The Brief Question Approach

By Benyamin Lichtenstein, University of Massachusetts, Boston, MA, USA

One of the main goals of process research is to identify and track changes to a system or phenomenon over time.  Longitudinal research designs are essential to accomplishing this goal, for they allow researchers to take repeated measures in and of the system as it changes, to help reveal the dynamics underlying that change.  Thus, an increasing number of rich process studies have pursued multiple interviews with the same informants at different points in time; inductive or coding analysis is then used to reveal the shifts within the individual and the system.

There are two important challenges with a repeated interview design.  The first is ‘repeated measure bias,’ which argues that the accuracy and variance of an individual’s responses can decrease measurably when (survey) questions are asked a second and third time.  The second more general problem is retrospective bias, which is inevitable when participants are asked to summarize what has happened over the past several weeks or months.  In both cases the internal sensemaking of the informant takes precedence over the raw events that they experienced, making it much more difficult to identify the underlying dynamics of the system.

The Brief Question Approach, which I developed for my dissertation and have used elsewhere, reduces these problems by asking a single prospective question.  Specifically, “What is happening this week from your vantage point in the company?” By asking the question in the present tense retrospective sensemaking is reduced; likewise, by invoking current activities – focusing on what’s happening in the moment – it mitigates the perception of repetition, thus limiting repeated measures bias.

A key trade-off in this approach is the frequency of interaction.  Although changes happen every day in organizations too much frequency is a problem for over-busy managers and line personnel.  As a range of possible frequencies, compare (a) the MIRP study (Van de Ven & Poole, 1990) which asked participants to remember events over the past six months, (b) Gersick’s (1994) study of strategic change in one venture, which collected interviews every month or two, and (c) Barley’s (1986, 1990) study of structurated change in hospitals, which recorded live interactions between doctors and technicians in the process of their work.   My study of transformative change in new ventures (Lichtenstein, 1998, 2000) asked the Brief Question once a week, every week for 9 to 12 months.  In our study (Lichtenstein, Dooley, & Lumpkin, 2006) I interviewed the entrepreneur every other week.  This frequency allowed for a very in-depth understanding of the dynamics underlying changes; more importantly there did not appear to be any negative response from participants.

A key benefit of this approach was the flexibility it provided me and my participants.  Most of the time the responses lasted 10 minutes or so, with the original question being followed up by a few additional queries.  In some cases an informant would close his/her office door and talk quite openly for up to 45 minutes, sharing rich stories and perceptions about the state of the organization.  At the same time, the question allowed for the briefest of answers, which was particularly useful in tracking the weekly thinking of the founders of these firms.  One of my favorite examples was a week of immense change in one venture.  That day the founder/CEO arrived in a bustle and was heading directly into a conference call.  I asked him the Brief Question as he passed, and he responded with single sentence – about 15 words; the entire interaction occurred within 30 seconds or so, as he headed through the main office to his desk. Not only did it capture the essence of the situation, it retained my week-by-week consistency of data collection; more importantly, it did so without taking any visible time away from an already over-burdened week.

Data Collection

In general these interviews took place at the participant’s desk with the door open, unless s/he decided to close it; in some cases we would meet in a small conference room.  Every participant was insured of absolute confidentiality; none of their names nor company names were ever made public.  In order to facilitate a rapid development of trust I decided against tape recording the interviews.  For the first 10 weeks I used a small notepad to record answers (Barley, 1990).  Then one day I brought in my laptop and asked if they had a problem with me typing directly – no one disagreed.  Although this seems a bit odd, since the laptop was essentially the same as a tape recorder, perhaps its location – on my lap, below the sight-line of their desks – made it seem less intrusive.

With the help of a fast typing speed (80 – 110 words/minute), and with the commitment to read through and correct every interview within 24 hours, the data set is virtually verbatim.  This was particularly important for my dissertation, which amounted to more than 950 interviews and 1700 single-spaced pages of text.  Transcribing this amount of data would be unthinkable in the context of a dissertation project.

Whole-Company Design

A key goal in my study was being able to capture the dynamics across the entire company – from the receptionist to the lab scientists to the marketing manager to the CEO.  My strategy was to identify a core group of participants that reflected the entire range of levels and functional areas in each company, and who were interested in participating.  This core group about half the members of each company (these ventures ranged in size from 8 to about 25 people).  Thus, each week I interviewed my core group of participants – 4 or 6 or 10 or 12 organizational members.  In addition I identified ‘occasional participants;’ people I would talk with every month or so.  Further, I decided to interview virtually everyone in every firm; over the months I collected data from 95% of all members.  This gave me a very useful perspective of whole-firm dynamics.  Importantly, uncovering these dynamics required data across all levels of activity, a finding that distinguishes my work from others who have sought to explain entrepreneurial dynamics by talking to the founder alone (e.g. Eggers, Leahy, & Churchill, 1994; Eisenhardt & Schoonhoven, 1990).

In sum, the Brief Question Approach was a useful method for collecting real-time data at short intervals from a range of participants in the study.  It has allowed me to capture incredibly rich and valid information, identify micro-level dynamics of change, and stay in good relationship with my busy participants over a long period of time.  The method increased the validity of the data by reducing repeated measures bias and limiting retrospective sensemaking.  It thus provides a valuable tool for enacting longitudinal studies of change, a valuable contribution to process research methodology.


Barley, S. R. (1986). Technology as an occasion for structuring: Evidence from observations of CT scanners and the social order of radiology departments. Administrative Science Quarterly, 31, 78-108.

Barley, S. R. (1990). Images of imaging: Notes on doing longitudinal field work. Organization Science, 1(3), 220-247.

Eggers, J. H., Leahy, K. T., & Churchill, N. C. (1994). Stages of small business growth revisited: Insights into growth path and leadership/management skills in low- and high-growth companies. INSEAD. Fontainebleau.

Eisenhardt, K. M., & Schoonhoven, C. B. (1990). Organizational growth: Linking founding team, strategy, environment, and growth among U.S. semiconductor ventures, 1978-1988. Administrative Science Quarterly, 35, 504-529.

Gersick, C. J. G. (1994). Pacing strategic change: The case of a new venture. Academy of Management Journal, 37(1), 9-45.

Lichtenstein, B. B. (1998). Self-Organized Change in Entrepreneurial Ventures: A Dynamic, Non-linear Model. Boston College/UMI.

Lichtenstein, B. B. (2000). Self-organized transitions: A pattern amid the “chaos” of transformative change. Academy of Management Executive, 14(4), 128-141.

Lichtenstein, B. B., Dooley, K. J., & Lumpkin, G. T. (2006). Measuring emergence in the dynamics of new venture creation. Journal of Business Venturing, 21, 153-175.

Van de Ven, A. H., & Poole, M. S. (1990). Methods for studying innovation development in the Minnesota Innovation Research Program. Organization Science, 1(3), 313-335.

© Benyamin Lichtenstein