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. You are warmely invited to submit a short paper by January 11, 2022.