Sub-theme 52: Projects for Innovation: Managing Novelty and Uncertainty

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Andrew Davies
University College London, United Kingdom
Jonas Søderlund
BI Norwegian Business School, Norway
Paolo Canonico
University of Napoli Federico II, Italy

Call for Papers

Projects are the vehicle used by organization to achieve innovation, including new products and services, entrepreneurial start-ups, and new business models. Different categories are used to describe innovation projects such as newstream and mainstream projects (Kanter, 1990), breakthrough, platform and derivative projects (Wheelwright & Clark, 1992; Shenhar & Dvir, 2007), sustaining and disruptive technology projects (Christensen, 1997). Innovation is defined as the generation of novel ideas or new combinations of existing ideas or routines that are perceived as new and valuable by individuals and organizations (Nelson & Winter 1982; van de Ven, 1986). Definitions of innovation have evolved over time, although many authors have focused on the technological outcomes, rather than the organization of innovation.
Projects combine multiple parties in collaborative teams and inter-organizational structure to leverage existing capabilities, while creating new knowledge (Edmondson, 2012). They are used to coordinate playful activities (March, 1995) and engage in low-cost experimentation (Sydow et al., 2004). Research has focused on project-based organizations or firms endowed with the capabilities required to achieve sophisticated innovation (Gann & Salter, 2000; Hobday, 2000).
Project-based innovation may be read by means of two contrasting models (Brady & Hobday, 2011). The optimizing model emphasizes planning and formal phased-based processes, such as the stage gate model of product development (Cooper, 1993) found in operational research and engineering studies. The adaptive model recognizes that the goals to be achieved, and suitable paths towards the goal, are fundamentally uncertain and draw on intuitive judgment, informal processes and learning obtained through trial-and-error experience (Loch et al., 2006; Shenhar & Dvir, 2007; Davies, 2014). This approach is rooted in organizational studies, particularly contingency theory to account for the uncertainty and complexity associated with innovation. Loch et al. (2006) suggest that novel projects have to select among a variety of alternatives before selecting the most desirable solution.
Scholars are increasingly interested in understanding how projects can be used to gather real-time information and respond to feedback gained through learning to tackle emergent problems and opportunities encountered during the course of the project. Efforts to establish stringent performance specifications of the desired outcome – the optimizing approach – are avoided at the outset to gather new information about more advanced technologies or performance requirements while the project is underway. Early-stage uncertainties can be reduced by drawing on multiple and parallel approaches to assess and compare valuable information before making definitive choices. The underlying concept is that investing in prototypes and tests may be less expensive than taking early decisions on a single-end product, which could later on face major problems unsolved at the beginning (Klein & Meckling, 1958). Coordination by mutual adjustment is required in dynamic project teams under pressure to achieve innovative outcomes in fast-paced environments (Eisenhardt & Tabrizi, 1995; Edmondson, 2012).
Innovation is usually seen as the outcome of R&D, product development and entrepreneurial projects, but innovation can also be applied at every stage in the life cycle of a large, complex project. Research has found that megaprojects are now applying innovation to complete the delivery of the project more efficiently (Dodgson et al., 2015). Hirschman suggested that we think of large projects as “voyages of discovery” (Hirschman, 1967, p. 78) which depend on creativity and innovation while they are underway to achieve project goals. Creative solutions most frequently come from adapting to tasks that turn out to be more challenging than initially expected. In fact, in Hirschman’s words, “[people] engage successfully in problem-solving [when] they take up problems which they think they can solve, find them more difficult than expected, but then, being stuck with them, attack willy-nilly the unsuspected difficulties – and sometimes even succeed”.
Inspired by the overall Colloquium topic, the aim of this sub-theme is to attract both conceptual and empirical research able to increase our understanding how projects are organized to achieve innovation and how innovation is applied within projects. We are particularly interested in research that draws on a variety of organizational theories and deploys diverse research methods:

  • How does innovation occur in complex, novel and fast-paced projects?

  • How can project organizations respond innovatively to unexpected risks and events?

  • How does organizational context – history and institutional setting – shape how innovation occurs in projects?

  • How does knowledge and learning develop to address innovative requirements of projects?

  • Are there specific innovation-related capabilities able to achieve innovative outcomes?

These are just some of the key aspects that our sub-theme will address. We also welcome contributions explicitly dealing with the idea of projects as voyages for discovery. We are interested in research undertaken at multiple levels of analysis – on individuals in projects, on processes at the project level, and on firms organized through projects. We are interested in process studies of the emergence and dynamics projects and innovation over time.



  • Brady, T., & Hobday, M. (2011): “Projects and Innovation: Innovation and Projects.” In: P.W.G. Morris, J.K Pinto & J. Söderlund (eds.): The Oxford Handbook of Project Management. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 273–294.
  • Cooper, R.G. (1993): Winning at New Products: Accelerating the Process from Idea to Launch. Cambridge, MA: Addison-Wesley.
  • Davies, A. (2014): “Innovation and Project Management.” In: M. Dodgson, D.M. Gann & N. Phillips (eds.): The Oxford Handbook of Innovation Management. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Dodgson, M., Gann, D., MacAulay, S., & Davies, A. (2015): “Innovation strategy in new transportation systems: The case of Crossrail.” Transportation Research Part A: Policy and Practice, 77, 261–275.
  • Edmondson, A.C. (2012): Teaming: How Organizations Learn, Innovate, and Compete in the Knowledge Economy. San Francisco: John Wiley & Sons.
  • Eisenhardt, K.M., & Tabrizi, B.N. (1995): “Accelerating adaptive processes: product innovation in the global computer industry.” Administrative Science Quarterly, 40, 84–110.
  • Gann, D.M., & Salter, A.J. (2000): “Innovation in project-based, service-enhanced firms: the construction of complex products and systems.” Research Policy, 29 (7), 955–972.
  • Hirschman, A.O. (1967): Development Projects Observed. Washington, D.C.: The Brookings Institution.
  • Hobday, M. (2000): ‘The project-based organisation: an ideal form for management of complex products and systems.” Research Policy, 29, 871–893.
  • Kanter, R.M. (1990): When Elephants Learn to Dance. Mastering the Challenges of Strategy, Management, and Careers in the 1990s. London: Unwin Paperbacks.
  • Klein, B., & Meckling, W. (1958): “Application of operations research to development decisions.” Operations Research, 6, 352–363.
  • Loch, C.H., De Meyer, A., & Pich, M.T. (2006): Managing the Unknown: A new Approach to Managing High Uncertainty and Risk in Projects. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons.
  • March, J.G. (1995): “The future, disposable organizations and the rigidities of imagination.” Organization, 2 (3–4), 427–440.
  • Nelson, R.N., & Winter, S.G. (1982): An Evolutionary Theory of Economic Change. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.
  • Shenhar, A.J., & Dvir, D. (2007): Reinventing Project Management: The Diamond Approach to Successful Growth and Innovation. Boston, MA: Harvard Business School Press.
  • Sydow, J., Lindkvist, L., & DeFillippi, R. (2004): “Project-based organizations, embeddedness and repositories of knowledge. Editorial.” Organization Studies, 25 (9), 1475–1489.
  • van de Ven, A. (1986): “Central problems in the management of innovation.” Management Science, 32 (5), 590–607.
  • Wheelwright, S.C., & Clark, K.B. (1992): Revolutionizing Product Development. New York: Free Press.


Andrew Davies is Professor of the Management of Projects in the Bartlett School of Construction and Project Management, University College London, UK. His research has focused on how innovation occurs in complex product systems, project-based firms and organisations, and on systems integration. He has published in journals such as ‘California Management Review’, ‘MIT Sloan Management Review’, ‘Research Policy’, ‘Organization Studies’, ‘Industrial Marketing Management and ‘Industrial and Corporate Change’, and authored leading volumes such as “The Business of Projects: Managing Innovation in Complex Products and Systems” (Cambridge University Press), and “The Business of Systems Integration” (Oxford University Press).
Jonas Søderlund is Professor in the Department of Leadership and Organizational Behaviour at BI Norwegian Business School, Oslo, Norway, and Professor in the KITE Research Group (Knowledge Integration and Innovation in Transnational Enterprise) at Linköping University, Sweden. He has published widely on the management and organization of temporary organizations and project-based firms, time and knowledge integration, and the evolution of organizational capabilities, including papers in ‘Organization Studies’, ‘Human Resource Management’, ‘International Business Review’, ‘Personnel Review’, ‘R&D Management’, and ‘International Journal of Innovation Management’. He is one of the editors of the “Oxford Handbook on Project Management”.
Paolo Canonico is Associate Professor of Organization Studies at University of Naples Federico II, Italy. His research interests are broadly related to the study of knowledge and human resources in project oriented organizational forms. His research appeared in journals such as ‘International Journal of Project Management’, ‘Journal of Knowledge Management’, ‘Journal of Management and Governance’, and ‘International Review of Public Administration’. In 2013, he served as guest editor of a special issue of the ‘International Journal of Managing Projects in Business’ devoted to knowledge creation in projects.
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