Sub-theme 39: Learning from Imperfect Projects

Alfons van Marrewijk
Delft University of Technology, The Netherlands
Iben Sandal Stjerne
Copenhagen Business School, Denmark
Jörg Sydow
Freie Universität Berlin, Germany

Call for Papers

Over the past decade there has been growing interest in theorizing and researching temporary organizations (Bakker et al., 2016; Burke & Morely, 2016), including recognizing the relevance of temporary organizing forms – in particular of projects – in society (Jensen et al., 2016). One of the key challenges that has remained underexplored so far, and holds opportunities in this field of study, is the frequent failure of projects to meet their goals (Brown & Jones, 1998). Since complex projects, and in particular complex projects, regularly fail (Flyvbjerg, 2016), a debate has unfolded looking at the disappointment and perception of failure, resulting in harsh criticism of project management.
Projects fail to live up to expectations or to deliver their promised change goals for various reasons, depending on the level of analysis. Looking at explanations, failure results from a lack of clear goals, fuzzy role expectations, internal power dynamics, or inapppropriate evaluation measures (van Marrewijk et al., 2016). A broader explanation of project failure is a lack of managing the project embeddedness in relation to more permanent structures, for example, ensuring strategic relevance and political backing within an organization (Engwall, 2003) or a larger project network (Sydow & Staber, 2002). Temporal misfits among partners or the temporal shadows of past and future projects may also arise (Stjerne et al., 2019) and lead to the early closure or death of a project (Novy & Peters, 2012).
However, even though these failures, breakdowns, early project deaths, and unrealized ventures may be perceived as imperfections of projects, they hold an opportunity to prompt project managers and other project team members to improvise, experiment,  and learn (Stjerne & Svejenova, 2016). But how can individuals and, even more important as well as more complicated, organizations learn from near misses and even complete project failure? As the transfer of knowledge from the emporary to the permanent is difficualt to organize (Wiewiora et al., 2019) and vicarious learning does not seen to work either (as the decontextualized idead of best practices is inappropriate), does each individual, team, organization, network, or community have to learn for itself?
Our answer to this question is that more serious, theory-informed empirical research of imperfect projects, including near misses and complete failures, would help to improve our collective understanding of this topic. Assuming that imperfect projects are the opposite of perfect projects, we suggest regarding the positive assertion of imperfection as a rich source of insights, necessary to learn from in order to improve temporary organizing in general and project management in particular. In perfect project management thinking is assumed that project goals can be formulated and met by thoroughly planning, integrating tasks, comping with risks, managing stakeholder, and thus knowing the future (Sanderson, 2012). Imperfect project management thinking adopts a more realistic view, which is informed by project practice and considers, among other things, internal power dynamics, barriers to obtaining project goals, and the strategic behavior of project actor (see, for example, Willems et al., 2020).
We would like to encourage projects scholars to develop imperfect project management thinking by exploring what can be learned from near missses or failing projects.


  • Bakker, R.M., DeFillippi, R., & Sydow, J. (2016): “Temporary organizing: Promises, processes, problems.” Organization Studies, 37 (12), 1703–1719.
  • Brown, A.D., Jones, M.R. (1998): “Doomed to failure: Narratives of inevitability and conspiracy in a failed IS project.” Organization Studies, 19 (1), 73–88.
  • Burke, C.M., Morely, M.J. (2016): “On temporary organizations: A review, synthesis and research agenda.” Human Relations, 69 (6), 1235–1258.
  • Engwall, M. (2003): “No project is an island: Linking projects to history and context.” Research Policy, 32 (5), 789–808.
  • Flyvbjerg, B. (2016): The fallacy of beneficial ignorance: A test of Hirschman’s hiding hand.” World Development, 84, 176–189.
  • Jensen, A., Thuesen, C., Geraldi J. (2016): “The projectification of everything: Projects as a human condition.” Project Management Journal, 47 (3), 21–34.
  • Novy, J., & Peters, D. (2012): “Railway station megaprojects as public controversies. The case of Stuttgart 21.” Built Environment, 38 (1), 128–145.
  • Sanderson, J. (2021): “Risk, uncertainty and governance in megaprojects: A critical discussion of alternative explanations.” International Journal of Project Management, 30 (4), 432–443.
  • Stjerne, I.S., Söderlund, J., & Minbaeva, D. (2019): “Crossing times: Temporal boundary-spanning practices in interorganizational projects.” International Journal of Project Management, 37 (2), 347–365.
  • Stjerne, I., & Svejenova, S. (2016): “Connecting temporary and permanent organizing: Tensions and boundary work in sequential film projects.” Organization Studies, 37 (12), 1771–1792.
  • Sydow, J., & Staber, U. (2002): “The institutional embeddedness of project networks: The case of content production in German television.” Regional Studies, 36 (3), 215–227.
  • van Marrewijk, A.H., Ybema, S., Smits, K., Clegg, S.R., & Pitsis, T. (2016): “Clash of the Titans: Temporal organizing and collaborative dynamics in the Panama Canal Megaproject.” Organization Studies, 37 (12), 1745–1769.
  • Wiewiora, A., Smidt, M., Chang, A. (2019): “The ‘how’ of multilevel learning dynamics: A systematic literature review exploring how mechanisms bridge learning between individuals, teams/projects and the organization.” European Management Review, 16 (1), 93–115.
  • Willems, T., van Marrewijk, A.H., Kuitert, L., Volker, L., & Hermans, M. (2020): “Practices of isolation: The shaping of project autonomy in innovation projects.” International Journal of Project Management, 38 (4), 215–228.
Alfons van Marrewijk is Full Professor of Construction Cultures at the Faculty of Architecture and the Built Environment of the Delft University of Technology, The Netherlands, and Adjunct Professor of Project Management at the Norwegian Business School BI Oslo, Norway; furthermore, he is Associate Professor at the Department Organization Sciences, Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, The Netherlands. In his academic work Alfons uses anthropological theories and methods for studying inter-organizational collaboration and cultural change in technically oriented organizations and complex mega-projects.
Iben Sandal Stjerne is Assistant Professor at Copenhagen Business School, Denmark. Her primary research focus is on the intersection between temporary organizing, temporality and Human Resource Management. Empirically, this has primarily been investigated ethnographically with a focus on creative industries. Her work appears in journals like ‘Organization Studies’, ‘International Journal of Project Management’, ‘Ephemera’, and ‘Research in Sociology Organization’. Iben is currently engaged as a reviewer in ‘Project Management Journal’, ‘International Journal of Project Management’, ‘Research in the Sociology of Organizations’, ‘Strategic Organization’, and ‘Journal of Business Ethics’.
Jörg Sydow is Professor of Management and Chair of Inter-firm Cooperation at the School of Business & Economics of Freie Universität Berlin, Germany. His research focuses, among others, on strategic alliances and networks, management and organization theory, temporary organizing, creativity and innovation, and industrial relations. Jörg is or was a member of the Editorial Review Boards of ‘Organization Studies’, ‘Organization Science’, ‘Academy of Management Review’, ‘Academy of Management Journal’, ‘Journal of Management Studies’, and ‘The Scandinavian Journal of Management’. Currently, he Senior Editor with ‘Organization Studies’.