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Rethinking revisited: insights from an early rethinker

Lavagnon A. Ika (Telfer School of Management, University of Ottawa, Ottawa, Canada)
Jonas Söderlund (Department of Leadership and Organizational Behaviour, BI Norwegian Business School, Oslo, Norway)

International Journal of Managing Projects in Business

ISSN: 1753-8378

Article publication date: 5 September 2016




The purpose of this paper is to review and analyze Albert Hirschman’s landmark book Development Projects Observed, share its insights for managing big projects, discuss its theoretical implications and how it may contribute to the current understanding of project behavior, project management (PM), and in what way it may encourage the rethinking of PM.


The paper is based on an in-depth analysis of Hirschman’s book. The paper draws on the writings of Jeremy Adelman who authored Hirschman’s biography, Cass Sunstein and Michele Alacevich who, respectively, wrote the foreword and afterword of the Brookings Institution classic published in 2014. It also profits from the work of Robert Picciotto who first met Hirschman in 1964, and Bent Flyvbjerg who recently offered a test of validity for Hirschman’s “Hiding Hand” principle.


Albert Hirschman was an original thinker and, the authors argue in many ways, a father of PM scholarship. His ideas had profound implications for social sciences and lasting influence in academy, policy, and practice. Although, to a great extent based on studies of projects, his ideas have had surprisingly little impact on modern writings of PM. This paper contributes to amending this weakness in current literature on PM. The authors identify in Hirschman’s book a set of core ideas that possess analytical power for explaining problems in contemporary PM. They include the principle of the Hiding Hand, the power of context, the role of complexity and uncertainty, the unexpected project effects, project traits, and latitudes/disciplines. For all his work and way of research, the authors conclude that Hirschman is not only an early behavioral theorist in PM but equally an early rethinker of PM.


This is the first paper that offers a discussion of Hirschman’s ideas on contemporary projects, how to understand them, their behavior, including the principle of the Hiding Hand and other important nuggets of wisdom in his research such as the significance of project traits, latitudes, and disciplines. The authors discuss in what respects these ideas may enlighten PM practice and theory. This paper also conveys the novel idea that Hirschman is an early rethinker of PM.



The authors would like to express their profound gratitude to Professor Jeremy Adelman of Princeton University, Professor Michele Alacevich of Loyola University Maryland, and Robert Picciotto, former Vice President of the World Bank, and Professor Bent Flyvbjerg of Oxford University, for comments on an earlier version of this paper.


Ika, L.A. and Söderlund, J. (2016), "Rethinking revisited: insights from an early rethinker", International Journal of Managing Projects in Business, Vol. 9 No. 4, pp. 931-954.



Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2016, Emerald Group Publishing Limited

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