“You´re supposed to interfere…” : Conducting leadership through meaning-making in new product development
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- PhD theses (SV-IMS) 
Original version“You´re supposed to interfere…” - Conducting leadership through meaning-making in new product development by Kristiane Marie Fjær Lindland. University of Stavanger, 2014
The theses explore how leadership is conducted through meaning-making in New Product Development-work. Leadership through meaning-making is here understood as the acts of enabling one-self and others to act competently and constructively for realizing shared goals through interactions where both meaning and meaning-makers are under continuous development. Innovation has the last couple of decades become a buzz-word, bearing both the promise of survival and the risk of failure. Much attention has thus been placed on finding ways of reducing risk of failure and enhancing possibilities for success. The major challenge for conducting leadership in innovation processes is that as innovation processes involve both exploration and exploitation this typically demands quite different forms of leadership. Also, while existing knowledge and solutions are of decisive importance for short-term survival, one also has to break with current understandings to survive in the long run. A central focus for innovation research has thus been to find ways of handling these apparently contradicting leadership tasks for securing the need for both exploration and efficiency. The solution to this challenge has often been sought in ways of organizing the innovation processes, separating the explorative tasks from the exploitative tasks in order to conduct leadership according to the different tasks. An underlying assumption to most of these research contributions is that innovation processes are rational processes whereas human factors are input factors in line with other input factors, the outcome of the process is innovation. This thesis questions these rational understandings of innovation-processes, by exploring New Product Development (NPD) through a relational approach where meaning and identity co-constitute one another and create direction for further development. The theoretical basis for this relational approach draws on the work of George Herbert Mead, John Dewey, Erving Goffman, Norbert Elias, and newer contributions from complexity theory and pragmatism. The ontological basis for the study draws on the dialectical understanding of reality found in the work of Hegel, and thus questioning the dualistic understanding typical for system theory, which dominates innovation-theory. The purpose of the study is to contribute to a more comprehensive and nuanced understanding of how leadership is conducted through meaning-making, and where the conducting of identity is central for the ability to do so. Through a qualitative fieldwork characterized by abductive reasoning, the NPD work in a company developing, producing and marketing products for professional kitchens was followed over a time-period stretching over four years. What characterized the organizing of the NPD work was that it was cross-disciplinary beyond the involvement of different disciplines and tasks. The second aspect was that the same participants were more or less involved in all development-processes in the sense that the various processes under development were handled more or less simultaneously. Three aspects of meaning-making became central for how the NPD work developed, and thus also for how leadership was conducted through meaning-making. The first aspect was the use of physical objects for directing, exploring and expressing meaning. The second aspect was that the way participants conducted themselves in the transactions where meaning developed, also influenced on the ability to make use of the physical objects for taking the NPD-work forward. The third aspect was the fact that participants often experienced several - often contradicting yet valid – expectations to who they could be and what they could and should do in transactions with other participants. I have called these expectations for paradoxical expectations. The conducting of leadership through meaning-making was thus about providing opportunities for developing identities where participants could perform their work tasks in a fruitful way, and directing the conduct of selves in ways that enabled the task-related work. This directing of conduct was usually guided by internalized social plays where participants had developed an understanding of what others expected of them and how various gestures should be interpreted. The conducting of leadership demanded both self-leadership and co-leadership by all participants. They needed to adjust themselves to the development of events and provide opportunities for one another to take necessary leadership initiatives. Although this cooperation around leadership could go for any leadership act, it became especially evident in situations where there existed paradoxical expectations of how to act. An example of a paradoxical expectation much focused on in innovation literature is the need for securing both exploration and exploitation. As exploration and exploitation demand different forms of leadership, there is also a need for enabling leadership to bridge the gap between these two forms (Uhl-Bien & Marion, 2009). In addition to exploration and exploitation, I also experienced paradoxical expectations between formal and informal expectations, between conformity and conflict and between tasks and relations. Enabling leadership in situations of paradoxical expectations was in this study not about reducing the demand for paradoxical leadership acts, but rather about enabling paradoxical leadership acts to be conducted despite their contradicting aspects. I found mainly three strategies for coping with, enabling and even creating paradoxical expectations. The first one was to rule out one of the paradoxical aspects, usually handled by how participants conducted themselves through social plays. The second strategy was to point out paradoxical expectations as a fact and an opportunity for choosing both understandings as possible. The third strategy was actually about creating paradoxical expectations and through this make a room for acting that previously did not exist. The thesis contributes to a deeper understanding of what we could call the “hidden work” in NPD work, or tacit knowledge. Hence, it contributes to a more comprehensive empirical insight in how the role of physical objects, identity and paradoxical expectations in various ways influence on the meaning-making, and how leadership is conducted through meaning-making. As such it can also contribute to a more empirical understanding of what Uhl-Bien and Marion ( 2009) called enabling leadership, adaptive leadership and administrative leadership. Through having studied the NPD-work as work consisting of numerous products and projects developing across and in parallel and based on with one another, the study has also contributed to a broader understanding of how products and projects are interconnected, and how this has implications for both the reasons found for developing a new product, and for the assessment of profitability in NPD-work. It also contributes to widening the understanding of what forms of paradoxical expectations beyond the explorative and exploitative aspects participants face in their efforts of developing innovative product-solutions. The findings can also contribute to a discussion about self-leadership and co-leadership and how these actually can be two sides of the same coin. Finally; the study can contribute to more attention and respect for the relational competence and work participants need to conduct in order to enable the task-related work in NPD-processes. Findings from the study can have implications for what and how we understand meaning-making in innovation work to be and how leadership in this work in practice is conducted. It can also have implications for how we assess the fruitfulness of differing ways of organizing NPD work. And finally, the study can have implications for a discussion regarding how we often study NPD-work and whether we actually can grasp central, “hidden” aspects of how leadership is conducted in practice by the use of quantitative tools or solely qualitative interviews. Further research on this area is needed, both by using the transactional understanding of Mead, Dewey and Elias for exploring the role of meaning and identities in innovation-work, and for exploring how this theoretical approach relate to other related theoretical approaches. It would also be interesting to check out how the findings from this study resonate with what can be found in other companies and organizations. The study can also raise research agendas for further studies on how profitability is assessed in NPD-work and how this influences on the decisions made in these processes.
PhD theses in social sciences