Sub-theme 56: Routine Dynamics, Agility, and Innovation

Brian T. Pentland
Michigan State University, USA
Christian A. Mahringer
University of Stuttgart, Germany
Birgit Elisabeth Renzl
University of Stuttgart, Germany

Call for Papers

Contemporary organizations follow an ideology of perfection. Top managers strive to steer activities by scrupulously defining and monitoring key performance indicators. Project managers craft detailed plans of innovative projects that pretend that work processes and outcomes can perfectly be predicted. Algorithms are designed to black box the complex nature of data and transform it into orderly sets of simple decisions. Efficiency programs such as “Kaizen” or “Lean Management” collapse the messiness of organizational life into seemingly perfect processes. This ideology of perfection has combined with norms of bureaucratic rationality to forge the bars of a newer, stronger iron cage (DiMaggio & Powell, 1983). In an effort to stamp out imperfection, normative, mimetic and coercive forces are on the march, threatening to trample creativity, novelty, and innovation.
However, some scholars and practitioners have suggested that an ideology that embraces imperfection is more suitable to promote creativity, novelty, and innovation. Practitioners have suggested that agile approaches are conducive to innovation (Highsmith & Cockburn, 2001) because they do not follow the ideology of perfection. Rather, these approaches acknowledge that perfection is an illusion and suggest incrementalism, self-organization, and open-endedness as guiding principles. Similarly, scholars have shown that innovation work is far from perfect. Actors constantly face complex and imperfect situations as they innovate (Dunne & Dougherty, 2016), they work around the machinery of perfection to address situated demands (Brown & Duguid, 1991), and they deal with breakdowns (Mengis et al., 2018). Imperfection could even be a driver of innovation (Knorr Cetina, 2001). However, it is not clear how these processes unfold. We suggest that routines play a crucial role in fostering imperfection and allowing for the generative dance between exploitation and exploration (Cook & Brown, 1999). Hence, we propose to revisit this classic tension from a Routine Dynamics perspective.
We invite scholars to join us in asking how Routine Dynamics can help organizations escape from the tyranny of perfection and embrace imperfection to innovate. Rather than conceptualizing routines as stable entities, Routine Dynamics has shown that routines are processes that are flexibly enacted depending on the needs of particular situations (Feldman & Pentland, 2003; Feldman et al., in press; Feldman et al., 2016). Hence, this perspective has come closer to the imperfect reality of organizational life by showing that actors do oftentimes not follow seemingly perfect representations (Pentland & Feldman, 2008), and that they need to adapt routine performances to the situation at hand (Danner-Schröder & Geiger, 2016). Through these dynamic processes, actors can innovate as they connect different routines (Sele & Grand, 2016), adapt the patterns of routines in situ (Deken et al., 2016), and reconfigure routines (Cohendet & Simon, 2016).
The sub-theme invites scholars from different communities, such as organization theory, strategy, sociology, information systems, and design, to examine how routines help actors break with the tyranny of perfection and how they can embrace imperfection to innovate. We particularly value empirical papers that take different perspectives on this issue. We welcome submissions on the following topics, as well as topics that relate to Routine Dynamics more generally:

  • Innovation and creativity: Routines play an important role for innovation and creativity, but how is this related to (im-)perfection? Do routine participants strive for perfection when they innovate or is imperfection a driver of innovation, and how do routines support or inhibit this process? Does innovating lead to situations that are imperfect (i.e., chaotic, uncertain, conflicting), and how do routines help to address this?

  • New forms of organizing: Agile approaches are a new form of organizing that is conducive to innovation (Mahringer et al., 2019). Do new forms of organizing break with the tyranny of perfection or accomplish perfection differently? How do they accomplish this?

  • Envisioning the future: The tyranny of perfection suggests creating perfect representations of the future, but because the future is shaped by novelty prediction is problematic. How do routine participants envision and recreate the future? How do they deal with imperfect outcomes? Can they embrace imperfection to envision the future?

  • Patterning: Current research recognizes patterning as a mechanism of routine formation and change (Goh & Pentland, 2019), but can patterning also reinforce idealized representations that contribute to the tyranny of perfection?

  • Methodological innovations: Scholars start using process mining tools to discover and compare routines (Mahringer & Pentland, in press). In practice, however, these tools can be used to check and enforce conformance to idealized process models. Does process mining reinforce the tyranny of perfection? How can we use process mining to embrace imperfection?

  • Multiplicity: Routines are multiplicities, which explains their potential to generate and address innovation (Pentland et al., 2020). How does multiplicity relate to innovation? How can we find perfection in multiplicity?

  • Designing routines: How do we design novel routine patterns? What is the role of perfection and imperfection in designing such patterns? How can routine design break with the tyranny of perfection?


  • Brown, J.S., & Duguid, P. (1991): “Organizational learning and communities-of-practice: Toward a unified view of working, learning, and innovation.” Organization Science, 2 (1), 40–57.
  • Cohendet, P.S., & Simon, L.O. (2016): “Always playable: Recombining routines for creative efficiency at Ubisoft Montreal’s video game studio.” Organization Science, 27 (3), 614–632.
  • Cook, S., & Brown, J.S. (1999): “Bridging epistemologies: The generative dance between organizational knowledge and organizational knowing.” Organization Science, 10 (4), 381–400.
  • Danner-Schröder, A., & Geiger, D. (2016): “Unravelling the motor of patterning work: Toward an understanding of the microlevel dynamics of standardization and flexibility.” Organization Science, 27 (3), 633–658.
  • Deken, F., Carlile, P.R., Berends, H., & Lauche, K. (2016): “Generating novelty through interdependent routines: A process model of routine work.” Organization Science, 27 (3), 659–677.
  • DiMaggio, P.J., & Powell, W.W. (1983): “The iron cage revisited: Institutional isomorphism and collective rationality in organizational fields.” American Sociological Review, 48 (2), 147–160.
  • Dunne, D.D., & Dougherty, D. (2016): “Abductive reasoning: How innovators navigate in the labyrinth of complex product innovation.” Organization Studies, 37 (2), 131–159.
  • Feldman, M.S., & Pentland, B.T. (2003): “Reconceptualizing organizational routines as a source of flexibility and change.” Administrative Science Quarterly, 48 (1), 94–118.
  • Feldman, M.S., Pentland, B.T., D’Adderio, L., & Lazaric, N. (2016): “Beyond routines as things: Introduction to the special issue on routine dynamics.” Organization Science, 27 (3), 505–513.
  • Feldman, M.S., Pentland, B.T., D'Adderio, L., Dittrich, K., Rerup, C., & Seidl, D. (forthcoming): Cambridge Handbook of Routine Dynamics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Goh, K., & Pentland, B.T. (2019): “From actions to paths to patterning: Toward a dynamic theory of patterning in routines.” Academy of Management Journal, 62 (6), 1901–1929.
  • Highsmith, J., & Cockburn, A. (2001): “Agile software development: The business of innovation.” Computer, 34 (9), 120–122.
  • Knorr Cetina, K. (2001): “Objectual practice.” In: T.R. Schatzki, K. Knorr Cetina & E. von Savigny (eds.): The Practice Turn in Contemporary Theory. London: Routledge, 175–188.
  • Mahringer, C.A., Dittrich, K., & Renzl, B. (2019): “Interdependent routines and innovation processes – An ethnographic study of Scrum teams.” Academy of Management Proceedings, 1.
  • Mahringer, C.A., & Pentland, B.T. (forthcoming): “Sequence analysis in routine dynamics.” In: M.S. Feldman, B.T. Pentland, L. D’Adderio, K. Dittrich, C. Rerup & D. Seidl (eds.): Cambridge Handbook of Routine Dynamics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Mengis, J., Nicolini, D., & Swan, J. (2018): “Integrating knowledge in the face of epistemic uncertainty: Dialogically drawing distinctions.” Management Learning, 49 (5), 595–612.
  • Pentland, B.T., & Feldman, M.S. (2008): “Designing routines: On the folly of designing artifacts, while hoping for patterns of action.” Information and Organization, 18 (4), 235–250.
  • Pentland, B.T., Mahringer, C.A., Dittrich, K., Feldman, M.S., & Ryan Wolf, J. (2020): “Process multiplicity and process dynamics: Weaving the space of possible paths.” Organization Theory, 1 (3), 1–21.
  • Sele, K., & Grand, S. (2016): “Unpacking the dynamics of ecologies of routines: Mediators and their generative effects in routine interactions.” Organization Science, 27 (3), 722–738.
Brian T. Pentland is the Main Street Capital Partners Endowed Professor in the Department of Accounting and Information Systems at Michigan State University, USA. His research is focused on the analysis of repetitive patterns of action, such as organizational routines. Brian has used this perspective to study software support, auditing, invoice processing, customer service and most recently, electronic medical record keeping.
Christian A. Mahringer is a post-doctoral Research Fellow at the Institute of Business Administration at the University of Stuttgart, Germany. In his research Christian uses qualitative methods to better understand phenomena such as organizational routines and innovation.
Birgit Elisabeth Renzl is a Full Professor and the Chair of Management and Organisation at the University of Stuttgart, Germany. Her research focuses on organizational routines and innovation, digital transformation, and leadership in contexts such as software development, high performance computing, and machinery.