness traps. Spin-outs are entrepreneurial ven- sible. Consider this title: The Effects of Leader
tures started by former employees of a firm that go Displays of Happiness on Team Performance. A
on to compete in the same space as that firm reviewer could guess the contents of the ending
using knowledge gained from its history. Agarwal or, at least, the contents of the Results section
et al.s (2004) study changed the conversation in because of the intuitive nature of the topic. A study
the entrepreneurship and capabilities literatures by Van Kleef, Homan, Beersma, van Knippenberg,
by focusing attention on a new and underre- van Knippenerg, and Damen (2009) aroused signif-
searched phenomenon. icantly more curiosity. Motivated by inconsistent
434 Academy of Management Journal June

findings about the effects of positive and negative Actionability: Insights for Practice
leader displays of emotion, the authors examined
Finally, a topic should be actionable: it should
whether team performance would be facilitated by
offer insights for managerial or organizational prac-
leaders displaying happiness or by leaders display-
tice. One way to approach the actionability crite-
ing anger. They also examined whether those ef-
rion is to consider variability in practices that our
fects could be explained by follower emotions
existing vocabulary of constructs cannot explain
(searing sentiments) or by follower inferences
that is, places where our scholarly language or
about performance (cold calculations). Which
words fail us. For example, the innovation litera-
leader display is more effective, and which mech-
ture typically paints innovation as the result of
anism explains the results? If you cannot guess the capital-intensive research and development efforts.
ending, then the authors made an effective topic How, then, can we explain emergent innovations
choice. that have low capital intensity, severely restricted
research and development spending, yet still cre-
ate value? Products such as a $20 artificial knee
Scope: Casting a Wider Net and low-cost medical equipment remain white
spaces in both a competitive and academic sense.
Even the best topic ideas can be undermined if The academic study of such topics therefore has an
the resulting study is too small. Our discussion inherent actionability.
defines scope as the degree to which the landscape McGahan (2007) states five major ways that man-
involved in a topic is adequately sampled, in terms agement studies can be actionable: (1) offering
of relevant constructs, mechanisms, and perspec- counterintuitive insights, (2) highlighting the effect
tives. Studies cannot tackle grand challenges if of new and important practices, (3) showing incon-
they are not ambitious in scope, and casting a sistencies in, and consequences of, practices, (4)
narrow net limits the investigation of relevant suggesting a specific theory to explain an interest-
mysteries or gaps in the literature. Submissions ing and current situation, and (5) identifying an
may have inadequate scope because authors are iconic phenomenon that opens new areas of in-
under the mistaken impression that AMJ still quiry and practice. All five of these pathways are
publishes research notes. It does not, and in present when topics represent grand challenges
fact rarely publishes any article that is signifi- and when their pursuit is ambitious in scope and
cantly shorter than the 40 pages (in Microsoft offers novel and unconventional changes to exist-
Word) given as a guideline in our Information ing conversations. Vermeulen (2007) offers a com-
for Contributors. Anecdotally, we suspect that plementary perspective, noting that research has
other submissions struggle with scope because relevance when it can generate insights that prac-
authors slice their data too thintrying to get titioners find useful for understanding their own
multiple good papers out of a data set rather than organizational realities, especially if it concerns
one great one. variables that are within the control of managers.
The best topics set out to fully and comprehen-
sively sample the landscape in a given domain and
may even include constructs and mechanisms de-
rived by using multiple lenses. Seibert, Kraimer, Conclusion
and Lidens (2001) examination of social capital In sum, an effective topic is one that allows re-
and career success provides a good example of searchers to tackle a grand challenge in a literature,
effective scope in topic choice. Discussions of so- pursue a novel direction that arouses and main-
cial capital have pointed to three theoretical per- tains curiosity, build a study with ambitious scope,
spectives that can explain why the size and com- and uncover actionable insights. The 64 submis-
position of an employees social network can sions that are currently in the hands of AMJs re-
impact his or her salary, promotability, and career viewers will fare better if their topics have that
satisfaction. Seibert et al. (2001) could have chosen anatomy, as opposed to being more modest, incre-
to focus on the first of those perspectives, or the mental, intuitive, narrow, or irrelevant in nature.
second, or the third. Instead, they focused on all Given that topic choice is one of the least revisable
three perspectives, operationalizing mediators for aspects of any submission, we would urge any fu-
each of them. Of course, it is possible for a submis- ture submitter to ask frank and critical colleagues
sion to get too big. Those issues can be addressed in for feedback on their topic choices especially if
a revision, however, as reviewers can suggest drop- those colleagues are familiar with AMJ. Doing so
ping variables to bring more focus to a topic. can help those topics achieve a momentum that
2011 Colquitt and George 435

will be helpful down the road, once the manuscript Ghoshal, S., Bartlett, C., & Moran, P. 1999. A new mani-
is in the hands of reviewers. festo for management. Sloan Management Review,
40(3): 9 20.
Jason A. Colquitt Gulati, R. 2007. Tent poles, tribalism, and boundary
University of Georgia spanning: The rigor-relevance debate in manage-
Gerard George ment research. Academy of Management Journal,
50: 775782.
Imperial College London
Huff, A. S. 1998. Writing for scholarly publication.
Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
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