Can teams benefit from using a mindful infrastructure when defensive behaviour threatens complex innovation projects?

2016 – In the International Journal of Project Organisation and Management Peter Oeij, Steven Dhondt, Jeff Gaspersz and Ernest Vroome report the results of an exploratory case study into the effectiveness of teams working on innovation projects.

Problem and research questions
Innovation projects are often doomed to failure. These projects are complex projects that often may evoke defensive reactions of team members without them being conscious of that behaviour. That is the expectation of the researchers. The management often act according to the traditional ‘iron triangle’ of time, budget and results to be achieved. Many failures could be explained from these mechanisms because an innovation project just needs an opposite reaction.

At High Risk Organizations (HRO’s), such as a nuclear power plant or a control tower controversial reactions also often are required. Employees and managers of HRO’s are trained to not respond reflexively and routinely. A ‘mindful infrastructure’ ensures that they act properly, consciously and thoughtfully. A mindful infrastructure consists of three constructs: namely team mindfulness, team psychological safety and team learning. Based on the insights of Weick and Sutcliffe (2007), ‘team mindfulness’ can be defined as a collectively shared mental orientation in which one is continuously alert in regard to unexpected events and what might go wrong during the project.

Is there really defensive behaviour in teams working on complex innovation projects? And would a mindful infrastructure also help these teams and thus reduce the number of failures? These are the questions in this exploratory case study.

The authors did an exploratory case study on the execution of complex innovation projects by teams in a technological research institute in the Netherlands. They applied the model of ‘triangulation’ using three methods that support each other. In-depth interviews were held with the team managers. Team observations were made and video recordings were made which later were scored by experts on defensive behaviour of team members. And a survey was done.

From the interviews it could be concluded that many of the innovation projects are ‘complex projects’ indeed. And team defensive behaviour could be observed, as expected. If however there was a mindful infrastucture, that went along with positive project results in the perception of the team members that were involved in the survey.

Oeij, P.R.A., Dhondt, S.,Gaspersz, J.B.R. and de Vroome, E.M.M. (2016) ‘Can teams benefit from
using a mindful infrastructure when defensive behaviour threatens complex innovation projects?’,  Int. J. Project Organisation and Management, Vol. 8, No. 3, pp.241–258.