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Managing the unexpected in megaprojects: riding the waves of resilience

Andreas G.M. Nachbagauer (Department of Project Management and Organisation, University of Applied Sciences BFI Vienna, Vienna, Austria)
Iris Schirl-Boeck (Department of Project Management and Organisation, University of Applied Sciences BFI Vienna, Vienna, Austria)

International Journal of Managing Projects in Business

ISSN: 1753-8378

Article publication date: 4 January 2019

Issue publication date: 8 October 2019




Risk management and uncertainty in megaprojects is a flourishing topic in project management, while the unexpected is still a neglected matter. The purpose of this paper is to offer conceptual clarifications of the unexpected based on second-order-cybernetics and systems theory. While transferring findings from organisation theory to project management, the article provides fresh insights into managing the unexpected in megaprojects.


Being grounded on constructionism and systems theory, the conceptual paper explores selected research approaches from organisation theory: research on high-reliability organising, organisational resilience and organisational improvising, on contributions to managing the unexpected in megaprojects. Using the framework of meaning i.e. the factual, social and temporal dimensions, challenges of handling the unexpected are analysed and (effects of) decision-making structures for such projects are defined.


This paper argues that classic project management, while neglecting the fundamental distinction between risk, uncertainty and the unexpected, sticks to a planning-and-controlling approach. But the unexpected cannot be planned; however, organisations and managers can prepare for the unexpected. This requests a balance between structure and self-organisation in planning, communication, hierarchy and organisational culture. Understanding the contradictions inherent in managing megaprojects allows for smart decision-making when riding the waves of resilience.


The study adds to the literature on complexity and uncertainty in project management by enhancing the view to include the unexpected. While rejecting the universal applicability of rationality-based risk and controlling conceptions, shifting to second-order cybernetics and integrating elements of resilient organising increases the understanding of handling the unexpected in megaprojects.



This paper is based on research within the project “Der Beitrag der Human-Factors-Forschung zum Management von Unsicherheit in projektorientierten Organisationen” (“The contribution of Human factors research for managing uncertainty in projectoriented organisations”) funded by the City of Vienna/Austria, MA 23. A previous version of this paper was submitted to the Special Topic Track on “Managing Major and Mega Projects: The Importance to Broaden Classical Project Management Approaches” at EURAM 2018.


Nachbagauer, A.G.M. and Schirl-Boeck, I. (2019), "Managing the unexpected in megaprojects: riding the waves of resilience", International Journal of Managing Projects in Business, Vol. 12 No. 3, pp. 694-715.



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