Balancing innovation and control the role of face-to-face meetings in complex product development projects

University dissertation from Stockholm : Economic Research Institute, Stockholm School of Economics (EFI)

Abstract: In any organization, formal and informal face-to-face meetings make up a profound part in the daily life of its members. Meetings are played out continuously, some formal, such as a management board meeting, an information meeting, or a project meeting. The formal meetings people “attend to”, “participate in”, or “are in charge of” depending on a person’s position within them. Other meetings are less formal, such as a desk-side discussion, a chat in the hallway, or a private conversation between two colleagues. The latter often just appear, seemingly by chance.This dissertation examines meetings, as a way of observing the organizing process of complex product development projects. More specifically, organizations engaging in complex product development can be viewed as tension systems, where the dominant tension is between innovation and control. From this perspective, a critical challenge for a product development project becomes one of managing a balancing act between individual action and creativity, on one hand, and collaboration and control, on the other, ensuring that ideas and knowledge retrieved by their parts can be pooled into an integrated whole. By studying the interplay between different types of face-to-face meetings that took place in two projects developing telecommunication systems, this thesis engages in an inquiry of how this balancing act was played out in practice.The findings of the study suggest that the informal meetings comprised occasions that facilitated the perception of complex and ambiguous issues and gave rise to innovative interpretations of how to deal with them. When issues have been defined and interpreted, formal meetings were used to “elevate” and “enter” them into a formal existence. Then, formal claims for action could be established in which people in the projects were organized around the task of solving a specific and recognized problem.  Thus, formal meetings served as a controlling and structuring function.