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Abstract

In this paper, we investigate improvisation in a systems development project in the context of safety-critical, rigid quality-management standards. This study took place in a technology company in the automotive industry over a 31-month period and focused on the development of an innovative information system for automobiles. Our analysis traced different forms of improvised practice over the course of a systems development project at the company along with various triggers of improvisation. We found that, as the project progressed, the latitude to improvise became saturated by the increasing structural influences on improvisation. Yet, paradoxically, these structural influences provoked developers to improvise in ways that were progressively more innovative by drawing on accumulated knowledge; we call this phenomenon a “paradox of progressive saturation”. We identify ten forms of improvisation that unfold across different stages of a systems development project. We offer a conceptualization of the paradox of progressive saturation to represent the changing nature of improvisation over time, which contributes to the literature on improvisation in information systems development.

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