Navigating through Uncertainty - How Complementary Expectations Provide Orientation in Industrial Innovation Projects

Thursday, 2 July 2015: 2:15 PM-3:45 PM
TW2.1.03 (Tower Two)
Katrin Hahn, TU Dortmund University, Dortmund, Germany
To find one’s way in unknown and uncertain terrain usually needs several attempts and it requires distinctive landmarks, devices like a compass and marking aids to avoid getting lost. Innovation processes likewise are uncertain ways due to the openness of the future result. Path finding is in a certain way similar to the situation of a sailor or hiker: Failures, detours and deviations are an inherent part of innovation and knowledge creation which both cannot be ordered through hierarchical instructions. If decision making in innovation processes is partly exempted from hierarchical structures in organisations what are the landmarks and devices of an innovator? Do milestones of a purposeful project management, distinctive communication skills or specific expectations and visions guide the development process?  

In industry - still a main driver for innovations in advanced economies - innovations are seldom created by a solitary inventor. Irrespective of industrial sector, relevant know-how and knowledge usually stem from distributed (external) knowledge sources (Robertson/Smith 2008). But the access to different knowledge bases implies the co-operation with heterogeneous partners under complex conditions. On the one hand, the co-operation partners pursue a common objective: generating a specific innovation. On the other hand, these partners are very heterogeneous. They have to align their sector-specific and disciplinary knowledge as well as their different technical languages, diverging approaches and objectives in order to initiate successful learning and to bring forward the innovation process.  

Since decision making between heterogeneous and equal actors requires alignment and commitment, it is a crucial condition for the success of innovation projects. The question arises how heterogeneous project partners can achieve alignment and commitment in uncertain, non-schedulable processes like innovations when hierarchical instructions and planning reliability are missing. Expectations have been intensively analysed and described for large technological developments as future representations of technology which initiate action and generate alignment (cf. Van Lente/Rip 1998, Borup et al. 2006). They are an important mechanism for coordinating and providing orientation but their role in industrial innovation processes has not been intensively discussed yet.

To answer this question and to conduct how structures and mechanisms like expectations are established, innovation projects under complex conditions were chosen: industrial co-operations between research intensive companies or institutes and non-research intensive companies. The actors did not know each other before the project has started, they were independent and located in different places and they had different professional backgrounds. For the qualitative case studies project partners were interviewed regarding the complexity that emerges not only due to the uncertainty of the innovation project itself but also due to geographical distance (space), different assumptions of time (time) and diverse professional and organisational backgrounds (discourse).

The case studies show different ways and mechanisms by which the complexity within the heterogeneous innovation projects was managed. It can be shown that e.g. trust as one mechanism to overcome this complexity doesn’t last. It is rather the interplay of static and dynamic mechanisms which creates stability and orientation during the innovation process and facilitates alignment and commitment.

Static mechanisms are those mechanisms by which complexity can be reduced in one of the three dimensions space, time and discourse, e. g. contracts, schedules or regular meetings as a first level of stability. To deal with more complex situations over and beyond a single dimension the project partners established dynamic mechanisms, namely complementary expectations and co-operative boundary objects[1]. The case studies show that each project partner had his or her specific expectations which were especially relevant at the beginning of the project when the clear verbalisation of the technical/technological expectation leads to:

  • the technological field in which the innovation is located as well as
  • the time and the financial resources which are roughly needed to realize the innovation.
  • Based on these expectations it finally reduces the range of possible to the most competent and adequate co-operation partner(s).

Reducing opportunities by focusing on future purposes provides first orientation for potential partners. But it is not hard to imagine that the different actors keep their individual expectations like enhancing reputation within the research community or becoming technology leader. These (diverging) individual expectations of each project partner weren’t mutually exclusive but they were complementary instead: There is a mutual dependency of the project partner to realise their expectations and to achieve their objectives.

Summing up: With pronouncing expectations a framework for the innovation process is shaped and complexity its three dimensions is reduced: some opportunities are excluded, other become more likely. The expectations set a status quo which marks nodal points as soon as project partners are related to each other. Those nodal points cannot be withdrawn easily – they foster alignment and commitment as fundamental part for decision making in heterogeneous innovation co-operations.

Overcoming complexity in innovation projects is not solved by a single mechanism, especially not with hierarchical orders. In order to navigate through uncertainty the heterogeneous actors establish static mechanisms as some kind of infrastructure which provides a general stability. Complementary expectations as a dynamic mechanism frame the area which provides orientation for decision making and function – once pronounced – as landmarks that are hard to reverse.    

The contribution describes the complexity of industrial innovation projects based on innovation case studies and shows how the project partners enhance stability and orientation for decision making. Finally the empirical results are conceptualised and linked to the field of expectation research.


Borup, Mads; Brown, Nik; Konrad, Kornelia, Van Lente, Harro (2006): The Sociology of Expectations in Science and Technology. In: Technology Analysis & Strategic Management, 18/3,4, pp. 285-298

Robertson, Paul; Smith, Keith (2008): Distributed knowledge bases in low- and medium-technology industries. In: Hirsch-Kreinsen, H.; Jacobson, D. (ed.), Innovation in Low-Tech Firms and Industries. Cheltenham: Edward Elgar, pp. 93-117

Van Lente, Harro; Rip, Arie (1998): The rise of membrane technology: From rhetorics to social reality. In: Social Studies of Science, 28/2, pp. 221-254

[1] To explain both mechanisms would go beyond the scope of this call. For further reading see: Hahn, Katrin (2008): Heterogene Akteure als Innovationspartner, Wiesbaden: Springer VS