Managing coordination in large-scale innovative projects necessitates the creation of an interlanguage drawing on linguistic representations, project management tools and material representations. Getting the language right is critical for innovation.

BI RESEARCH: Project Management

Large-scale innovative projects (LSIPs) have become an increasingly central part for organizing exploratory and strategic opportunity seeking activities. These organizations normally span both organizational and disciplinary boundaries, which tends to encompass substantial managerial challenges.

In a recently published study, we outlined a theory that addressed two of the most salient characteristics of such projects: 1) their extreme task uniqueness and 2) high degree of interdisciplinarity.

Drawing on the work of Peter Galison and the case of the Radiation Laboratory project, we introduced the idea of LSIPs as ‘temporary trading zones’ and pointed out the centrality of ‘interlanguage creation’ for coordinating such projects.

Three elements of the interlanguage

Our study demonstrates that LSIPs foster and, indeed, practically necessitate the creation of an interlanguage via interaction among three core elements: linguistic representations, project management tools, and material representations.

  1. Linguistic representations. This element highlights the importance of metaphors and analogies in the coordination between previously unconnected knowledge-domains. It is evident that the creation of a project-specific language is a fundamental characteristic of many successful innovative projects. In fact, earlier research highlights that a task at the core of setting up any project organization is to design, negotiate, and implement the concept that justifies the project. A clear indication of the necessity for the project-specific interlanguage is the difficulty of understanding not only the remarks of others in project meetings but also the project’s overall goal, what it should produce, and who should benefit from it.
  2. Project management tools. Indeed, the essence of project management (PM) is to work at the interfaces and organize cross-boundary coordination in a way that facilitates integration. Thus, the project management toolbox itself can be viewed as a language for enhancing coordination. It is therefore not surprising that several management scholars have studied how PM tools, such as schedules, amounts to a new language that is capable of fostering coordination. PM tools play three different but equally important roles: as a “boundary object” between different disciplines for technical coordination of actions and expectations; as a political feature for legitimacy and trust building; and as a cognitive means for the “social construction of a predictable future” (Engwall, 2012).
  3. Material representations. There is an extensive literature on the fundamental role of material representations in the innovation process – be they prototypes, simulations, or other material objects. They act as boundary objects that can foster coordination between experts with different backgrounds and helps to overcome the problem memorably summarized by Weick (1979, p. 133): “How can I know what I think, until I see what I say?”

Five steps toward a new interlanguage

We have identified five central phases for the development of an interlanguage in large-scale innovative projects.

  • Phase I: Project creation. This phase involves setting up the project and creating an “interactive zone” i.e. a physical and spatial arrangement of the team’s work space. It includes establishing some kind of boundary around the people involved, stipulating a focus for conversations that will occur, and ensuring that project staff are aware of the individuals with whom they need to interact. Essential to this phase are various kinds of organizational delineations and co-location efforts: spatial, social, and mental. In the Rad Lab case it is striking to see the tremendous impact of an entirely new space (the famous Building 20 at MIT) that was not organized around traditional disciplines but instead bring engineers and scientists together under the same roof to foster interaction between different fields
  • Phase II: Expertise confrontation. Participant interaction during this phase typically includes disagreements among the experts involved, who have become more aware of the interactive zone’s boundaries and other players. In many cases, the outcome is a collision of “thought worlds” (Dougherty, 1992), or “creative abrasion” (Leonard & Swap, 1999) involving “contestation and justification” (Tuertscher et al., 2014). In this phase, individuals become increasingly aware of different viewpoints about the technological challenge and the project’s key issues. Participants might have strongly differing opinions that create fundamental collaborative problems, which often involve both political and cognitive divides.
  • Phase III: Interlanguage emergence. In this phase, interactional expertise (Evans, & Collins, 2007) emerges, metaphors are presented to make conversations more meaningful, and new concepts are tried out through material representations; thus knowledge becomes “interlaced” (Tuertscher et al., 2014). Often the metaphors and concepts employed are taken from other fields – bridging the communities involved to shape a shared understanding and establish some mutual knowledge among groups of individual actors – and then redeveloped in interaction with others.
  • Phase IV: Interlanguage application. This phase signals a more productive stage in which language barriers have been overcome and participants are focused on completing productive tasks and integrating knowledge across domain boundaries and areas of expertise. In this phase, the metaphors and artefacts suggested in the former phase are tested, revised, and tested again. They have matured and form a coherent meaning to the participants involved – integrating knowledge while still providing room for disciplinary distinctiveness. The interlanguage has also been integrated into multiple metaphors and concepts, not only in linguistic representations but also in material representations and PM tools. The coherence among these three elements is crucial to making the interlanguage fully operative and ‘mature’.
  • Phase V: Interlanguage institutionalization. Sometimes the interlanguage (or fragments of it) will be institutionalized and possibly re-used in other projects and other parts of the organizations involved in the project. Such exploitation of interlanguage could well constitute one of the most important outcomes of an innovative project. In this phase, a project’s ‘essential’ outcome transcends the initial object of development to generate their spillover learning effects. This phase also underscores the importance of the interplay among the three elements of interlanguage creation (linguistic representations, PM tools, and material representations) – as manifested by, for example, prototypes that demonstrate not only the interlanguage but also the process of its creation.

Managerial insights

Our study highlights the difficulty of coordinating LSIPs and the importance of creating an interlanguage to foster coordination in these contexts.

We demonstrate that managers need to master three kinds of elements (linguistic representations, PM tools and material representations) to be able to drive the development of a new interlanguage and throughout the process understand the various developmental stages involved in the creation of a new interlanguage.

Lenfle, Sylvain and Jonas Söderlund (2018). Large-Scale Innovative Projects as Temporary Trading Zones: Toward an Interlanguage Theory. Organization Studies. First Published August 25, 2018.

This article was first published in BI Leadership Magazine 2019. BI Leadership Magazine is a Science Communication Magazine published by the Department of Leadership and Organzational Behaviour at BI Norwegian Business School.
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Text: Professor Sylvain Lenfle and Professor Jonas Söderlund, BI Norwegian Business School.

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