The Power of "Little Ideas"by M. Augier

Journal of Management Inquiry


Journal of Management Inquiry 2015, Vol. 24(3) 322 –323 © The Author(s) 2015

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DOI: 10.1177/1056492615572539


A Behavioral Theory of the Firm (Cyert & March, 1963) and behavioral theory in general as well as Jim March’s subsequent work in that tradition have many valuable lessons for current and future scholars, some more embedded in current work than others. I focus on just one aspect, relating to the importance of modesty and “little ideas” in scholarship. This is an aspect, or quality of Jim’s work has less to do with ‘just’ his written works, and more to do with his character and values and how his character is reflected and embedded in his scholarship. Linda pointed to the importance of the work spirit at

Carnegie; that, too, says a lot about the values Jim has.1

March’s work integrates the two sides of unification and disintegration that he himself (and others) has written about (March, 1991). Both, through explicit examples and by the conduct and content of his work, help us to renew the power of the field that he along with others helped create decades ago. He does this by the power of “little ideas.”

For example, take his (re)introduction of the concept of ambiguity in decision making (e.g., March, 1978, 2010). The concept of ambiguity itself has historical roots in decision theory and attempts to understand real uncertainty, and it was central to the concept of the “Ellsberg paradox” (Ellsberg, 1961). March (1978, 1994) uses the concept of ambiguity to explain the limitations of economic approaches such as game theory and expected utility theory, while at the same time builds an evolving framework for accommodating preferences under ambiguity, which is of interest to economics, psychology, and organization studies alike. By giving a new twist to an existing concept, he is able to draw important implications for understanding decision making with a constructive component (not just pointing to flaws in existing approaches). As was the case also with Behavioral Theory of the Firm (BTF; Cyert & March, 1963), this is done in a way to complement rather than to replace other theories, and to extend and enrich them to be more empirically valid.2

Similarly, with the introduction of the garbage-can metaphor (Cohen, March, & Olsen, 1972), one would not have to be a neo-postmodern-meta-deconstructivist to see plenty of potential theory-undermining implications of the idea that organizations are, to some extent, “organized anarchies,” and one could easily be tempted to engage in other interpretations of organizational behavior than the original metaphor contained. But to March and his co-authors of the original garbage-can argument, the argument was not so much a destruction of existing perspectives. The metaphor was used to point out limitations as well as potential of existing approaches, and then proceed to develop a new angle or two that might yield new insights into decision making (March, 1978, 1991; March & Olsen, 1995). Even in March’s empirical studies relating to ambiguity and garbage cans (March &

Olsen, 1976), the aim is not to claim “newness” in scholarship or to insist on complete evidential basis for every idea; it is to stress the necessity of developing concepts and ideas that can help us understand empirically what the evidence or data are. The “little ideas” that he (and colleagues) develops do just that. Bounded rationality may be a little idea, but it is a powerful one, building on (as well as breaking from) basic ideas on economics while being a concept which underlies basically all organizational behavior.

March’s emphasis on “little ideas” and his way of never claiming newness are quite remarkable, and the intellectual and personal modesty is deeply ingrained in his work and life.

I know I am not the only one who remains in great admiration of how he never claims credit for his work and ideas. One never hears him talk about “how he laid out a new framework” for understanding decision making, organizations, or strategy. Nor would he ever claim that his perspective or concept or article would explain (much less fix) any real-world problems. On the contrary, March is always careful to notice that most new ideas are not really new, that he never is or has been relevant, and that most of what he or any one of us does will probably never have any influence in the world.

I mention March’s modesty not to make any judgment over scholarly styles, and March himself would be the last one to tell anyone to follow his style, tradition, ideas, or personal preferences. However, from the point of view of generating socially and system-level useful knowledge and of balancing the dynamics in the history of ideas, his approach seems to be precisely what can help tame (or “balance”) the diverging and unifying forces in ways so that in the larger scheme of things, the field does move, although slowly, and not always necessarily forward. Consistent with what he observes as trade-offs between individual and system rewards (March, 1994), the way that March himself carefully develops “little ideas” into powerful insights, while not 572539 JMIXXX10.1177/1056492615572539Journal of Management InquiryAugier research-article2015 1GSBPP, Naval Postgraduate School, Monterey, CA, USA 2Stanford University, CA, USA

Corresponding Author:

Mie Augier, KGC, Stanford University. 224 Panama Street, Suite 104.

Stanford, CA 94305-4110.


The Power of “Little Ideas”

Mie Augier1,2 at CARLETON UNIV on June 15, 2015jmi.sagepub.comDownloaded from

Augier 323 claiming credit for them or advocating others to further develop them in any opportunistic way, may not be a particular rewarding approach for him if he had been wanting to develop a particular “legacy.” But it helps the field build on existing roots, grow new ones, as well as branches and new leaves in the field of organization studies. Of course, there is the old Buddhist saying that one can only understand the true nature of things if one looks beyond oneself, attributed to