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The innovation journey of new product development processes often spans weeks or months. Recently, hackathons have turned the journey into an ad hoc sprint of only a couple of days using new tools and technologies. Existing research predicts such conditions would result in failure to produce new working products, yet hackathons often lead to functioning innovative products. To investigate this puzzle, we closely studied the product development process of 13 comparable projects in assistive technology hackathons. We find that accelerating innovation created temporal ambiguity, as it was unclear how to coordinate the challenging work within such an extremely limited and ad hoc time frame. Multiple projects worked to reduce this ambiguity, importing temporal structures from organizational innovation processes and compressing them to fit the extremely limited and ad-hoc time frame. They worked in full coordination to build a new product. They all failed. Only projects that sustained the temporal ambiguity – by working with merely a minimal basis for coordination and let new temporal structures emerge - were able to produce functioning new products under the intense time pressure. This study contributes to theories on innovation processes, coordination, and temporality.
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Minimal and Adaptive Coordination:
How Hackathons’ Projects Accelerate Innovation without Killing it
Hila Lifshitz- Assaf
Stern School of Business, New York University
H@Nyu.edu
[Corresponding Author]
Sarah Lebovitz
Stern School of Business, New York University
Lior Zalmanson
Coller School of Management, Tel Aviv University
April, 2020
This paper is forthcoming at Academy of Management Journal
Reference: Lifshitz-Assaf H., Lebovitz S. & Zalmanson L. 2020.
Academy of Management Journal, Forthcoming.
Acknowledgement: We are very grateful to the insightful feedback and guidance of Associate
Editor Pratima (Tima) Bansal and three anonymous reviewers for their helpful comments. This
paper has greatly benefited from feedback Beth Bechky, Natalia Levina, Anne-Laure Fayard,
Michael Tushman , Tor Hernes, Iddo Tavory, and Sen Chai as well as participants at NYU
Qualitative Workshop, the Open and User Innovation Conference, EGOS, PROS, GroupsGroup,
Academy of Management Conference, and the Wharton Innovation Doctoral Symposium. We
are grateful to the TOM Global and Google organizations, participants, and users for letting us
study their inspiring hackathons. We are grateful to the NSF INSPIRE grant for supporting this
study.
Minimal and Adaptive Coordination: How Hackathons’ Projects Accelerate Innovation
without Killing it
ABSTRACT
The innovation journey of new product development processes often spans weeks or months.
Recently, hackathons have turned the journey into an ad hoc sprint of only a couple of days using
new tools and technologies. Existing research predicts such conditions would result in failure to
produce new working products, yet hackathons often lead to functioning innovative products. To
investigate this puzzle, we closely studied the product development process of 13 comparable
projects in assistive technology hackathons. We find that accelerating innovation created
temporal ambiguity, as it was unclear how to coordinate the challenging work within such an
extremely limited and ad hoc time frame. Multiple projects worked to reduce this ambiguity,
importing temporal structures from organizational innovation processes and compressing them to
fit the extremely limited and ad-hoc time frame. They worked in full coordination to build a new
product. They all failed. Only projects that sustained the temporal ambiguity – by working with
merely a minimal basis for coordination and let new temporal structures emerge - were able to
produce functioning new products under the intense time pressure. This study contributes to
theories on innovation processes, coordination, and temporality.
Key words: innovation, temporality, hackathons, acceleration, coordination, open innovation,
ambiguity
INTRODUCTION
A vast body of research tells us innovation work and new product development processes take
time. These processes have been well documented across different organizations and industries,
collectively emphasizing the significant periods of time associated with the innovation process,
which often persists for months or even years (Brown & Eisenhardt, 1995; Garud, Gehman, &
Kumaraswamy, 2011); Van de Ven and co-authors (1999) thus aptly refer to the innovation
“journey.But recent new product development technologies such as 3D printing and free
fabrication tools enable performing some development activities significantly faster. This has led
to the rise of hackathons: accelerated innovation processes that bring together individuals to
voluntarily develop new products to solve specific and ambitious challenges in an extremely
limited and ad hoc time frame (72 hours or in some cases less). What happens when the new
product development process is accelerated, transformed from a journey into a sprint? This study
explores that question by closely examining the accelerated innovation project work in assistive
technology hackathons.
Acceleration of work processes has been taking place in multiple domains due to
technological progress (Rosa, 2013, 2016; Wajcman, 2014), yet we know little about how this
change is manifested—how it is actually impacting various work processes and their outcomes.
Prior literature in creativity and innovation has investigated time pressure and would predict that
significantly increasing it in a new product development process is detrimental to its outcomes.
Time pressure has been found to create vicious cycles of “time famine” (Perlow, 1999) that
impede performance, in particular, for creative work and innovation that require exploration
(Amabile, Hadley, & Kramer, 2002). Yet this phenomenon is burgeoning across industries and
fields as part of dismantling the boundaries of the innovation process (Lifshitz-Assaf 2018) and
hackathons often result in new working products (Taylor & Clarke, 2018). In our study, some
projects were remarkably able to develop fully functioning assistive technology products for
critical needs previously unmet by companies, in just 72 hours; some projects even handed
working products over for individuals to immediately use at the end of that time frame. For
example, we saw a young woman without arms take home a mouth-operated grabbing device to
help her with everyday activities and a designer in his thirties acquire a simple kit to upgrade his
mechanical wheelchair to operate electronically. These outcomes are important even beyond
these specific individuals, as the hackathon product designs were made publicly available,
providing affordable solutions to others facing similar accessibility challenges. How did those
projects succeed innovating on challenging problems despite the intense time pressure? To
address this empiric puzzle and theoretical gap, we set out to examine these accelerated
innovation processes.
From a theoretical perspective, most innovation process studies have been conducted in
organizational settings that retain clear temporal structures, with accepted stages, milestones, and
cycles throughout the new product development process (Ancona, Goodman, Lawrence, &
Tushman, 2001; Brown & Eisenhardt, 1995; Clark & Fujimoto, 1991). In this study, we move
outside the organizational context into contemporary ways of organizing to explore the
accelerated innovation process: what happens when there is an ad hoc and extremely limited time
frame for a new product development task, with no clearly prescribed temporal structures. We
therefore draw upon broader organizational theories on temporality (Ancona et al., 2001;
Orlikowski & Yates, 2002) and coordination (Bechky & Chung, 2018; Okhuysen & Bechky,
2009). Scholars have stressed that to excel in today’s complex and uncertain business
environments, individuals must work together in new and unexpected ways (Edmondson, 2012).
We conducted an in-depth investigation of how new products are developed in
accelerated innovation processes. We closely analyzed the product development processes of 13
projects in two assistive technology hackathons. All projects began with similar conditions:
participants who had only just met with each other to solve similar challenges under the same
extremely limited time frame. They all had access to the same materials and machinery available
such as 3D printers, laser cutters, woodshop, mechanical and electrical equipment and supplies.
The goal was to build a working product to solve a real and challenging assistive technology
problem in 72 hours. Only a clear and ambitious goal and an extremely limited and ad-hoc time
frame was defined with no guidance on the process. As hackathons adhere to non-hierarchical
and opens ways of organizing, no clear process, structure or roles were defined (Puranam, Alexy,
& Reitzig, 2014; Tushman, Lakhani, & Lifshitz-Assaf, 2012). After 72 hours, each project
presented its end product, marking a discriminant time point at which we compared projects’
outcomes and levels of success in developing a working product.
In addition to the challenges associated with new product development processes, the
extremely limited and ad-hoc time frame with no clear temporal structures yielded temporal
ambiguity. Temporal ambiguity refers to the multitude of possibilities when facing a new time
frame as to when particular activities will occur, their sequence or progression, and how long
they will last (Hassard, 1991; McGrath & Kelly, 1992). Our comparative analysis of these new
product development processes surfaced the critical role of how participants dealt with temporal
ambiguity. Some projects, in order to reduce the temporal ambiguity, imported and compressed
temporal structures from prior organizational innovation processes and worked in full
coordination to achieve a new working product. In contrast, other projects assumed that the
accelerated innovation process is too different from prior innovation processes, and they
sustained the temporal ambiguity, letting new temporal structures emerge. These projects only
built a minimal basis for coordination and throughout their development work coordinated in an
adaptive or minimal manner. This difference turned out to be critical for the ability to produce
new products under the accelerated innovation conditions: only projects that worked in adaptive
coordination were able to produce fully functioning new products. Projects that fully coordinated
their efforts failed to do so, and projects with only minimal coordination produced only basic
functioning products.
THEORETICAL PERSPECTIVES
Time and the Innovation Process
Time inherently plays a pivotal role in the process of innovation. New product development
work is knowledge intensive, and it takes time to build knowledge in a collective (Hargadon &
Bechky, 2006) by exploring and combining ideas from different individuals and fields (Brown
& Eisenhardt, 1995; Dahlander, O’Mahony, & Gann, 2016; Yoo, Boland, Lyytinen, &
Majchrzak, 2012). Moreover, innovation processes involve high levels of technological
uncertainty, leading to tensions and debates when making decisions on the development process
(Benner & Tushman, 2003; Seidel & O’Mahony, 2014; Smith & Tushman, 2005). The
“innovation journey” (Van de Ven et al., 1999) thus is a challenging, time-intensive process; it
follows a non-linear development path (Garud et al., 2011) typically taking months or even years
to complete.
Yet recently, new technologies and tools such as 3D printing, Arduino, and Raspberry
Pi— referred to as “acceleration technologies” (Wajcman, 2014)—have created a leap-frog
effect in the speed of multiple new product development activities (Boland, Lyytinen, & Yoo,
2007; de Jong & de Bruijn, 2013; Su & Pirani, 2013). They have enabled the rise of accelerated
innovation processes, such as hackathons, aiming to develop new products in an extremely
limited and ad hoc time frame. Existing literature would predict that accelerating the innovation
process will fail to produce successful outcomes as acceleration induces a very strong time
pressure. Organizational literature has illustrated how intense time pressure creates vicious
cycles of “time famine” (Perlow, 1999) that are detrimental for performance, in particular for
creative work and innovation tasks (Kruglanski & Webster, 1996). Time pressure was found to
curtail creative problem-solving by elevating the need for cognitive closure, for reducing
ambiguity (Amabile et al., 2002), and for quickly creating certainty and order in the work
process (Chirumbolo, Livi, Mannetti, Pierro, & Kruglanski, 2004; Kruglanski & Freund, 1983).
Furthermore, high time pressure conflicts with the importance of being fully immersed in the
creative process—the ability to “forget time,” which research indicates is an important condition
for creativity and flow (Csikszentmihalyi, 1992).
Despite these predictions, forms of accelerated innovation such as hackathons often yield
successful results (Flores, Golob, Maklin, & Tucci, 2019; Roy, 2019; Thornsen, 2019). This
creates an empiric puzzle that begs a deeper exploration of the temporal nature and conditions of
the accelerated innovation process itself. Although time plays a critical role in the innovation
process, the temporal nature of the process—how actors interpret and enact time—has not been
directly and thoroughly explored beyond the time pressure studies (Garud, Gehman,
Kumaraswamy, & Tuertscher, 2016). We therefore draw on the broader literature on temporality
in organizational theory. A temporal perspective illuminates how the studies of innovation
processes have mostly focused on organizational settings with clear “temporal structures”: social
processes and practices that shape individuals’ temporal practices, providing form to daily work
(Orlikowski & Yates, 2002; Reinecke & Ansari, 2015; Schultz & Hernes, 2012). The literature
has documented how innovation processes in organizations usually follow clear processes with
accepted phases and milestones (Ancona, Okhuysen, & Perlow, 2001; Brown & Eisenhardt,
1995; Clark & Fujimoto, 1991).
Across various types of new product development processes, there is usually a similar
underlying temporal structure for the work process that was documented in the literature,
comprising several stages. Typically, when the new product development process begins,
individuals brainstorm and use various techniques to search for an appropriate solution or design
(Hargadon & Bechky, 2006; Hargadon & Sutton, 1997), considering many potential ideas
(Hennessey & Amabile, 2010; March, 1991). This is a challenging process, known as the “fuzzy
front end” of the innovation process (Kim & Wilemon, 2002), whereby individuals face many
unknowns regarding the feasibility of proposed ideas (Carlsen, Clegg, & Gjersvik, 2012; Denrell,
Fang, & Levinthal, 2004; Hargadon, 2003).
Next, following various decision-making practices, individuals usually transition to
create a clear shared understanding, a basis for coordinated work around the anticipated product
design from their divergent concepts ((Bonabeau, Bodick, & Armstrong, 2008; Kruglanski &
Webster, 1996). Studies have described the transition from “divergence” to convergence”
(Leonard & Sensiper, 2011) and how boundary objects such as sketches, models, and narratives
are often used to communicate the anticipated design (Bechky, 2003a; Levina & Vaast, 2005;
Seidel & O’Mahony, 2014). This phase in the process paves the product development path
(Garud & Karnoe, 2001) and in the evolutionary innovation literature is often called the
transition from “variation” to “selection” (Campbell, 1969; Simonton, 1999; Vincenti, 1994).
After the selected design is well defined, the next phase is its execution into a real
product or technology through development work that includes cycles of prototype development
and testing
1
(Gerber & Carroll, 2012; Leonardi, 2011; Yang, 2005). This phase often brings new
challenges that were previously unforeseen, requiring multiple rounds of development and
testing to reduce it. Methods such as Agile and Scrum
2
, for instance, are often used to create
quick and iterative cycles for prototype testing and development (Conboy, 2009; Hoda, Salleh,
Grundy, & Tee, 2017; McConnell, 2019; Rigby, Sutherland, & Takeuchi, 2016).
In this study we move outside the organizational context into contemporary ways of
organizing innovation without clear structures. Only the time frame of 72 hours was clear in the
hackathons we studied, no guidance was given about the work process—how to proceed, order
or synchronize the activities of the challenging task. The lack of clarity about temporal
structures, combined with the extremely limited and ad hoc time frame for a new product
development task, creates new temporal conditions for the innovation process that have not yet
been studied. Orlikowski and Yates (2002: 688) stressed the importance of studying how social
actors are not only shaped by, but also shape, temporal structures: “People are purposive,
adaptive and inventive actors who, while they are shaped by established temporal structures, can
also choose (whether explicitly or implicitly) to (re)shape those temporal structures to
accomplish their situated and dynamic ends.” This study sets out to investigate how social actors
enact time in accelerated innovation processes, whereby no clear temporal structures are
prescribed. Scholars have been calling for more theoretical exploration of time and temporality in
organizational theory (Ancona, Goodman, Lawrence, & Tushman, 2001; Dawson, 2014; Hernes
1
In this paper, we refer to the production of a working prototype as the end point of the new product development
process (following Hargadon & Sutton, 1997). After that point, there is usually another set of processes focused on
taking the product to market. These processes are not within the scope of the new product development process we
focus on in this study.
2
Agile and Scrum are software development methodologies whose principles are currently widely applied in new
product development processes based on a philosophy of iterative and evolutionary development. These highly
structured methods typically involve short daily milestone meetings to identify and overcome any technical
challenges impeding progress and coordinate toward the completion of a prototype.
& Schultz, 2020). In particular process theory scholars such as Langley and colleagues (2013: 1)
have noted that theorizing processes “explicitly incorporates temporal progressions of activities
as elements of explanation and understanding.” We follow this approach and investigate the
progression of new product development activities to enhance our understanding of the
accelerated innovation process.
Coordination in the Innovation Process
For decades, coordination scholars have demonstrated the importance of coordination practices
for accomplishing innovation work (Adler, 1995; Bechky, 2003b; Crowston, 1997;
Jarzabkowski, Lê, & Feldman, 2012). Because the timing of tasks and processes is critical
(Allen, 1977; Katz & Tushman, 1983), the temporal dimension of coordination is particularly
important during innovation processes (Bruyninckx, 2017; Yakura, 2002). This includes the set
of behaviors that ensure work is finished on time by attending to the temporal integration of
individuals, activities, and processes (Hassard, 1991; Moore, 1963). Coordination helps actors
synchronize activities’ prioritize and pace, and perform simultaneous activities as product
development challenges emerge over the course of the innovation process (e.g., Slocombe &
Bluedorn, 1999; Waller, Giambatista, & Zellmer-Bruhn, 1999).
Most studies documenting the importance of full coordination in innovation have focused
on organizational processes that span long periods of time and have clear temporal structures.
These studies document how full coordination enables actors to manage the timing of connected
activities, ensuring that components come together in time and that costly rework is avoided
(Finholt & Sproull, 1990; Kraut, Galegher, Fish, & Chalfonte, 1992; Sabbagh, 1996). Full
coordination is depicted in the literature as achieved by discussing and debating design
alternatives and by aligning the timing and pace of tasks relative to other tasks within the
project’s time frame (see Okhuysen & Bechky, 2009). Such rich ongoing interactions help
establish shared understandings and language and typically involve exchanging information,
such as material specifications and technical methods, which provides opportunities to make
adjustments and further elaborate the anticipated design (Hinds & Kiesler, 1995).
In this study, we focus on innovation in an ad hoc setting. Prior research on ad hoc
organizing has found that achieving coordination in such settings is particularly important. It is
very challenging for social actors who have just met to work together for an extremely limited
period of time on a new task. A key factor found in the literature to help achieve full
coordination in ad hoc conditions is pre-existing organizational or professional structures, which
actors draw on to establish a shared understanding to enable collaborative work. This is the case
across field studies examining ad hoc organizing such as filming commercials (Bechky, 2006;
Bechky & Chung, 2018), providing disaster relief services (Majchrzak, Jarvenpaa, &
Hollingshead, 2007), treating patients in trauma centers (Faraj & Xiao, 2006; Klein, Ziegert,
Knight, & Xiao, 2006; Valentine & Edmondson, 2014), or developing software (Retelny et al.,
2014; Valentine, Retelny, Rahmati, Doshi, & Bernstein, 2017). The pre-established structures
actors have relied on in these studies usually entail known roles or process protocols that define
responsibilities, interdependencies, and priorities. This is illustrated in studies of emergency
departments when clearly defined patient care processes and protocols help guide the interactions
of different professionals working together (Faraj, Pachidi, & Sayegh, 2018), or when a “role-
based scaffolding” structure is added to enable better-coordinated patient care with heightened
accountability and shared responsibility (Valentine & Edmondson, 2014).
Accelerated innovation processes entail theoretically distinct conditions from the existing
coordination literature: creative tasks with no clear prescribed structures in ad hoc and extremely
limited time frames. Hackathons are built around the ethos of autonomy, self-selection, and
freedom to work without prescribed structures and protocols (Lakhani & Panetta, 2007;
Majchrzak & Malhotra, 2020; Moyer, Malinverno, O’Neill, & Gotta, 2016). Organizational
innovation field studies have found the importance of full coordination in long-term innovation
processes that have clear temporal structures; while studies of ad-hoc organizing emphasized the
importance of pre-established organizational structures for coordination. We focus on an
innovation process that does not rely upon previous organizational or temporal structures and is
conducted within an ad hoc and very limited time frame outside of traditional organizational
boundaries.
Researchers have recognized the need for further research on the actual work itself in
contemporary ways of organizing, which manage to achieve working knowledge products
without clear role definitions, traditional organizational control, or coordination mechanisms
(Arazy, Daxenberger, Lifshitz-Assaf, Nov, & Gurevych, 2016; Dahlander & O’Mahony, 2011;
Faraj, Jarvenpaa, & Majchrzak, 2011; Okhuysen & Bechky, 2009). In particular, there is a need
for focusing on the nature of coordination under such conditions: “Organizations of the future
will continue to encompass fluid, fast-paced, interdependent work. Understanding the conditions
and practices that facilitate effective coordination and teamwork despite these challenges
remains a crucial area for theoretical and practical advances” (Valentine & Edmondson, 2014:
420). This study follows this call.
RESEARCH SETTING
To study accelerating innovation, a new and complex phenomenon, we investigated accelerated
innovation processes in the field (Edmondson & McManus, 2007; Langley, 1999; Yin, 1994).
We focused on 13 accelerated new product development processes in the context of hackathons,
which have been rising in popularity both in terms of frequency and participation in recent years
(Bernstein, 2018; Dionne & Carlile, 2019; Flores et al., 2019). Hackathons are part of the
growing movement to open or distributed innovation in the last two decades (Benkler, 2006;
Chesbrough, 2003; Von Hippel, 2005), aiming to dismantle knowledge boundaries in order to
solve scientific, technological and societal problems (Fayard, Gkeredakis, & Levina, 2016;
Lifshitz-Assaf, 2018; Young, Selander, & Vaast, 2019). Most hackathons are organized by non-
profit organizations and are open to the public, attracting individuals from a wide spectrum of
vocations with different levels of skill (Anderson, 2012; Nascimento & Pólvora, 2016; Patel,
2019). Increasingly companies organize both internal and open hackathons (Moyer et al., 2016;
Pe-Than et al., 2019). Such contemporary organizational forms are particularly important in
fields like healthcare where companies are limited in their capacity to innovate and produce, thus
leaving many individuals in need without viable solutions (Aungst, 2015; Von Hippel, 2017).
The hackathons we studied, similar to most hardware-based hackathons
3
, took place in
makerspaces heavily stocked with computing and fabrication tools, including 3D printers,
designed to foster innovation (Browder et al., 2019; Hui & Gerber, 2017).
Hackathons have multiple advantages as a research context for exploring accelerated
innovation. First, they create a highly controllable environment that is isolated from external
interferences; all projects can be compared as they start with similar conditions and are expected
to produce similar outputs. This is rare when studying innovation in the field. Second, unlike in
laboratory studies, we could observe participants’ natural process of interacting with
technologies as they cope with emergent problems in their natural environment, a makerspace.
3
Hardware-based hackathons are also referred to as makeathons.
We did not choose the participants or design their interactions. Finally, hackathons bring real-
world challenges to participants that induce authentic effort and drive to produce solutions.
We chose to study assistive technology hackathons after conducting an exploratory study
for one year (2014–2015), during which we first examined hackathons broadly to get ourselves
acquainted with and immersed in the phenomenon of accelerated innovation processes (Van
Maanen, 1998). We closely studied a dozen hackathons in different fields and realized it was not
possible to compare the product development processes used in such different hackathons (we
expand upon the unique practices of hackathon organizers elsewhere (Lifshitz-Assaf, Lebovitz,
& Zalmanson, 2018). We then searched for comparable development processes with clear and
measurable outcomes in hackathons. We therefore focused on two assistive technology
hackathons that occurred in two similar makerspaces in the United States in late 2015 and early
2016. The hackathons were organized by the same non-profit organization (TOM Global
4
,
sponsored by Google’s charitable arm
5
and a few other non-profits dealing with assisting
individuals with disabilities), thereby controlling extraneous variation among cases (Bechky &
O’Mahony, 2015; Eisenhardt, 1989a). Hackathon organizers did not provide instructions as to
how projects should go about their work, as there is a clear norm in hackathons to allow
participants and projects to proceed as they desire. The hackathons’ goal was to deliver a
functioning assistive technology product in 72 hours, and there was no competition for any prize.
Participants in hackathons come from a wide variety of professional backgrounds such as
electrical, mechanical, and computer engineering; art; business; and education. Table 1 displays
the participant demographics of our study.
4
For more information, visit www.tomglobal.org.
5
For more information, visit www.google.org.
Table 1: Demographics of Participants at the Assistive Technology Hackathons
Percent
Percent
Age
Expertise
under 20
6%
Software
33%
20-24
11%
Business
15%
25-29
35%
Mechanical engineer
13%
30-34
26%
Industrial design
9%
35-39
11%
Education
6%
40+
11%
Architect
6%
Gender
Electrical engineering, robotics
4%
Female
30%
User experience
4%
Previous Experiences
Other
11%
Previous ‘thon’ events
31%
Education
3D printing
54%
Bachelor’s degree
91%
Healthcare
11%
Graduate degree
37%
The life of each project spanned only the 72-hour hackathon time frame. Most
participants had never met before: they assembled for these challenges and disassembled at the
end of the 72 hours. The hackathon participants, who volunteered to spend their weekend solving
these challenges for individuals with disabilities, self-selected into projects. These challenges
were new to the participants. Printed signs, each with a challenge description, were posted on
separate work tables, and participants chose a table—and thus a challenge to work on—when
entering the makerspace. These challenges were unsolved assistive technology problems that
companies in this field have not solved and that individuals with disabilities need solved, such as
“What if there was a device to operate at-home elevators with voice commands?” and “What if
there was a way to adjust rates of airflow without having to remove a backpack device?”
Descriptions of all projects are provided in Table 2, and details of each project’s final product
appear in Appendix A. We closely followed 13 projects
6
for the duration of their product
development process.
6
We collected data from seven projects at the first hackathon and six projects from second. These were
almost all the projects participating in the hackathons (we excluded one project that only one participant
worked).
Data Sources
To reach a deep and rich understanding of the projects’ accelerated innovation processes, we
collected and triangulated multiple primary data sources: observation, interviews, and projects’
work documents and artifacts.
Observation. We observed each project’s work process (Barley, 1990; Geertz, 1973) over
the duration of its hackathon. We captured as much data as possible in real-time, hour-by-hour
observation notes (over 160 pages of field notes in total). Collecting data on accelerated
innovation required adapting our traditional organizational field research tools due to the
mesmerizing speed of events and activities. Thus, in addition to taking field notes, we
documented critical interactions and development activities in over 390 minutes of video
recording, which we subsequently summarized or transcribed (over 60 pages in total). Moreover,
multiple investigators (all three authors and two research assistants) conducted the data
collection in order to keep up with the development of activities, maintain a high concentration
of observation efforts, and enhance the richness of data captured. Throughout the observation of
the projects’ development work process, the first co-author led the research team and convened
them every four to six hours to quickly exchange impressions and prominent themes, which
informed subsequent data collection and led to updates to the interview protocols. These
iterations between data collection and preliminary analysis provided important insights that led
to adjustments in our data collection process (Golden-Biddle & Locke, 2007). For instance,
during one such exchange, one researcher shared that the project she was observing was using
four 3D printers to simultaneously print multiple versions of the same component. This oriented
the other researchers to pay special attention, as they returned to observe other projects, to when
these tools were employed and for what specific purpose and duration.
Interviews. We conducted a total of 90 formal and informal interviews to investigate
participants’ perceptions and interpretations of the unfolding events and processes (Hernes,
2014). To fully capture all projects, we interviewed all 54 participants at least once
7
in the 72
hours, either during coffee breaks or over meals, following a semi-structured interview protocol
(Spradley, 1979). During these interviews, we asked participants to recount ongoing
development activities, to explain key interactions and challenges the project faced, and to
describe perceptions of the task and its feasibility within dwindling time. Questions included
“Can you explain what you are working on currently and what others are working on?” and
“Why did you change from working on a Raspberry Pi platform to Arduino?”
In the two days immediately after each hackathon concluded, we conducted an additional
22 in-depth interviews (lasting between 45 and 90 minutes) either in person or by video or phone
call. We again followed a semi-structured protocol (Spradley, 1979), seeking to gain a deeper
understanding of participants’ perceptions and reflections on the process, as well as to dive
deeper into the insights gained through our observations, when there is no time pressure.
Questions included “What were your expectations when joining the hackathon?”, “How did you
determine which task to focus on?”, and “How would you compare the hackathon to the work at
your day job?” Including both onsite and post-hackathon interviews, we conducted a total of 90
interviews, which were transcribed and resulted in over 155 pages.
Projects’ work documents and artifacts. We also collected data on the physical and
digital work artifacts used in each project and produced by it. We captured over 260 photographs
of project work artifacts, including sketches on whiteboards and in notebooks, prioritized lists of
development tasks and product features, digital CAD files, models created from building
7
We interviewed 14 of the participants twice to gain further insights into key unfolding events.
materials, and evolving product components. We used the photographs to track projects’ product
development progress and understand how components were designed and in what ways they
changed over time. Moreover, we collected data from product documentation that participants
posted to their personal blogs or open-source websites (over 25 postings).
Lastly, we collected secondary data on the hackathons more broadly, including online
material published by TOM Global, participants’ pre-hackathon applications and post-hackathon
survey responses, and related articles written by news outlets.
DATA ANALYSIS
Data analysis followed an inductive theory-generation process (Charmaz, 2014; Glaser, 1978;
Walsh et al., 2015; Yin, 1994). As our focus was understanding the work processes in
accelerated innovation projects, we followed the example of important past innovation process
studies (Garud et al., 2016; Hargadon & Bechky, 2006; Hargadon & Sutton, 1997). The
following four stages describe our data analysis process.
In the first stage of analysis, our aim was to fully map each project’s process (Cloutier &
Langley, 2020; Langley, 1999). After the fieldwork concluded, we reconstructed each project’s
product development process in rich memos (Golden-Biddle & Locke, 2007) and detailed
timelines by aggregating the hour-by-hour observation notes, interview data, and video
recordings and integrating images of the evolving products. To further analyze the events and
orderings, we adopted visual mapping strategies (Langley, 1999), which are especially useful for
comparing multiple dimensions when dealing with time and dynamic interactions (Miles &
Huberman, 1994). Graphic new product development trajectory maps were manually developed
for each project. We mapped the activities in detail, such as discussing product designs, printing
components on 3D printers, building a mock-up, and so forth. We also captured the number of
hours devoted to each activity, the participants involved in it, and the materials and equipment
used. Relevant quotes from the interviews and visual images from photographs were added to the
trajectory maps. Finally, we documented product milestones on each map, including key
moments when each component was functional or experienced a major setback.
We conducted thematic analysis on the detailed memos and trajectory maps to
inductively and systematically generate a series of codes that capture main themes in the data
(Charmaz, 2014; Glaser, 1978). Through open coding of the data (Golden-Biddle & Locke,
2007), we discovered a number of dominant codes, such as “experiencing time pressure” and
“experiencing sense of uncertainty,” “deliberating anticipated design,” and “allocating tasks
clearly.” This helped us become deeply familiar with the nature of each project’s detailed
trajectory as a stand-alone case and to understand that the temporal dynamics were playing a
critical role. We then transitioned the analysis from thick, detailed, and rich descriptions to more
abstract and analytical thinking (Langley, 1999; Van Maanen, 1998) around the key themes. We
deepened our thematic analysis of the temporal dynamics through many cycles of coding,
reading, and reviewing each project’s process until aggregating the first-order codes into groups.
For example, groups of codes that emerged from this analysis were the clarity and degree of
agreement around the product design and the level and strong ambiguity. This first phase of
analysis culminated in a detailed understanding and documentation of each project’s product
development process and its key themes.
In the second stage, we conducted a comparative study of the 13 projects’ processes
(Bechky & O’Mahony, 2015; Yin, 1994). Because these projects had very similar contextual
features, we focused our analysis on searching for variance and commonalities across the
processes, following the example of great comparative field studies (Barley, 1986; Edmondson,
Bohmer, & Pisano, 2001; Eisenhardt, 1989b; Kellogg, 2009). We compared the new product
development trajectories and timelines side-by-side, analyzing the nature, progression, and
durations of their activities and related codes. Through many iterations of comparison, patterns
began to emerge. First, it became clear that there was a difference in the nature of coordination
during the new product development work among the projects—a difference in how participants
made efforts to align their work, establish shared understandings, and communicate to solve
problems. Second, there was a major difference in the clarity and time spent to achieve clarity
around the new product design that would solve the given challenge.
We then grouped all the highly synchronized and well-organized projects and were
astonished to see that none of them produced a working product at the end of 72 hours. This was
not clear to us while we were collecting data, and particularly surprising as these projects
appeared to be following the best practices of new product development that we know from the
literature and teach in business schools (Wiedner & Ansari, 2017). In contrast, the rest of the
projects, whose processes were messy and disorganized—which seemed to us less efficient and
less “serious”—were actually the ones that yielded functioning new products (to varying
degrees) at the end of the hackathons. This strongly motivated us to understand the different
types of processes and what led to these divergent outcomes.
In the third stage, we searched to explain these unexpected results. We directed our
analysis to try to understand what can explain the divergent types of coordination that we
observed (Bechky & O’Mahony, 2015). We explored various possibilities suggested in prior
literature to explain the differences between the two types of processes, such as differences
across participants’ demographics: their diversity of age, gender, professional training, previous
experience in health care, previous experience in product development, or previous participation
in hackathons (see Appendix B). But these factors were distributed rather evenly across projects;
none of them systematically explained the projects’ divergent nature of process. We also
examined the complexity of projects’ challenges but found that they were relatively equally
complex. What we did find was a difference in the temporal structures used by the full
coordination projects versus the “messy” ones. Projects that worked with “full coordination
worked within the temporal structures of the well-known, prior new product development
processes only faster to adjust to the extremely limited and ad hoc time frame. In contrast,
projects that had “messier” coordination expressed that the hackathon process is different from
what they experienced before, so they could not anticipate the right processes for it and instead
allowed temporal structures to emerge. This led us to understand the importance of sustaining
ambiguity throughout the accelerated innovation process as we detail in the findings.
In the fourth stage, we conducted a confirmatory analysis (Charmaz, 2014) of within-
category differences to validate that our categorization was accurate and to gain a nuanced
understanding of how the main differences that we captured across the types of projects could
explain the divergent outcomes. This analysis revealed an additional distinction in the type of
coordination of the six projects that were not doing “full coordinationthat strengthened our
understanding of the importance and impact of coordination on the processes’ output. We found
that although all six of the “messier” projects displayed a similar type of minimal coordination in
the early phases of development, three of the six continued to work with minimal coordination
while the other three increased their level of coordination over the course of development work.
Moreover, the three projects with “minimal coordination” yielded functioning products but with
only basic functionality, while the other three projects—with what we call “adaptive
coordination”—produced fully functioning products. This led us to sharpen our understanding of
the type of coordination needed for projects to find the sweet spot in accelerated innovation
processes.
FINDINGS
Conditions and Outcomes of Accelerated Innovation Processes
All the projects we studied had a similar starting point: a clear and ambitious task to develop
innovative assistive technologies to solve real-world challenges faced by individuals with
disabilities. The task was to create a new working product—not just a potential solution—that
could be handed over to individuals with disabilities at the end of the hackathon. A summary of
the 13 challenges is presented in Table 2. The projects’ physical conditions were similar: a
makerspace setting stocked with a wide variety of new tools and technologies including 3D
printers, open-source electronic kits (e.g., Raspberry Pi, Arduino), laser-cutting machines, and
industrial wood- and metal-working equipment. The projects’ temporal conditions were also
similar: they were given an extremely limited and ad hoc time frame of 72 hours, with clear
beginning and end points, but no guidance on what to do in this time frame or how to go about
the work process.
This created for all projects a high sense of time pressure and full focus on the task. The
makerspace had everything the participants needed for 72 hours with no distractions; participants
were away from their regular life routines and ready to fully dedicate this time to solving the
assistive technology challenges. One participant enthusiastically explained, “The biggest thing
about the hackathon is that you get rid of the distractions. You don’t care what you’re going to
eat or if your laundry’s getting done. Nothing besides brushing your teeth and working” [Emma].
The time pressure was high, creating a sense of urgency across all projects, as expressed by
another participant: “You’re given a challenge that you’re expected to start working on and
making a solution right away” [Beth].
Table 2: Project Descriptions
Project Name
Challenge Description
Braille
What if there was a way for blind individuals to operate devices with a Braille
display?
Elevator
What if there was a device to use voice commands to operate at-home elevators?
Sign Language
What if there was a way for deaf individuals to live independently with others
easily understanding them without an interpreter?
HoloLens
What if there was a way for those with limited hearing to see the origins of
sounds?
iEat
What if there was an affordable, reliable, and comfortable way to enable those
with limited hand control to independently feed themselves?
Mobile Shelves
What if there was a way for those in a wheelchair to use their current range of
motion to access items on high shelves?
Parkinson
What if there was a way to alert loved ones when seizure-prone patients are in
danger?
Oxygen Tubes
What if there was a way for those with portable oxygen tanks to manage excess
tubing to avoid object catching and nose pulling?
Prosthetic Arm
What if there was a way for individuals with only one hand to ease the daily
challenges of life, like pulling paper towels from a dispenser?
Crutches
What if there was a way for people on crutches to safely carry drinks?
Mobility Now
What if there was an affordable way to motorize and electronically maneuver a
manual wheelchair?
Remote Control
What if there was a way to adjust airflow without having to remove a backpack
device to increase or decrease airflow?
Grabber
What if there was a way for those without limbs to ease daily tasks?
Induced temporal ambiguity. At the launch of the accelerated innovation process, the
ambiguity each project confronted in its efforts to design a viable product in 72 hours was
palpable. Participants met for the first time to work on a new challenge with the ambitious goal
of building a new product to solve it in 72 hours. One participant, Ruth from the iEat project,
described the ambiguity at the beginning of the accelerated process this way: “The sense I got
from everybody in the room was: ‘What are we doing?’” Not only did the participants not know
what to build, but they also did not know how to go about it—what to do first—due to the very
limited and ad hoc time frame. The accelerated innovation process induced “temporal
ambiguity”: the multitude of possibilities when facing a new time frame as to when particular
activities will occur, their sequence or progression, and how long they will last (Hassard, 1991;
McGrath & Kelly, 1992). Temporal ambiguity is especially high when there is a lack of clarity
about the temporal structures of a process—the social processes and practices that shape
individuals’ temporal practices and give form to their work (Orlikowski & Yates, 2002;
Reinecke & Ansari, 2015; Schultz & Hernes, 2012). This was the case at the hackathon, as only
the time frame was clear, there was no given guidance about the temporal structures in between,
about how to proceed within the 72 hours, to order the activities, or to manage the time in such
an extremely limited and ad hoc time frame for a challenging task. Participants were left to cope
with temporal ambiguity as they saw fit. In the Mobile Shelves project, Sam said that their key
problem was not knowing how to allocate time effectively: “The challenge is about determining
what we can and can’t accomplish in 72 hours and making sure we finish what we can
accomplish.” Beth of the Oxygen Tubes project expressed a similar concern: “72 hours is not
enough for a good design, it takes time.…I, personally, am the kind of person that needs time to
ruminate on thoughts and ideas.…I really want to have time to explore options.” Our analysis
surfaced the importance and impact of dealing with the temporal ambiguity on processes of
accelerated innovation.
Accelerated innovation process outcomes. Despite the similar conditions for all
projects, we find variation in how projects coped with ambiguity through their work processes
that played a critical role in the projects’ outcomes. At the end of the hackathon process, out of
the thirteen projects, six projects were able to create functioning products, seven projects were
not. Of those six, three created three created fully functional and the other three created products
that were functional at a basic level
8
. A summary of the project outcomes and processes is
presented in Table 3, and a detailed description of the different product development outcomes
for each project is presented in Appendix A. The remainder of the findings section will detail the
nature of these different projects’ work processes and how they resulted in such distinct
outcomes.
Table 3: Project Output at the End of the Makeathons
Project Name
Final Product
Braille
Not functioning
Elevator
Not functioning
Sign Language
Not functioning
HoloLens
Not functioning
iEat
Not functioning
Mobile Shelves
Not functioning
Parkinson
Not functioning
Oxygen Tubes
Basic functioning
Prosthetic Arm
Basic functioning
Crutches
Basic functioning
Mobility Now
Fully functioning
Remote Control
Fully functioning
Grabber
Fully functioning
8
We measure outcome success by whether or not the project delivered a functional product in 72 hours to the
explicit goal of the hackathon (to provide solutions for users with disabilities). We further distinguish between fully
functioning products (combinations of electronic and mechanical components) and basic functioning products
(relatively less advanced or durable).
Importing and Compressing Temporal Structures (seven projects)
In seven projects, participants perceived the accelerated innovation process to be similar to prior
new product development processes from their work experiences, only faster. Accordingly, these
projects responded to the temporal ambiguity and time pressure by importing temporal structures
of typical organizational new product development processes and compressing those structures
to fit the new time frame. Jason from the Mobile Shelves project expressed his belief that the
hackathon process should be similar to prior multi-week innovation processes, simply faster:
“We had six weeks to design, build, and test an entire robot.... That was a pretty similar
atmosphere. The hackathon is just on a faster scale.” Previous literature has described the
temporal structure of new product development processes as a clear sequence of activities: agree
on the design concept by brainstorming concepts, evaluating alternatives, selecting one, and then
building and testing prototypes in a synchronized manner, resulting in a working product
(Campbell, 1969; Simonton, 1999; Vincenti, 1994). In these seven projects, participants
proceeded to use this clear sequence of work from prior experiences to guide their development
trajectory.
As the time frame was extremely limited, project participants aimed to compress the
imported temporal structures to fit it. This was illustrated in the HoloLens project. Gabriel
expressed the need to follow an established Agile software development “road map,but instead
of synchronizing around it once a day, the project needed to synchronize every couple of hours:
I think that those [Agile and Scrum] are really good frameworks for a team.…So like speed
that up in the hackathon. The once-a-day, every-day thing [Agile and Scrum daily stand-
up meetings]? Maybe we do it every two hours, or something like that.... We have to take
time to do that.
Gabriel was confident that importing and compressing “really good frameworks” from past
processes was critical for their ability to produce a working product, as he stressed, “We have to
take time to do that.” In the Elevator project, Rob explained how they should define the time
needed in the accelerated process for each activity and then carefully manage it:
If I have three days to do this [develop a product], what time do I need to have [each
component] complete by for this [product] to still be feasible?...If you’re going to
estimate how long it takes to do a project, you have to think about all the inner workings
of it....In these short time periods, time management is of the essence.
Importing and compressing existing temporal structures was helpful with reducing the
high temporal ambiguity induced by the hackathon’s conditions and dealing with the intense
time pressure. This was participants’ effort to bring order and coherence to the chaotic process
and establish a shared approach, avoiding wasted time due to lack of alignment. In the Mobile
Shelves project, Jason emphasized the importance of clarifying how the process would unfold
prior to beginning: “The tricky part to me is figuring out what are we going to do and how is this
going to work. You kind of have to figure it out before you even start building [the product].” He
was determined to work through the challenge details prior to beginning development work,
bringing order to how the project would approach the challenge together.
Imported and compressed temporal structures guided participants in aligning and
coordinating their work activities at any given time in the process. A HoloLens participant
described his project’s intention to decide on the desired outcome in an aligned, synchronized
manner: “When you’re doing something like this [an accelerated innovation process], I’m going
with consensus.…I think you have to do that, because you understand that you have to work on
this together” [Gabriel]. Based on the shared temporal structures, participants established shared
expectations for how to allocate their time and collectively pursued a clear product development
trajectory. We refer to these projects’ type of coordination, which was guided by past temporal
structures, as “full coordination.” The nature of full coordination and how it helped reduce the
temporal ambiguity participants experienced is detailed in the following section.
Full Coordination (seven projects)
Importing and compressing temporal structures from prior new product development processes
in these seven projects led participants to work in “full coordination” throughout the accelerated
innovation process. By full coordination, we mean starting the work process with a full basis for
coordination and, when unexpected problems emerge, discussing and re-aligning the work
sequence.
Creating a full basis for coordination. By “basis for coordination,” we mean a shared
understanding around the anticipated work efforts’ output; in the case of a new product
development task, it refers to the anticipated design of the new product. When projects were
launched, participants faced many alternative interpretations and approaches regarding how to
work together to design a solution for the user’s challenge. As Rob explained, “There’s a lot of
questions that a [user] is not going to know at all.…You have a set of things you know…you
have a set of things that you don’t know about. And then you have a set of things that you don’t
even know you don’t know.” In these seven projects, participants immediately worked to have a
shared understanding of their collective efforts by creating a full basis for coordination,
following the temporal structures of past innovation processes. A full basis for coordination
helped to establish a working agreement of the necessary product development activities and
significantly reduced the temporal ambiguity around the challenge.
These projects’ participants clearly defined the elements of their anticipated product
design: methods, materials, and measurements. First, participants specified the method of
operation—how the mechanism will achieve the desired effect—for the product design and each
of its component parts. They aligned expectations by carefully discussing and selecting among
alternative approaches and mapping out the development work required for that approach. This
was evident in the Mobile Shelves project as they deliberated many decisions related to how the
shelving unit would move up and down for the user. Specific design questions were raised,
which guided and defined how they would build the product: “How do we guarantee that [the
shelves] won’t jam into each other?” [Leah], and “Are we going to get a good range of motion
on shelves?” [Jason].
Second, participants discussed and determined the materials of each product component.
Through discussing materials’ advantages or drawbacks, participants aligned their growing
understanding of the product design and how to assemble it over the course of their work
process. For the Mobile Shelves project, participants gathered in the woodshop to select which
type of motor would power their product’s central lifting mechanism. They discussed alternative
materials and considered the downstream effects on the development activities related to the
product’s other components. Initially, Liam brought up the additional features required of a
stepper motor: “We could use a stepper motor with a counterweight, but this may be difficult
because we’re going to have to calculate the shelf position based on different heights on the
cabinet somehow.” Other participants, including Leah, suggested alternative materials and the
additional development work required: “The other type motor would require some pegs with
triggers that could communicate the shelf position.” Through these discussions, participants
reached agreement on which material to use and synchronized their understanding of the
requirements of each subsequent component.
Third, with alignment around methods and materials, participants discussed and
calculated the measurements of the designed product’s components to further coordinate their
development efforts. In the Elevator project, participants discussed specific measurements of the
multiple components of their design by exploring questions such as, “How much pressure is
needed to press an elevator button?” The specific measurements were incorporated into design
plans, drawings, and models, which helped participants communicate and synchronize. In the
Mobile Shelves project, measurements of motor strength, gear diameters, weight distribution,
and power supplies, as well as the user’s wheelchair dimensions and range of arm motion, were
used to develop sketches and models as participants reached a unified understanding (see
Appendix C). In the HoloLens project, Mark explained how important it was to have specific
measurements as well: “We need to be able to isolate a sound from other sounds in the
environment. We need to be able to measure that sound, the frequency, the decibels, the volume;
we need to be able to put it into a mathematical representation.”
Full coordination during development work. With a clear and shared understanding of
their basis for coordination, participants started their development work, working in full
coordination. They reduced temporal ambiguity by clearly communicating which development
activities were the highest priority and who was responsible for which tasks. As the time pressure
was intense throughout the process, participants were working to ensure that their collective
efforts were aligned and coherent, as to avoid redundancies and incompatibilities across
components. In the HoloLens project, participants established how the development work would
be divided amongst them, and visually represented this clear division in their final product
presentation using a pie chart to visualize each participant’s respective task area (see Appendix
D). In the Mobile Shelves project, participants defined who would focus on each of the highest
priority components and understood how each task was accounted for: “We’re going to divide
and conquer. Leah is going to work on the electrical elements, getting the motors wired up and
the Arduinos set up. Jason is working on structural work in the back, and Liam is working on
building out the pulley” [Sam].
When unforeseen technical challenges arose with the anticipated design, temporal
ambiguity re-emerged as participants again faced numerous paths for how to solve the challenges
within the limited time remaining. In response, participants engaged in rich exchanges to
redefine their basis for coordination, they analyzed the technical problem from alternative angles
and provided specific solutions and feedback to each other and proceeded as a fully coordinated
project. In the HoloLens project, participants remained synchronized by tracking their evolving
development work on a whiteboard, with lists of task–participant pairings under columns labeled
“To Do,” “Doing,” and “Done.This helped reduce the temporal ambiguity as they clarified
tasks’ sequence and realigned their task paces when necessary. In the Elevator project,
participants allocated specific times for their tasks: “Our goal is to have it by this afternoon,
maybe not the voice recognition and the servos combined, but definitely to have the servos
working with the different input, as well as getting the voice recognition working. Then we can
bring the two together.”
Overall, throughout the development work, these seven projects worked in full
coordination. Whenever ambiguity re-emerged, participants worked to reduce ambiguity through
rich interactions. This resulted in participants remaining fully coordinated in developing their full
new product design. The following section illustrates the dramatically different approach taken
by the other six projects we studied.
Letting New Temporal Structures Emerge (six projects)
In contrast to the seven projects that imported and compressed prior temporal structures to
accommodate the extremely limited and ad hoc time frame, six other projects let new temporal
structures emerge. Participants did not rely on temporal structures from past new product
development processes since they assumed the accelerated innovation process is completely
different. In the Oxygen Tubes project, Beth explained how the extremely limited and ad-hoc
time frame is underlying the strong difference: “I wouldn’t consider that [her previous work]
anything like a hackathon because those had been projects that we’d been working on for a long
period of time.” She and other participants in these six projects did not assume that past temporal
structures or ways of working together would be appropriate for the accelerated innovation
process, so they did not attempt to import them.
As these projects’ participants assumed that they could not know the right process or
product to design, they embraced an emergent approach. In the Remote-Control project, when
participants gathered different types of materials, we asked Ruby as she was working on the
different electronic components, “What do you think? What’s going to work?” Ruby looked up
from her work and shrugged her shoulders, surprised by the question, responding, “I have no
idea. We are going to try both.” In a retrospective interview about the Oxygen Tubes project,
Beth said her project had responded to the extremely limited and ad hoc time frame in an
unfolding manner: “We had a lot more free rein. We kind of just ‘went with it’.” Having “no
idea” what the type of solution would be and experiencing “free rein,the temporal structures for
these projects’ development work emerged based on the unfolding development activities.
These six projects’ participants sustained the high ambiguity induced by the accelerated
innovation process, in direct contrast to full coordination projects’ repeating efforts to reduce that
ambiguity. In the Remote-Control project, Henry said they did not attempt to select and define a
clear path, and thus eliminate ambiguity, as he would in his day job: “There wasn’t much time to
sit down and have a meeting. We’ll do that at work, we’ll have a meeting and discuss different
concepts and usually then we pick a path, but here we didn’t really have that luxury.” Instead of
proceeding through a known sequence of steps, participants focused on solving specific
development challenges one at a time and took the next logical step emerging from the previous
one. As Jane explained in the Prosthetic Arm project, at the outset of their work process “there
was no clear vision because no one was making any decisions.... So I was like, ‘Let’s start
iterating because then we can start from somewhere.’” Alex described the development work on
the Oxygen Tubes project as “doing constant iterations: make this tweak, does it work? Make
this tweak, does it work?” Based on the emergent nature of these projects’ temporal structures,
participants began working without clear or aligned expectations for how to sequence their
development activities. We describe the nature of their coordination in the following section,
paying particular attention to these participants’ ability to sustain temporal ambiguity throughout
their development work and under intense time pressure.
Adaptive Coordination (three projects) and Minimal Coordination (three projects)
As these projects let new temporal structures emerge and did not adopt temporal structures of
prior innovation processes, their type of coordination was very different from the full
coordination that is typical in new product development processes. Instead, the projects launched
their work with only a minimal basis for coordination. As the development work unfolded, we
observed two types of coordination emerge: adaptive (three projects) and minimal (three
projects). By “adaptive coordination” we mean starting the work process with a minimal basis
for coordination and, as the work process evolves, increasing coordination as needed through
sensing and adjusting to one another’s work. By “minimal coordination” we mean working with
only a minimal basis for coordination throughout. We first describe the minimal basis for
coordination that both adaptive and minimal coordination projects created and then detail the
divergent types of coordination during projects’ development work and how they impacted the
outcomes. Table 4 summarizes the differences in the projects’ coordination throughout the
accelerated innovation processes.
Table 4: Comparative Summary of Full, Adaptive, and Minimal Coordination
Full Coordination
Adaptive
Coordination
Minimal Coordination
Basis for
Coordination
Full
Establish clear
anticipated design,
methods, materials,
and measurements.
Minimal
Establish high-level product design
without clear methods, materials, or
measurements.
Nature of
Coordinating
Development
Work
Rich, full feedback
Rich exchanges and
problem-solving
Tight and consistent
alignment
Swift sensing and
adjusting
Swift exchanges
and nudges
Gradually
increasing
alignment
Decreasing interaction
Sporadic
suggestions and
communications
Decreasing
alignment
New Product
Development
Outcome
No working product
Fully functioning
product
Basic functioning
products
Creating a minimal basis for coordination. At the launch of the accelerated process,
these six projects established the bare minimum needed to roughly agree upon, in contrast to the
full basis for coordination of the full coordination projects. These projects’ participants came
together briefly to outline a preliminary high-level product design, without reaching clarity
around methods, materials, or measurements of the anticipated product design. In the case of the
Remote Control project, within the first hour, participants quickly discussed a rough product
design, which they wrote on a poster taped to a nearby wall: “What we need: Device that
connects to oxygen device that can press 3 different buttons via remote control.” These
participants did not define how the anticipated product would connect in terms of mechanism—
what wiring, circuit boards, or electronic kits would work best. Instead, they moved forward with
only a minimal basis for coordination, as Henry expressed: “We need to solve this problem, but
how we get from here to there is pretty open.” Similarly, the Oxygen Tubes project quickly came
to agree on a minimal basis for coordination with no concrete decisions of development details:
they aimed for “some form of mechanical device that has more ‘give’ so that [the user] could
continue to move and not have [the tubing] rip out of her nose” [Beth]. By creating a minimal
basis for coordination without further shared understanding of development details at this point,
these projects started working in a less organized and coordinated way. Once they moved to
development work, we found that three of the six projects gradually increased their coordination
in a manner that we conceptualize as adaptive coordination, while the other three decreased their
coordination efforts. We describe these two types below.
Adaptive coordination during development work (three projects). Three projects adapted
their work efforts to one another over the development work process, despite starting with only a
minimal basis for coordination. The critical enabling mechanism was adaptive coordination. In
contrast to full coordination interactions, adaptive coordination involved swift sensing and
adjusting, quick interactions for providing sporadic updates and creating quick feedback loops
that gradually increased alignment over time. Adaptive coordination included participants
spontaneously exchanging information as new ideas were tested or as new issues were
discovered, quickly sensing and adjusting their work activities along the way. In the Mobility
Now project, Joshua was struggling to attach two motors underneath the user’s wheelchair,
which was crowded with other components: “The two of them won’t fit at the same time.”
Another project participant approached him to suggest attaching one motor to the back of the
wheelchair, which Joshua quickly considered and implemented successfully. Some instances of
adaptive coordination involved participants’ impromptu check-ins to offer or request help. In the
Remote Control project, Emma expressed, “I need someone to build a box for all the other
parts,” or when Henry said, “Can someone please find something circular that can cover the
solenoid but not stick out?” Such requests quickly raised awareness of an important or
incomplete task and nudged the participants toward the overall project needs but did not involve
them fully coming together to decide what to work on or how to work.
When increased over time, these swift exchanges, nudges, and suggestions resulted in
participants gradually aligning their respective development activities. This was often a messy
process, creating redundancies and misunderstandings among project participants as they were
not fully coordinated from the start. Hence, their ability to increasingly and nimbly respond to
the spontaneous sensing of other participants’ efforts—and adjust their work accordingly—was
critical. This was evident in the Remote Control project, when two participants were developing
a component intended to mount three solenoids—button-pressing mechanisms—onto the user’s
oxygen device. Meanwhile, Ruby was separately configuring the solenoid component and
decided to increase the number of solenoids from three to four without synchronizing with the
other project participants. For several hours, the others continued developing a mount with three
precisely-positioned holes for the solenoids, until one participant noticed Ruby’s four-solenoid
system resting on the table. With this updated information about Ruby’s component, without
deep discussions, the participants understood the problem and quickly shifted geared to design
their mount to accommodate the four-solenoid solution.
Adaptive coordination through swift sensing and adjusting also enabled participants to
better adjust their development efforts with the dwindling amount of time remaining. These swift
interactions occurred in cases where participants sensed that certain development work seemed
to stray too far from a productive path. This was the case in the Mobility Now project: after
many hours of development work, Joshua announced that his controller component was working
and he was going to develop some specialized navigation features. Across the table, Jesse was
struggling with a separate task and suggested that Joshua first focus on one of the remaining
technical challenges: “There are still two major problems to solve before anything extra should
be done.” In response, Joshua shifted his focus toward solving those pressing problems.
Similarly, in the Remote Control project, participants were focused on their own development
work when Emma observed Henry spending time refining his component’s physical appearance,
so she suggested to him, “Don’t spend too much time. Don’t get caught up in the prettiness of
it.” Henry nodded in response to the suggestion, and they both continued to focus on their next
tasks, without discussion.
The nature of adaptive coordination reflected the way these projects coped differently
with the intense time pressure. On one hand, these projects’ participants felt it was risky to
dedicate too much time to full coordination, because in a process with such ambiguity it seemed
better to dedicate more time to testing and seeing what would emerge. Therefore, whenever there
was an attempt to fully coordinate, participants rejected it and kept their coordination activities
swift and brief. This was evident in the Remote Control project when Emma made a request that
everyone “Give me a bit of an update.” Ruby rejected the suggestion, saying, “Soon, I’m still
trying to figure it out.” Twenty-four hours later, another Remote Control participant urged
everyone, “Okay, let’s gather, let’s stop working,” but Henry pushed back, reacting to the acute
time pressure: “I’m working. Every minute that I am not working is one less minute.” On the
other hand, these projects’ participants did not lose alignment thanks to the adaptive coordination
through swift sensing and adjusting; they were able to increase their coordination to achieve a
functional new product amidst high temporal ambiguity.
Minimal coordination during development work (three projects). In contrast to adaptive
coordination projects that started their process with a minimal basis for coordination yet
gradually increased coordination and alignment, minimal coordination projects continued to
work based only on the minimal basis for coordination. As the time pressure increased, these
projects’ participants felt too pressed to dedicate time to increasing coordination, and as a result
their alignment decreased. They did not develop one fully integrated new product like the
adaptive coordination projects; instead, participants separated into pairs or worked as individuals
to produce simpler, more basic working products. In the Prosthetic Arm project, after several
hours working according to their minimal, preliminary product design, Ray initiated a series of
deeper discussions of alternative approaches to designing the product. After several minutes of
clarifying discussion, Milla began shaking her head nervously, feeling the time pressure building
as the moments passed by, and jumped in: “I think we’re wasting a lot of time sitting here!” She
suggested to Ray and the others that each participant should “Go do whatever! I don’t care. I’m
going to go do whatever as well.” This response to the time pressure and the emphasis on getting
to work even if it was not coordinated essentially truncated the project’s efforts to build further
shared understanding or alignment. Participants continued to have sporadic and swift exchanges
but did not adapt toward one another. Their exchanges were suggestions aimed to help each other
progress on their work but not to align their work: Jane spontaneously suggested that Milla use a
Go-Pro mount for her product instead of building her own mount from scratch; Ray asked Milla
for guidance on how to 3D-print a hinge component for his product. In retrospect, Ray reflected
on the challenging nature of his project’s lack of alignment during development: “We were not a
well-oiled machine…but we did what we needed to do and created a product.” After working
tirelessly on separate trajectories, participants developed two basic prosthetic arm products.
While both were functioning, they were significantly simpler and more bare-bones than the
products achieved by the adaptive coordination projects.
The Oxygen Tubes and Crutches projects’ participants similarly worked with minimal
coordination during development work. Initially, participants occasionally offered suggestions or
helped troubleshoot one another’s technical challenges, as Beth described: “We would
brainstorm and sometimes play devil’s advocate.” But as the development work progressed,
project participants rarely attempted to realign their separate work. This is evident in the way
Beth described the Oxygen Tubes project’s lack of coordination efforts by the end of the process:
“[The other participants] didn’t really ask me about what I was doing that much, so I assumed
that their interest level was really on their work and that they were comfortable with me doing
my own thing.” For these projects, given the intense time pressure to create a functional product,
the additional effort to communicate and create alignment was excessive. The result of these
three projects’ work, basic functioning products, proved that while the minimal type of
coordination enabled the critical element of flexibility, it was insufficient to enable the
development of more complex products. A summary of the projects’ outcomes and processes is
presented in Table 5, and a detailed description of the different product development outcomes
for each project is presented in Appendix A.
Table 5: Project Processes and Outcome at the End of the Hackathons
Project Name
Temporal Structures
Nature of Coordination
New Product
Development
Outcome
Basis for
Coordination
Coordinating During
Development Work
Braille
Importing & Compressing
Full
Full
Not functioning
Elevator
Importing & Compressing
Full
Full
Not functioning
Sign Language
Importing & Compressing
Full
Full
Not functioning
HoloLens
Importing & Compressing
Full
Full
Not functioning
iEat
Importing & Compressing
Full
Full
Not functioning
Mobile Shelves
Importing & Compressing
Full
Full
Not functioning
Parkinson
Importing & Compressing
Full
Full
Not functioning
Mobility Now
Letting New Temporal
Structure Emerge
Minimal
Adaptive
Fully functioning
Remote Control
Letting New Temporal
Structure Emerge
Minimal
Adaptive
Fully functioning
Grabber
Letting New Temporal
Structure Emerge
Minimal
Adaptive
Fully functioning
Oxygen Tubes
Letting New Temporal
Structure Emerge
Minimal
Minimal
Basic functioning
Prosthetic Arm
Letting New Temporal
Structure Emerge
Minimal
Minimal
Basic functioning
Crutches
Letting New Temporal
Structure Emerge
Minimal
Minimal
Basic functioning
The Outcomes of the Divergent Accelerated Innovation Processes
At the end of the accelerated innovation process, after 72 hours, the seven projects that worked
with full coordination were not able to create functioning products. In contrast, the three projects
that worked in adaptive coordination, beginning with a minimal basis for coordination and
gradually increasing their coordination, were able to create fully functional products. Meanwhile,
the three minimal coordination projects, which worked with a minimal basis for coordination but
did not increase their coordination, created products that were functional at only a basic level.
We explain how these divergent processes led to different product development outcomes below
and visually illustrate it in Figure 1.
Figure 1: Toward a Model of Accelerated Innovation Processes
Full coordination projects. Under the conditions of accelerated innovation, the full
coordination projects—despite leading to an organized work process—backfired. First, creating a
full basis for coordination around the product design resulted in participants believing it was a
strong, well-vetted solution that was not worth deviating from, even when they faced
development hurdles. As Sam from the Mobile Shelves project expressed, they stuck to their
original design even when facing a number of unexpected challenges: “If we could have done
this over, we may do a lot of things differently, but we’re going to stick with this solution for
now.” Establishing the full basis for coordination built shared understanding, which was
especially important as these projects’ participants had just met each other and received their
challenge. At the same time, it limited their flexibility to cope with re-emerging ambiguity
during the development process. Participants did not rush to change the solution when
unexpected challenges emerged, as the process of building a full basis for coordination led them
to perceive the solution was very strong. As Vince, a Parkinson project participant, shared in a
Full Coordination
Adaptive
Coordination
Letting new temporal
structures emerge
Minimal
Coordination
Importing and
compressing prior
temporal
structures
Basic Functioning
New Products
No Functioning
New Products
Process Output
Reducing
Ambiguity
Sustaining
Ambiguity
Sustaining
Ambiguity
Work Processes Impact on Temporal
Ambiguity
Fully Functioning
New Products
Conditions
New product
development task
Extremely limited
and ad hoc
time frame
High
Temporal
Ambiguity
retrospective interview, at some point they “thought of trying a different approach, but we
thought our approach would be more robust.” Project participants pursued their original
anticipated product design with perseverance. When we asked Ed from the HoloLens project
how it was going, his response revealed their perseverance to develop their intended solution,
even amidst technical challenges they were struggling to solve: “We’re working at it, and we’re
going to keep on working on it, and going at it, and going at it.”
Second, as full coordination projects reduced temporal ambiguity by agreeing on a clear
approach early on, when ambiguity re-emerged, their planned sequence of tasks and activities
became less and less viable, which also increased their time pressure. In particular, their
perseverance to develop the agreed-upon product design led to dedicating significant time to
solving its unexpected problems which deviated from their anticipated sequence of activities. Ed
from the HoloLens project anxiously told us how much time had already been dedicated to a
specific problem relative to how many tasks and how much time remained: “We have spent two-
thirds of our time on this [solving a specific design challenge], so we need to move forward.”
Leah from the Mobile Shelves project expressed frustration about the unexpected amount of time
required for the electronics component, which was disrupting their overall progress:
“Unfortunately we’re pretty stalled in the electronics. We’ve been struggling for hours now to
get the motor to run.…We’re going to do the best with what we have, and I’m not going to give
up. I’m going to keep doing as much as I possibly can. God, I just really don’t want to disappoint
[the user]. That’s what I’m freaking out about right now.”. Unfortunately, despite all the effortful
work of these projects, all full coordination projects failed to produce a working product in the
extremely limited and ad hoc time frame.
Adaptive and minimal coordination projects. The way these projects sustained
ambiguity and created only a minimal basis for coordination turned out to be a key factor in the
accelerated innovation process. Since these projects had only a preliminary design in mind, they
were not overly committed to a specific solution. In the Prosthetic Arm project, Milla explained
the approach of following an emerging product trajectory through building and testing work,
under such high ambiguity: “We have a lot of internal beliefs about what should or shouldn’t be
working, but we can’t really say until we build it.…We just have to try it out.…We need to make
something to see. Until we see, we won’t know what works.” Establishing only a minimal basis
for coordination enabled participants to retain flexibility to address new emerging challenges and
not to overly commit to a detailed solution path. A few hours into the Remote Control project’s
process, the component Ruby was developing was completely destroyed, burned from attempting
to transmit too much electric current. Emma immediately jumped in to help adapt to the new
challenge: “Okay, thinking caps. How are we going to work around it?” Henry suggested an
alternative approach they could take that would reduce the overall current required, concluding,
“We’re fine, we can proceed.” With only a minimal basis for the product design, they were not
committed to any specific electric design and were able to quickly change course.
However, having a minimal basis led participants to jump into development work without
clear alignment early in the process, often resulting in messy, redundant, and misaligned work.
The ability to increase the coordination and alignment over the course of the development
process was critical. This is what separated the adaptive from the minimal coordination projects.
The three minimal coordination projects were not able to create alignment and integrate their
development efforts and consequently, their resulting product outcome was relatively simple,
functioning only on a basic level. Jane from the Prosthetic Arm project pointed out her project’s
lack of alignment in a retrospective interview: “It didn’t feel like a group project.…If I had to
rate our communication, I would say negative four.” Only the combination of both the minimal
basis for coordination and adaptive coordination during development work enabled projects to
produce a real fully functioning product.
Adaptive coordination through swift sensing and adjusting was critical for participants’
ability to increase coordination while also sustaining ambiguity. They led participants to make
continuous flexible adjustments in the direction of one another’s work, which resulted in aligned,
compatible, and integrated components by the end of the accelerated process. In the Grabber
project, after several hours of development work, Arvin discovered a technical issue and decided
to completely reconfigure his component, a mouth-operated device that was requiring the user (a
woman without arms or legs) to exert immense jaw strength. Arvin quickly communicated this
major shift to a few other participants, who swiftly adjusted their own work to align with the
unfolding product development trajectory. Adaptive coordination projects sustained ambiguity,
but also increased their coordination over time thus ale to produce an integrated and fully
functional product outcome.
DISCUSSION
In this study, we closely investigate the new product development process of 13 assistive
technology projects aiming to create new products under hackathons’ unique conditions of an ad-
hoc and extremely limited time frame. These conditions induced temporal ambiguity, to which
projects reacted in two different ways. Seven projects imported temporal structures from prior
organizational innovation processes and attempted to compress them to fit into the 72 hours’
time frame of the hackathon. This meant they worked in full coordination. They all failed to
produce a working product within the extremely limited time frame. The other six projects
perceived the hackathon as distinct from prior innovation processes and therefore did not use
them and instead let new emergent temporal structures emerge while sustaining the ambiguity.
They only started with a minimal basis for coordination, only outlining the potential design and
then immediately starting to experiment to develop it without an organized and well-coordinated
way of working together. This led to a chaotic process, with redundancies and mistakes yet also
enabled the needed flexibility to adapt to the surfacing hurdles throughout the process. Three of
these six projects continued coordinating only on a minimal level, resulting in the ability to
create products that were functional at a basic level. The three other projects worked in adaptive
coordination, beginning with a minimal basis for coordination but gradually increasing their
coordination, through swift sensing and adjusting interactions. These projects were able to create
fully functional products. This study offers theoretical contributions to the literatures on
innovation processes, temporality, and coordination as well as implications to practice.
Time and the Innovation Process
Our findings illuminate a possible path to accelerate the innovation process without killing it.
This defies the existing literature’s predictions, exemplifying the importance of studying
innovation outside the traditional organizational temporal context. Studies that repeatedly found
that time pressure has detrimental effects on innovation and creativity (Amabile et al., 2002;
Perlow, 1999; Perlow, Okhuysen, & Repenning, 2002) have been conducted in organizational
settings with clear temporal structures and time pressure is exerted within such structures. Our
findings confirm that when actors use organizational innovation temporal structures and attempt
to compress them into an accelerated time frame, they get caught in the “speed trap” (Perlow et
al., 2002) which impedes the needed flexibility to adapt to rising challenges. Only the projects
that let a new temporal structure emerge were able to avoid the speed trap.
These findings also offers broader theoretical implications for the literature on
temporality and the sociology of time, that theorizes about the acceleration process in society
overall (Wajcman, 2014) and stresses the need to investigate its implications (Dufva & Dufva,
2019; Feldman, Reid, & Mazmanian, 2019; Tavory & Eliasoph, 2013). Our study follows this
call and offers a different path from the currently theorized overall “speeding” (Rosa, 2003) and
“time-space compression” (Harvey, 1990; Massey, 1991; Thrift & May, 2001). Our findings
suggest that some work processes—innovation in our investigation—are indeed shifting to
shorter time frames, but this shift does not necessarily imply increasing the speed of prior
processes and their temporal structures. Instead, our findings suggest a path for new temporal
structures to emerge that work better with very short time frames. We wish to surface the
implicit assumptions about the meaning of acceleration and create greater awareness of how
these assumptions shape work processes and practices.
This study highlights the importance of deviating from past temporal structures when
new temporal conditions are set. Based on the temporality literature, we know that it is not easy
to deviate from the past and the temporal structures it presents; Emirbayer and Mische (1998)
stressed that our actions are often anchored in the past and its habitual aspects. Deviation is
particularly challenging in the case of innovation processes, as innovation temporal structures are
institutionalized in companies and organizations (Hargadon & Sutton, 1997; Kelley, 2001) and
taught and diffused by professional schools and consulting companies (Blank & Newell, 2017;
Coyne & Coyne, 2011). The insights revealed by this study are relevant to other innovation work
processes experiencing shifts in their temporal conditions
9
. For instance, entrepreneurs who lead
9
We add the caveat that our study focuses on cases of acceleration—of change in temporal conditions
without clear temporal structures. These findings do not apply when the new innovation process becomes
routinized with a stable temporal structure.
spin-offs startups from corporations and experience a strong transition (Dobrev & Barnett, 2005;
Kirtley & O’Mahony, 2020; Lazar et al., 2019) need to leave behind their previous
organizational temporal structures and not try to compress them to fit the pace of the
entrepreneurship world.
In addition, our findings contribute to the literature arguing against temporal universalism
and focusing on implications of the difference in the ways individuals enact time (Hernes &
Schultz, 2020; Kaplan & Orlikowski, 2013; Reinecke & Ansari, 2015; Slawinski & Bansal,
2012, 2015). For instance, Slawinski and Bansal (2012) demonstrated how the difference
between the temporal perspective of managers of firms in the oil and gas industry influenced
their strategic responses to climate change and consequently their resource allocation. Our study
enhances this stream of literature by illustrating how the difference between actors’ enactment of
the temporal structures in the accelerated innovation process impacts their coordination process,
in turn, impacting the process’ outcomes.
Finally, our findings carry important implications for innovation practice as individuals
and organizations increasingly deal with the overwhelming sense of urgency created by the “age
of acceleration” (Friedman, 2016; World Health Organization, 2019; Zucker, 2020). Recent
innovation methods have reacted by compressing existing temporal structures instead of building
new ones. For instance, “innovation sprints” (Knapp, Zeratsky, & Kowitz, 2016) attempting to
perform the regular new product development phases in five days (each day dedicated to each
process phase that usually takes weeks). Our study suggests this will result in failure and
frustration. Instead we urge organizations to respond to the need to accelerate their processes by
completely redesigning them and using acceleration technologies that enhance quick
experimentation, as we observed in this study. This is critical when dealing with the need
innovate under the gun for health crises, such as COVID-19, to develop new vaccines and
diagnostic methods.
Coordination in the Innovation Process
This study reveals a new type of coordination that provides a golden path for ad hoc innovation
processes under high time pressure, namely: adaptive coordination. This contributes to
coordination theories, as the literature has so far stressed the importance of full coordination.
Prior studies of innovation processes show that full coordination enables individuals to quickly
reach closure about how tasks fit together and to ensure proper timing of connected activities
(Ben-Menahem, von Krogh, Erden, & Schneider, 2015; Malone & Crowston, 1994; Steinhardt &
Jackson, 2014). However, these studies have focused on processes without high time pressure
within regular organizational innovation processes. In laboratory studies of creative work under
time pressure, full coordination was also found to be helpful in rapidly coordinating participants’
efforts to complete a range of tasks such as solving word puzzles or performing ideation
(Chirumbolo et al., 2004; Harrison, Mohammed, Mcgrath, Florey, & Vanderstoep, 2003; Kelly
& Karau, 1993). However, the creative tasks in the lab studies lack the complexity of new
product development work. Hackathons combine high time pressure and the innovation process,
illuminating the unexplored negative effects of full coordination. Under accelerated innovation
conditions, working with full coordination resulted in the inability to adapt to the high and re-
emerging ambiguity, leading to failure.
Instead, we uncover adaptive coordination, a new type of coordination that is highly
productive for accelerated innovation. In adaptive coordination, actors begin the work process
with only a minimal basis for coordination and increase their coordination as the work progresses
by swiftly sensing and adjusting to one another’s work. This was instrumental to the success of
accelerated innovation as it enabled sustaining temporal ambiguity under time pressure. This is
particularly important because many modern work environments are less clear, stable, and
structured than before, and further degrees of ambiguity are infused into work processes,
innovation in particular (Benbya, Nan, Tanriverdi, & Yoo, 2020; Majchrzak, Griffith, Reetz, &
Alexy, 2018). This study unearths the underexplored relationship between coordination and
ambiguity. Prior studies of innovation document how sustaining ambiguity—deliberately leaving
uncertainty in knowledge production processes (Markus, Majchrzak, & Gasser, 2002) or
unpredictability in creative processes (Austin, Devin, & Sullivan, 2011; Bechky & Okhuysen,
2011)—is helpful for reaching innovative outcomes. Yet under time pressure, ambiguity is
quickly reduced to reach cognitive closure (Amabile et al., 2002). Adaptive coordination is
therefore an important mechanism that enables sustaining high degrees of ambiguity even under
time pressure. Future work should continue to examine coordination in contexts fraught with
ambiguities, such as innovation and entrepreneurship.
Moreover, finding that adaptive coordination is key to successful accelerated innovation
questions the need for conceptual closure in innovation processes today. Current literature
describes a transition at a certain stage of the innovation process, often called “selection”
(Campbell, 1969; Simonton, 1999; Vincenti, 1994), when individuals converge their divergent
concepts and reach closure on a clear potential solution (Brun & Sætre, 2009; Kruglanski &
Webster, 1996). The need to reach a full basis for coordination with such conceptual closure in
the innovation process was born in a period where experimentation was costly in terms of time
and money, favoring preparation and reducing ambiguity. As we see in this study, new freeform
fabrication technologies and tools (such as 3D printing, Raspberry Pi, and Arduino) have
dramatically reduced experimentation costs (Boland et al., 2007; Su & Pirani, 2013). We
therefore call into question the need for conceptual closure in innovation processes today and
urge future research to continue investigating the changing nature of such processes in the field.
In addition, this study enhances our understanding of work in contemporary ad hoc
settings. The importance of ad hoc types of organizing is growing as gig work, on-demand labor
arrangements, and informal organizing for social goals are on the rise (Alkhatib, Bernstein, &
Levi, 2017; Kittur et al., 2013; Majchrzak & Malhotra, 2020; Sundararajan, 2016). Professionals
are increasingly demanding more autonomy and freedom in their work (Lee & Edmondson,
2017; Lifshitz-Assaf et al., 2018). In the current literature on ad-hoc work, social actors who
have just met rely on pre-existing organizational or professional structures to achieve
coordination. Prescribed structures, such as previously established and widely accepted roles
(Bechky, 2006; Valentine & Edmondson, 2014) and process protocols (Faraj & Xiao, 2006;
Klein et al., 2006), enable actors to develop a shared understanding and coordinate their work
processes. But the ad hoc accelerated innovation processes bring theoretically distinct conditions:
hackathons espouse self-organizing, purposefully avoiding defining organizational or
professional structures for participants’ work (Lakhani & Panetta, 2007; Tushman et al., 2012).
We find that without clear structures, in ad hoc settings, it is too costly to achieve full
coordination. Instead, we found that adaptive coordination strikes the right balance. It is
important to caveat that the boundary condition for our findings is the visible workflow:
hackathon participants were able to see each other’s work and this way swiftly sense and adjust
and increase coordination gradually. When conducting virtual or remote work settings it is
imperative to create a visible workflow to enable such coordination via digital technologies.
We hope that our study will encourage researchers to investigate other interesting
contemporary ways of organizing for innovation. Current innovation literature focuses on
traditional ways of organizing for innovation that are based on principles of authority and
hierarchy. These principles were carried over from factories and the industrial revolution to
railroads, and then to corporations’ mass production (Chandler, 1993). At those times, most work
tasks were strenuous, boring, repetitive, and often dangerous, and these principles helped achieve
efficiency and safety. In the 21st century, the need to focus on organizing human activity for such
work tasks is less pressing, as they are increasingly performed by machines (Dhar, 2016; Raisch
& Krakowski, 2020; Seamans & Furman, 2019; Wingfield, 2017). Instead, there is a need to
investigate new ways of leveraging human creative capabilities to innovate and solve the myriad
challenging scientific, technological and social problems in combination with machines (Beane
& Orlikowski, 2015; Kittur et al., 2019).
Finally, conducting this study has left us truly stunned by what can be achieved in three
days. It changed the meaning of 72 hours for us—and for the individuals with disabilities who
waited years for companies to produce the products they needed. We hope this study inspires
individuals and organizations to initiate and experiment with new accelerated processes to
achieve important goals.
Appendix A: Detailed Description of Projects’ New Product Development Outcomes
Project
Process
Component Description
Function
Presented Product
Oxygen
Tubes
Minimal
Coordination
Mechanism to provide “give” when tubes catch on something
Yes
Mechanism to retract tubes when there was too much slack
Yes
Clasps tight enough to stay attached to the tube and adjustable
Yes
Fall-back solution to prevent injury when tubing is caught
Yes
Remote
Control
Adaptive
Coordination
Mechanism to physically press the correct buttons on the device
Yes
Mount button-pressing mechanism aligned to device’s buttons
Yes
Remote control for the user to activate more or less oxygen flow
Yes
Signal transmission from remote control to pressing mechanism
Yes
Prosthetic
Arm
Minimal
Coordination
Band to mount prosthetic arm which is both comfortable to wear
and strong enough to support arm activity
Yes
Hinge joint which rotates and supports the required force to pull
Yes
Adjustable hinge joint to position the clamp
Yes
Extendable piece to connect the first hinge with the second
Yes
Removable, interchangeable clamp attachment
Yes
Mobility
Now
Adaptive
Coordination
Mount the motor and electronic components to wheelchair
Yes
Mechanism to physically rotate the wheels
Yes
Interpret and transmit signal from the controller to motor
Yes
Device to control the wheelchair movements and speed
Yes
Crutches
Minimal
Coordination
Structure to insert, remove, and secure a cup or beverage
Yes
Unit to mount device and clip onto the crutches without sliding
Yes
Balancing mechanism to prevent the drink from spilling
Yes
Grabber
Adaptive
Coordination
Device for inside the user’s mouth to signal grip of target object
Yes
Device to fit inside user’s mouth to signal release of target object
Yes
Pole extending from the mouth to the target object
Yes
Device to physically grip and release the target object
Yes
Mobile
Shelves
Full
Coordination
Main cabinet structure to house motors and mount shelves
Yes
Mechanism to rotate shelf away from cabinet above wheelchair
Yes
Mechanism to physically shift shelves to correct height
No
Voice activated or touch screen for user to control movement
No
Elevator
Full
Coordination
Mechanism to physically press the correct buttons on elevator
No
Box to mount the button-pressing mechanism
Yes
Transmit signal from voice library to button-pressing device
No
Voice recognition to input signal to control elevator movement
No
HoloLens
Full
Coordination
Microphone mechanism to receive sound input
Partial
Code the sound input into triangulation
No
Triangulate sound to determine physical location of sound
No
Visually represent sound in a virtual HoloLens environment
Partial
Braille
Full
Coordination
Software to capture words from screens to transmit to converter
Yes
Software to convert translated words into mechanical Braille
No
Mechanical movement to signal Braille characters to user’s hand
No
Mount to house the mechanisms into one unit
Yes
Sign
Language
Full
Coordination
Sensor to record arm and hand gestures of users
Yes
Transmit arm and hand gestures into statistical software program
No
Convert sequence of movements into the intended interpretation
No
iEat
Full
Coordination
Clamp mechanism to stabilize the device to the table
Yes
Device to horizontally transfer food from plate onto utensil
No
Device to vertically transfer food from the plate to mouth height
No
Balanced utensil to transfer food without dropping or spilling
No
Parkinson
Full
Coordination
Wearable device to situate sensor to a muscle group
Yes
Sensor to receive inputs of muscular status and tremors and
transmit signal reading to app
No
App to predict likelihood of tremor and send alerts
Yes
Appendix B: Demographics of Participants across Hackathons’ Projects
Full Coordination Projects
Adaptive
Coordination Projects
Minimal
Coordination Projects
Overall
iEat
Elevator
HoloLens
Braille
Sign L.
Parkin.
Shelves
Grabber
Mobility
Remote
Prosthetic
Oxygen
Crutches
Project Size (n)
54
5
4
4
4
2
5
3
4
6
5
5
3
5
Age (%)
under 20
6
0
25
0
0
0
0
0
0
0
40
0
0
0
20-24
11
0
50
25
0
0
0
33
0
17
0
0
33
0
25-29
35
0
25
75
50
0
60
33
50
33
20
50
0
40
30-34
26
40
0
0
25
100
20
0
50
33
20
0
33
40
35-39
11
20
0
0
25
0
20
0
0
17
0
25
0
20
40+
11
40
0
0
0
0
0
33
0
0
20
25
33
0
Gender (%)
Female
30
40
0
0
25
0
40
0
50
17
60
75
67
0
Expertise (%)
Software
33
40
50
50
75
100
40
33
0
33
0
0
0
40
Business
15
20
25
0
25
0
0
0
0
17
40
50
33
0
Mechanical Eng.
13
0
0
0
0
0
40
33
0
17
20
0
0
40
Industrial Design
9
20
0
0
0
0
0
0
50
17
0
0
33
0
Education
6
0
0
25
0
0
0
0
0
0
20
25
0
0
Architect
6
0
0
0
0
0
0
33
25
0
0
0
0
20
Electrical Eng.
4
0
0
0
0
0
0
0
0
0
20
0
33
0
User Experience
4
0
0
0
0
0
20
0
0
0
0
25
0
0
Other
11
20
25
25
0
0
0
0
25
17
20
0
0
0
Education (%)
Bachelors
91
100
75
100
100
100
100
67
100
100
60
100
67
100
Graduate degree
37
20
0
75
75
0
40
33
50
17
0
75
67
40
Relevant Experience (%)
Previous hackathon
31
40
25
25
50
0
0
33
50
17
60
25
0
60
3D printing
54
80
0
0
75
0
40
67
75
50
80
50
67
80
Healthcare
11
40
0
25
25
0
20
0
0
0
0
0
33
0
Appendix C: Mobile Shelves project use of measurements and calculations in product
development materials
Appendix D: HoloLens project visualization of their clear task allocation
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Authors Biographical sketch:
Hila Lifshitz-Assaf (H@nyu.edu) is an associate professor at the Leonard N. Stern School of
Business at New York University. Her research focuses on the micro-foundations of scientific
and technological innovation and knowledge creation processes in the digital age. Professor
Lifshitz-Assaf earned a doctorate from Harvard Business School, MBA from Tel Aviv
University, magna cum laude, LLB in Law and a BA in Management and from Tel Aviv
University, both magna cum laude.
Sarah E. Lebovitz (sarah.lebovitz@stern.nyu.edu) recently completed her Ph.D. in information
systems at the Leonard N. Stern School of Business at New York University. In the Fall of 2020,
she will join the McIntire School of Commerce at the University of Virginia as an assistant
professor of information technology. Her current research focuses on the impact of emerging
technologies on professionals and work practices.
... This study also points out the limited academic knowledge on hackathons as increasingly relevant organizational forms in the domains of open and distributed innovation (Flores et al., 2019;Lifshitz-Assaf et al., 2020). Our study has shown that such events, with their purpose of dismantling knowledge boundaries, represent a valuable crowdsourcing model not only to provide novel solutions to well-defined problems, but also to ill-defined scientific, technological, and societal problems, as are those related to COVID-19 (Vermicelli et al., 2020). ...
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... For example, we believe that entrainment will be particularly important between the ventures and the platform ecosystem in the case of a platform accelerator or between the ventures and the corporate system in the case of a corporate accelerator. Furthermore, insights beyond our current understanding of the acceleration of either the venture or the system could add to the debates on acceleration in innovation and social processes more broadly (Rosa, 2013;Lifshitz-Assaf, Lebovitz, & Zalmanson, 2018). ...
... For example, we believe that entrainment will be particularly important between the ventures and the platform ecosystem in the case of a platform accelerator or between the ventures and the corporate system in the case of a corporate accelerator. Furthermore, insights beyond our current understanding of the acceleration of either the venture or the system could add to the debates on acceleration in innovation and social processes more broadly (Rosa, 2013;Lifshitz-Assaf, Lebovitz, & Zalmanson, 2018). ...
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