Breakin’ the Project Wave: Understanding and avoiding failure in project management


Prof Dirk Nicolas Wagner

Karlshochschule International University

Karlsruhe, Germany


Temporary organizational forms in general and here namely projects often do not reach their objectives. Catastrophic outcomes are a particular problem. Recent studies imply that projects which massively fail are ‘Black Swans by design’. This paper provides a more refined explanation as it studies the emergence of failure through a temporal lens. The metaphorical concept of a project wave is introduced to describe the process. It reflects compounding times of not knowing: ‘not wanting to know’,’ not supposed to know’ and ‘must not know’. The concept is illustrated and supported by evidence from a particular case reviewed: The construction project of the new airport BER in Germany’s capital Berlin. It is shown that the project wave also serves as a framework within which proposed remedies to typical project management problems can be positioned.

Key words: project-based organizing, project management, temporality, delays, cost overruns, delusion, optimism, deception, principal agent problems, Black Swan, metaphors


For business in particular but also for society in general, temporary organizational forms become more and more relevant. This sign of the times is increasingly reflected in academic writing dealing with questions related to temporary organizational forms (Bakker, 2010, 466). One omnipresent issue with temporary organizational forms is that they appear to often fail in meeting their communicated objectives. This becomes highly evident and measureable when it comes to successful completion of projects. Irrespective of the industry or the even sector concerned, projects are regularly intended to be on time, on budget and on scope. It is widely accepted that all too often, they are not (Flyvbjerg et al., 2002; Altshuler/ Luberoff, 2003; Priemus et al., 2008). Projects fail in the sense that they do not meet their schedule, cost and scope respectively quality objectives.

Against this background, critical research on management emphasizes a ‘non-performative intent’ and argues that other indicators of project success are important to consider (Cicmil/Hodgson, 2006). But for evident reasons, the objectives of the iron triangle (Oisen, 1971; Atkinson, 1999) continue to be a key priority for project stakeholders (BMVI, 2015). This is a motivation here to keep the focus on the narrow sense of project management success rather than on the more general notion of project success (Ika, 2009, 8). The aim is to understand how projects can be on time, on budget on scope, but to nevertheless follow the proposition by critical project management research to “introduce alternative theoretical approaches to the study of projects” (Cicmil/Hodgson, 2006, 111).

The alternative theoretical approach put forward here is the concept of a project wave. The concept is metaphorical. This is guided by the insight that metaphors are not only language but govern human thought and action (Lakoff/Johnson, 2003, 3). Conventional metaphors like ‘time is money’ or ‘love is magic‘ are good examples for that. The project wave is a metaphor providing a new understanding (Lakoff/Johnson, 2003, 139ff) of our experience of project management failure in terms of too late, too expensive and too different from the intended outcome. The project wave describes the cumulative effects of interactions between people who do ‘not want to know’, are ‘not supposed to know’ and ‘must not know’.


To read entire paper (click here)



About the Author

pmwj42-Jan2016-Wagner-PHOTODirk Nicolas Wagner

Karlshochschule International University
Karlsruhe, Germany


Dirk Nicolas Wagner
is Dean of the Faculty for Business Economics & Management and Professor of Strategic Management at Karlshochschule International University. Prior to joining Karlshochschule in 2013, he served in various management positions in the Technical Services Industry in Europe, most recently as Executive Chairman of the Board of ThyssenKrupp Palmers Ltd. and as a Director for WWV Wärmeverwertung GmbH & Co KG. His professional background includes major projects in oil & gas, power and rail infrastructure.   Prof Wagner can be contacted at [email protected]