Wrong, but not failed? A study of unexpected events and project performance in 21 engineering projects

Morten Wied, Josef Oehmen, Torgeir Welo, Ergo Pikas

Research output: Contribution to journalJournal articlepeer-review

109 Downloads (Pure)


Purpose: Most complex engineering projects encounter unexpected events through their life cycle. These are traditionally attributed to inaccurate foresight and poor planning. Outlining a nonanticipatory alternate, the authors seek to explain the ability to rebound from unexpected events, without foresight, using resilient systems theory. This paper seeks to outline the theoretical underpinnings of project resilience and to identify criteria for planning and selecting projects for greater resilience. Design/methodology/approach: Investigating project resilience, this paper studies the relationship between unexpected events and project performance in 21 projects. The authors perform a systematic review of project ex post evaluations 3–12 years after project completion. Findings: First, the authors find that all projects encountered unexpected events, even when discounting planning error. Second, the authors show that, as a consequence, projects underperformed, not necessarily relative to formal criteria, but in terms of subjective opportunity cost, that is, relative to competing alternates – known or imagined – foregone by their implementation. Finally, the authors identify four types of resilient projects – superior, equivalent, compensatory and convertible projects – as opportunities for building project resilience. Practical implications: The properties of resilient projects provide opportunities for building resilience in complex projects. Originality/value: Departing from traditional efforts to “de risk” plans and “de-bias” planners, this paper focuses on the properties of projects themselves, as an alternate to improved foresight and up-front planning.
Original languageEnglish
JournalInternational Journal of Managing Projects in Business
Issue number6
Publication statusPublished - 2021


Dive into the research topics of 'Wrong, but not failed? A study of unexpected events and project performance in 21 engineering projects'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this