Formulating good literature review questions – part 2

This post is the second part of a series on formulating good literature review questions. Part 1 explained the importance of formulating clear questions. This post explains the components and structure of a good review question and describes a variety of different types of questions that can be addressed in a literature review


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Systematic reviews in medical science are often focused on ‘what works’ questions and are structured according to the PICO approach.

P – Patient or Problem – Which group is evidence required?

I – Intervention – What event, action or activity is being studied?

C – Comparison — What is the alternative to the intervention (e.g. placebo / different intervention)?

O – Outcomes — What are the effects of the intervention

An example of a well-formulated systematic review question for a medical problem (albeit without reference to comparison) is provided in the Cochrane Handbook:

“whether a particular antiplatelet agent, such as aspirin, [intervention] is effective in decreasing the risks of a particular thrombotic event, stroke [outcome] in elderly persons with a previous history of stroke [population]” (Higgins and Green, 2006, p.62).

The PICO approach is less appropriate to the study of complex questions and multidisciplinary topics outside medicine. Drawing on the work of Ray Pawson, we argue that well-formulated review questions in management and organization studies need to take into account why or how the relationship occurs and in what circumstances. We reformulated PICO into CIMO:

C – Context. Which individuals, relationships, institutional settings or wider systems are being studied?

I – Intervention – The effects of what event, action or activity are being studied?

M – Mechanisms – What are the mechanisms that explain the relationship between interventions and outcomes? Under what circumstances are these mechanisms activated or not activated?

O – Outcomes — What are the effects of the intervention? How will the outcomes be measured? What are the intended and unintended effects?

In part 1 ‘How to formulate good literature review questions’ free form question “how can I effectively lead a project team?” was introduced. Using CIMO, this question can be reformulated:

To what extent does leadership style (I) influence project team performance (O)? (I-O focus)

Under what conditions (C) does leadership style (I) influence project team performance (O)? (C-I-O focus)

How and why (M) does leadership style (I) influence project team performance
(O) (M-I-O focus)?

My preferrence would be to include all the three questions rather than combining them into a single question, although it is possible:

To what extent, how, why and under what conditions does leadership style influence project team performance? (CIMO focus)

Systematic reviews are good at addressing ‘what works’ questions. However, a literature review can be designed to address a range of other different questions, such as:

  • Process questions: Why/how does X work?
  • Implementation questions: What is required to make X work?
  • Correlation questions: What relationships are seen between X and Y?
  • Attitude questions: What do people think about X? What are their experiences of X?
  • Economic questions: How much does X cost and with what benefit/harm?
  • Effectiveness Questions: What is the effectiveness of X?
References and further reading:

Briner, Rob & David Denyer. 2010. “Systematic Review and Evidence Synthesis as a Practice and Scholarship Tool.” Chapter in Denise Rousseau (Ed.) Handbook of Evidence-Based Management: Companies, Classrooms, and Research. Oxford University Press.
Denyer, D., & Tranfield, D. (2009). Producing a systematic review. In D. A. Buchanan & A. Bryman (Eds.), The SAGE handbook of organizational research methods (pp. 671–689). London: Sage Publications Ltd.
Higgins, J.P.T., & Green, S. (2008) (Eds). Cochrane Handbook for Systematic Reviews of Interventions [updated September 2009]. Retrieved April 29, 2010, from

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