When I first went to graduate school I embarked on what I thought was a well-thought out plan: to find evidence of what I knew to be true and have that land me in a particular job. I came to realize that conducting research reflecting what matters to research participants—phenomenology, ethnography, grounded theory research—means you can only plan up to a certain point and, certainly, there is no way of predicting the results.
The most difficult challenges of working with qualitative research are:
· you don’t really understand these methodologies until you use them;
· research demands you follow it, not lead it; and,
· as an Observer, you have to be a diligent steward of the process but have no stake in the outcome.
For all our attempts at “data-driven decision making” or “objective thinking” I don’t think it is an accident that our findings often teach us what we need to learn most—both as people, and as organizations. Often, it reflects our most opaque blind spots and areas where we need to lean in to be more balanced in our daily approach to problem solving.
Below is an overview of the general design, methodology, sampling, and coding processes that I use in my research. Before we go too far, I want to acknowledge the impact of what it took to get here: Embarking on research literally changed the way I see the world, and how I perceive my place in it.
Throughout our careers, we have moments when we catch a glimpse of what we are supposed to do in life. This happened to me three times:
1998, Yahoo. After sampling functions like webmaster, brand marketing and online production, I was immediately attracted to work coming out of a fledgling group: user-research. At the time, there wasn’t a degree pipeline to careers in technology beyond basic engineering. This team was comprised of people with master’s in fine arts. “If you can’t draw prototypes, you can’t be in the group. All of us have MFAs. You need an MFA to do user-research.” You don’t, but understanding the barriers to entry in this organization, I moved on.
2004, Microsoft. After further experience in product and program management, I again gravitated toward the research group. This time, I was met with, “If you don’t have an advanced degree, you won’t even be considered.” Not having the time or money to invest in a degree, and again seeing the barriers to entry, I took other avenues.
2009, Microsoft. After landing the best manager I ever had in my career, he said, “You’re a top performer, but you don’t seem very engaged. I’ve got three opportunities; what would you like to do?” I was 38 and had never been asked by a manager what I wanted to do with my career. I picked a role that looked like fun, and said I was thinking about graduate school. Once I leaned back in the direction of my fascinations, I started to advance faster and with greater consistency.
The more clients I work with as an executive coach, the more I remain convinced that you cannot deny who you are and what you were meant to do. At some point, you will be shown an opportunity that you can’t not pursue. And you will pay for your education, one way or another.
I have been a keen Observer since I was a child, always deconstructing my understanding of something and sharing it with others in a way that resonates. And, I will remain an Observer and Teacher until the day I die. Finding this path helped me understand what internal alignment really means.
THE RESEARCH: NUMBERS & NERVES
It is amazing to me the power quantitative information has on people—from academics to industry. I spent the better part of my career managing both front and back end data people, processes, and systems. That whole body of work was part of the “data driven decision making movement” started by Jack Welch’s emphasis on 6Sigma. Welch made a big impression on Steve Ballmer and, by proxy Microsoft, who adopted the practice of measuring and monitoring data for almost every decision. This practice continues throughout technology, most notably in organizations like Amazon, Facebook, and Google.
Over time, I noticed that as the data became better and more available, decision making became more and more conservative. To learn alternative methods for understanding that phenomenon and to tell that story from a different perspective, I wanted experience with the richness and depth of qualitative research. The idea of research as story-catching deeply appealed to me.
In the end, I learned that decision making comes down to feelings. The quality of our memory and the amount of information we can access helps, but we tend to make choices and decisions based on feelings. Then we start to rationalize—to ourselves and others. It speaks to our vulnerability as human beings that for all the preparation, thought, intensity, and data we put toward choice, our decisions are delivered from the soul.
No methodology honors that more than qualitative approaches like phenomenology, ethnography, or grounded theory. The mandate of methods like these is to develop theories based on people’s lived experiences rather than proving or disproving existing theories.
This is where people who demand charts and graphs want to get off the bus. It frustrated me at first, too.
After over twenty years in data-driven environments, I didn’t intend to focus on the impact of family values on CEO decision making. Originally, I thought I was learning the traits and approaches to running quality-, customer-, and mission-driven organizations. I thought I was going to learn the magic formula to how mission-driven CEOs set new standards for leadership. In fact, I started a second project focused on another values-focused group, master craftsmen (who also focus on these characteristics), to understand how they learn—and family influences and early experiences came up again.
From both of these studies, focused on very different populations of CEOs and master craftsmen, I was sure of one thing: families are crucibles of experiences and those experiences drive our earliest fascinations (compulsions, really) with the problems we want to solve in the world. We will spend our whole lives trying to line up our fascinations with our values. We do not always have language for either our interests or our values, and when we confront this we are forced to reckon with just how much we have been externally defined. We manage the inertia of our family experience by repeating or repairing that experience (positive or negative) from our past in our present and in our future. Sometimes we are aware of this influence, but most often we are not. Either way, it determines how we show up, what we choose to do, and what sort of cultures we gravitate toward.
After seeing this repeat-repair theory play out over and over again with each interview I conducted, I wanted to dig deeper. I wanted to know more. The problem is that there’s only so much you can understand about values and decision making if you ask directly about values and decision making. I needed another approach to get under the experiences. That’s when I had the idea to borrow a few principles from the concept of craftsmanship, another group focused on values, quality, and creating new standards.
Craftsmanship cannot be approached directly. You cannot go up to a master craftsman and ask: “how is it you do what you do?” Once you’ve gotten good at something, there is relatively little language for unconscious competence. You have measure expertise by approaching the topic from multiple angles until those associations and influences reveal a measurement of your original concept. My idea was to learn more about how one crafts their life and work in a way that brings contentment to them and those around them.
From CEOs I learned that decision making comes down to feelings. The quality of our memory and the amount of information we can access helps, but we tend to make choices and decisions based on feelings. Then we start to rationalize—to ourselves and others. It speaks to our vulnerability as human beings that for all the preparation, thought, intensity, and data we put toward choice, a real decision is delivered from the soul.
All leaders must wield their power of influence under limitations. The larger their influence, the more extraordinary the constraints. It is the limitations that give the problem of choice its complexity and even poignancy. At the nexus of status quo and scale, a mission driven leader will refer to their values on what is the right thing to do for their ecosystem. Often this means trading fast-growth scale for slower growth which inherently makes the organization more sustainable and a more engaged corporate citizen.
From Master Craftsmen I learned that craftsmanship is about how skill in something we care about deeply meets opportunity. Craftsmanship invites chance but cannot be approached directly. What we turn our attention to, that which we are fascinated by and can’t not do, is our Craft. If we invest in it and hone it, Craft is the mechanism through which the authenticity of our being is expressed. As such, it is our duty to find it and apply it creatively toward solving the kinds of problems we have today. Craft is so much more than a catalyst for our identity and a way to find meaning. Finding our Craft is, I believe, the means by which we learn to learn well – a skill that will be in high demand as artificial intelligences increasingly takes over more and more less strategic work.
To give a sense of magnitude: more than one in three workers may need to adapt their skills’ mix by 2030, which is more than double the number who could be displaced by automation under some adoption scenarios — and lifelong learning of new skills will be essential for all. With the advent of AI, basic cognitive skills, such as reading and basic numeracy, will not suffice for many jobs, while demand for advanced technological skills, such as coding and programming, will rise, by 55% in 2030, according to our analysis.
Therefore, it behooves us to realize that we are always becoming—our values, beliefs, thoughts, observations, skills—and this influences what problems we are attracted to whether we go about solving them by tipping backward toward to known, or forward toward the unknown, in ourselves, first.
Too often when we engage in learning something new, we look to the finished performance rather than the grind of getting there. If I were to attempt what a master craftsman produces as my first project, for example, it would lead to frustration and disappointment. Yet when it comes to growing a manager, we do this in business every day. We grow increasingly frustrated with watching others learn on the job, as well as our own learning on the job. We want complex information delivered in bullets, a recipe, or top ten list. We want to eliminate the static, the unease, the uncertainty of what we are wrestling with. But a craftsman embraces the process. A much more productive path to learning Craft is to understand how various categories of knowledge form a learning map for apprenticeship. Apprenticing is the process of learning to learn well. Laying the groundwork for a good apprenticeship requires these three, interconnected approaches. They are: Observation (our inner compass), Learning (our map/tools), and Leaping (walking the territory/real-world experience). Where business prefers us to stay in the “objectivity” of tools, applying a tool to solve most problems, Craftsmen utilize these categories of knowledge equally, in a rhythm, all day long.
From these efforts, I understand how people experience and move through their family experience to find their calling—their Craft. I know that we can use our family experience (positive or negative) to guide our decision making. I know because I spoke to these people. I interviewed them and used some of the incidents from their data to inform my work on understanding and defining craftsmanship in a way that would help people take responsibility for their decisions and their own learning.
I named that work “Look to the Craftsmen.” I was looking for women and men living and working with their whole selves despite the risks and uncertainty. I wanted to know what they had in common. What were their main concerns, how they feel when they are aligned with what they do, and what were the patterns and themes that defined their approach to living and working with Craft? I reported the findings from that study in Doing Is the New Leading.
Whether it is making decisions under pressure, or embracing the process of learning to learn well, the importance of embracing the Emotional Labor of our Life Craft has consistently emerged as a core category in my work. It appeared as a critical component in both my study on decision making and my study on craftsmanship. I am continuing to understood the relationships between Emotional Labor and learning to learn well, but after years of dropping deeper and deeper into this work, I want to know more about Emotional Labor and how it works. The grounded theory that will emerge from this investigation is the subject of my next study.
Heuristic inquiry is a method that has attracted the interest of researchers working in counselling, art therapy and psychotherapy. Moustakas’s (1990) heuristic method, also referred to as phenomenology, uses personal experience to explore and understand that in others. The methodology was refined over 30 years as Moustakas sought to identify the processes and qualities that helped in the internal search of researchers in their attempts to explore, collect and interpret data holistically. Heurism is a generic term that encapsulates a way of thinking and exploring that is shared by such diverse disciplines as computer programming, mathematics and philosophy. All these disciplines at some point require an understanding of the process of discovery that pre-empts the formulation of a hypothesis. Heuristic inquiry highlights that inquiry should reflect and be modeled on a process of deepening understanding.
Experience is a conscious process. With this method, the participant is trying to make sense of their personal and social world, and the researcher is trying to make sense of the participant.
Phenomenology consists of six basic phases: initial engagement, immersion, incubation, illumination, explication, and creative synthesis. The goal of the research was to understand the participants’ “lived experience” related to experiencing the topic being examined (e.g., decision making under pressure, lived values). Once the main concerns emerged from the data, I determined a narrative and model that explains how the participants make decisions in a way that preserves who they are as human beings, while maintaining the health and vitality of their organizations.
For Moustakas (1990), the research process begins with the identification of a question that is deeply felt, a question that has an emotional effect on the researcher and cannot be ignored. For me, that question was related to my very personal observation that, as the data became better and more available in the organization, the decisions were still very conservative. Microsoft, as I had known it, had forgotten to be BRAVE. It had forgotten how to innovate.
In phenomenology, finding the right question is potentially more important than finding the right answer. It is this feeling that becomes the first point of contact between the internal world of the researcher and the external and social world in which the research takes place. Initially because of the deeply personal nature of the question, the early stage of the research requires care and sensitivity as it is expressed in the social context.
The question must be lived and that the researcher must embody the question. By virtue of being human we are constantly seeking to understand ourselves and our environment. This questioning involves effort and, if pursued conscientiously, can take us to fundamental questions that concern the nature of our existence.
Once a question is articulated, the initial impulse to strive for an answer needs to be set to one side. Heurism shares with Heidegger (1962) that an embodied question allows the inquiry to work on us and influence the quality of our thinking and exploration, which in turn guides the experience and the understanding we achieve.
A phenomenological framework requires a relatively homogeneous group of participants. Therefore, in a phenomenological study, participants should have experience with the same phenomenon. Individuals selected to participate in the phenomenological study should have significant and meaningful experiences of the phenomenon being investigated. Purposeful sampling is commonly used in qualitative studies. The purposeful sampling strategy involved selecting the participants purposely since they can understand the phenomenon; thus, I could decide whether participants share significant and meaningful experience concerning the phenomenon under the investigation. In addition, criterion-based selection is commonly used as a sampling method. In this method, I specified some common criteria for all participants in order to select a group of participants with shared experiences. To ensure all participants had in fact experienced certain criterion, I interviewed and selected the participants into the study. Through these initial informal interviews, I could try to assess the willingness and openness of potential participants to participate in the study.
DATA COLLECTION & SYNTHESIS
The first stage is the creation of individual representations. The second looks for those themes or places of resonance that occur in the images and, from this, the researcher can create a composite depiction that can be written as a first-person narrative that pulls the main themes into one place. With the formation of the composite depiction, the researcher returns to the individual portrayals and selects those that most exemplify the composite depiction. These individual representations are developed to contain detail that may not have been present in the individual depictions. Moustakas (1990) referred to these as ‘exemplary portraits’ and stated that they have the capacity to maintain their individual uniqueness and reflect the group as a whole.
The final phase is the integration of the researcher’s intuitive and personal knowledge and experience with the themes that have emerged from moving through the process of working with the depictions. Moustakas refers to this as ‘creative synthesis’. It is the sum of the outcomes of the whole experience and can be presented as a poem, story or artwork.
In addition to over 40 hours of recordings, I analyzed field notes that I had taken during these conversations and subsequent reflections. These sources of information are synthesized to form depictions of the participants that seek to capture the essence of their experiences. Consequently, there is the potential for the participants to be ‘kept alive’ as individual presences and not reduced to anonymous themes. Moustakas (1990) encouraged researchers to return depictions to participants to see if they are accurate reflections of what had been shared. From there, information is grouped into “meaningful units” and themes are developed. In total, I coded approximately 5000 incidents (phrases and sentences from the original field notes) using the constant comparative method (line- by- line analysis). I did all of this coding manually, then again using software.
Successful problem solving typically involves the process of iterative simplification of what the problem actually is, in a cycle with low-cost experiments to determine whether that way of defining the problem enables more of what we want or less of what we want.
So when Yoda said “Do or do not, there is no try”, each “do” is an invitation to experiment. It is a call to interaction with the world. Taking action, or doing, in the world generates a lot of subliminal information (phenomena) about the nature of the world in which the agent is “doing”. Therefore, we undergo “trials”, a series of tries, rather than just one try. If no action is taken, if we do not “do”, we can’t complete the experiment. So yes: “do or do not”. This process of an ongoing series of low-cost low-risk trials (or “tries”) provides us with the necessary subliminal phenomenal raw experience that is needed to acquire new skills.
Overall, phenomenology can provide a rich and detailed view of a human experience. However, it does depend upon the ability of the participant to articulate their experience and it requires that the researcher be objective and free of bias when interpreting the data.
Moustakas (1990) acknowledged that one of the goals of phenomenology is to explore the meaning of an experience so that its essential structure can be revealed. It is through the process of coming to know the essence of an experience that the inquirer also discovers aspects that are universal. Therefore, this research has the capacity to hold master stories or meta-narratives. Since these stories seek to explain aspects of human experience, they have the potential to organize our experience and understanding of our reality. For this reason, they are powerful, because in doing so they can also exclude other stories or narratives that might suggest alternative ways of explaining and understanding human experience (Ferrer 2002). Therefore, a common strand that runs through phenomenologic inquiry is an ease with viewpoints that in a post-modern perspective would be understood to be universal and essential. ‘Essentialism’, in its broadest definition, means to understand things as if they had an essential ‘nature’ – a set of qualities that serve to define those things (Foucault 2005). Rowan (2004) suggested that, when a researcher engages with a question that is felt deeply and is process-driven, normal boundaries fall away and an essence of the researcher’s is being revealed.
As an example, I look at the various concepts that I presented in my first work Purposeful Leaders (e.g., family loyalty, phases of organizational development, choice points, etc.) and ask, “Do these themes fit the data? Are they relevant? Do they work the data?” The answer is yes; I believe they accurately reflect what emerged from the data. They tell the story of these CEOs’ experiences. Like organizational development theory, my quantitative colleagues will test my theories on Emotional Labor and learning to learn well, and we will push the knowledge development process forward.
Moustakas felt that by exploring each other’s biographies, we might reveal something that moves beyond the life of the individual and say something about our wider lives and experience. Simons (1996) agreed that, through studying the particular, we may come to know something of the universal. In this case, the universal becomes known through the deep and intensive study of the particular, whereby even small but carefully chosen research samples reveal knowledge and principles that can be generalized to a wider population. Cather (1992) spoke of something similar: ‘There are only two or three human stories and they go on repeating themselves as fiercely as if they had never happened before.’ In business and inquiry, it’s safe to say that, while every person is new, every experience is fresh, and that every context has its sociopolitical dimension, there is something in our human experience that is shared. Everyone is special, but no one is unique.
As I look back on this journey, I learned with certainty that there is no single path toward success as society would have us believe. I also learned, and this was the hardest lesson for me to process, that those that are most content in their life and creative with how they go about the business of their live, embrace process over outcomes. Coming from a data-centered career, I really resented these findings—so much so, I analyzed my data multiple times! The research participants I worked with had the curiosity and patience to share their stories, experiences, and wisdom with candor. This gave me a model to choose the path that now defines my career and my life.
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Ferrer JN (2002) Revisioning Transpersonal Theory: A Participatory Vision of Human Spirituality. State University of New York Press, Albany NY.
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Heidegger M (1962) Being and Time. Harper & Row, New York NY.
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Moustakas CE (1990) Heuristic Research: Design, Methodology, and Applications. Sage Publications, Newbury Park CA.
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