OMT WebOrganization and Management Theory Division of the Academy of Management
Editor's note: These remarks were delivered at a memorial service held at 10:30 a.m., Saturday, February 9 in the Rogel Ballroom of the Michigan Union building at the University of Michigan. To see other memorial remarks, visit: http://omtweb.org/omt-blog/main/477.
I am grateful for this honor to join with you in celebrating the life of Michael Cohen. I would like to tell you about some of his recent research activities and what it was like to work with him directly.
In 2007, I was invited me to teach a doctoral course in qualitative research methods at the University of Michigan. I accepted and temporarily moved to Ann Arbor. To my surprise, Michael Cohen decided to sit in on my class—something that is unusual because professors are so busy, especially someone of Michael’s stature. After the first class session, I remember bumping into a friend on campus who said, “Hey, I hear that Michael Cohen is taking your methods course.” I replied, “That’s right. I don’t yet know where he’s taking it, but yes, he’s taking it.” However, my concerns were unnecessary because Michael was both a genius and a gentleman. He had a special knack of asking questions that pointed people in the direction of a keen insight—letting them get there first.
Soon I became aware of Michael’s expertise in organizational routines, including his specific interest in handoffs within medical settings. Most of the medical mistakes that harm patients involve some sort of miscommunication. And miscommunications often occur during handoffs—such as during a shift change, when an outgoing physician transfers information about and responsibility for a patient to an incoming physician. At the end of my fall semester in Ann Arbor, Michael and I drove to Kingston, Ontario, where we met with Dr. Roy Ilan, and we were eventually given permission to videotape real physician handoffs being conducted within the ICU of a university hospital—something that (to our knowledge) no one had ever done before. Roy joined our research team and helped us to record about 250 physician handoffs. A year later, we welcomed Marlys Christianson, who worked as a practicing physician before coming to the University of Michigan to earn a PhD in organization studies. Eventually, Lyndon Garrett also joined our efforts. Although Lyndon was only an undergraduate student at Brigham Young University, working as my research assistant, Michael recognized his intelligence and respected his dedication, and he graciously drew Lyndon into full collaboration. We called ourselves the “Kingston team,” and Michael has been a mentor and friend to all of us.
We decided to meet at least twice a year, usually in Kingston, so that we could analyze our video data together. Fortunately for me, it’s not easy to travel to Kingston. In fact, the quickest and cheapest way for me to get there is to drive from Detroit to Kingston, which takes about 7 hours. Once or twice each year, I flew to the Detroit Metro Airport. After collecting my bag, I would make my way to “passenger pick-up” where I would see Michael, always punctual, standing with a warm smile, a ready hug—the trunk of his car already open. After pulling away from the curb, Michael would tell me about some current and complex system—the weather, the traffic, airport operations or communications—something that had threatened (but failed) to make him late. And his tellings were always laden with public policy implications. Then we would drive for 7 hours each direction. How he tolerated being with me in such a confined space for 14 hours, twice each year, I will never know. For him, it must have been the emotional equivalent of Apollo 13. But so it was and I will be forever grateful because I had some of the most engaging conversations of my life.
First, with Michael there was no such thing as idle chatter. We never listened to music or the radio: We always talked, and I had to keep my wits about me. Michael’s mind was remarkably steady and methodical as he took deliberate and measured inroads into worthwhile issues. Over a 7-hour period, my thoughts and comments were often triggered by what I was seeing out the window. When I got hungry, my political opinions became more extreme. Depending on the condition of the roads, even my religious convictions were flexible. More than once, Michael gently pointed out that what I was saying at 3 PM was inconsistent with something that I had stated at 9:30 that morning. Or he would observe that our conversation had now come full circle and that we were now merely retracing our steps.
Second, it became clear that Michael is prepared to engage on any subject. And I mean any. Rather than me give you an example, I invite you to simply think of some topic—and there’s your example of something that Michael would be prepared to discuss. Two years ago December, my father died unexpectedly. When I met Michael three weeks later for our semi-annual drive to Kingston, the topic of my father’s death naturally came up. Michael knew all about it because he had read online articles and reports, not only about my father’s death but also about his life. During our heartfelt conversation, I shared with him my family’s faith in life after death, and our belief that family relationships and friendships are so precious that they will continue after death. With a twinkle in his eye, Michael responded, “Well, that’s a beautiful notion. And I’m grateful that no one has proven otherwise.”
Although Michael was prepared to engage on any subject, family was his favorite. Very early, we came to understand that I have 2 daughters who are identical twins, while Michael has 2 daughters and his wife Hilary is an identical twin, and most recently two precious granddaughters have joined his family. This “2 x 2 x 2” was like a conversational “Rubik's Cube” that allowed for endless turns at talk. We discussed each of these women individually, and then each of them in relation to each other, which also gave us entry into conversations about genetics, genealogy, sociology, philosophy and public policy. Until today, I had never met his daughters (Rachel and Amy), nor their partners (Matt and Laura), nor the little grandbabies (Hazel and Sylvia). But as I now see you, I feel well acquainted with you. It was obvious that Michael loved you profoundly.
I wish that everyone here could have seen Michael during our meetings in Kingston. Each member of our research team brought different strengths to the table, and then Michael worked to magnify them. Surgeons have a saying: “The Resident holds the knife while the Attending turns the table.” That’s how I would describe Michael’s influence. We were all better because he was with us, subtly turning the table to guide our collaboration. We were an interdisciplinary team, somewhat separated by the dialects of our disciplines, except that Michael was fluent across our discourse, which helped to facilitate our analysis, insights and writings. Michael has long been fascinated by what he called the “pattern in variety problem”: For a routine to be recognizable as a routine, it must have an element of “sameness”; yet routines must be adapted to fit the particular needs of the moment, such as when patients are hanging in the balance. Last year, our team had a couple of publications in leading medical journals, and this year we have a letter already in press. We have a few papers in our research pipeline that will appear in top social science outlets. Last year, when we were tired at the end of a long day, Michael leaned over a whispered: “What we are doing will save some people’s lives.” He brought passion to our work. I honestly did not know until two days ago that Michael had officially retired last year—he never said anything to me about it and I didn’t notice any change in the pace of his work.
I’m speaking to you today, not because I’m special. I’m speaking to you because I’m typical. I’m typical of the dozens or hundreds or thousands of people that Michael has influenced and mentored. Since Michael’s passing last week, I have received many emails from people who wanted to make sure that I had heard the news. One particular email resonated deeply with me, so I asked the author’s permission to share a couple of sentences with you. She gave me permission to share, though she wanted to remain anonymous. She wrote:
"Michael’s role in helping me carve out and pursue my own scholarly path was profound, both intellectually and personally – he was my “rock” in rough waters and a great mentor for almost two decades. Because of the depth of my feelings about his value to me personally, I have not been comfortable adding anything to the public (online) memorials, nor will I attend the memorial service in Ann Arbor."
For many people, including some who are not with us today, Michael’s passing is literally unspeakable.
We love you Michael.
Curtis D. LeBaronWarren Jones FellowAssociate Professor of Organizational Leadership & StrategyMarriott School of ManagementBrigham Young UniversityProvo, Utah
Tags: Curtis LeBaron | Michael Cohen | Routines
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