Living with Paradox in Project Context: A clue to the way forward?

Tim Brady, Harvey Maylor

Research output: Chapter in Book/Conference proceeding with ISSN or ISBNConference contribution with ISSN or ISBNpeer-review


This paper argues that as researchers of projects and project management we should pay more attention “to the opportunities offered by tensions, oppositions, and contradictions among explanations of the same phenomenon” (Poole and Van de Ven, 1989, 562) to help build theories of project management and project organising. The idea for this paper emerged over a period of three years during which the authors have struggled to make sense of a phenomenon they had observed in the course of some fieldwork, the non-adoption of established good practice on a failing project which would have been beneficial to the project, its subsequent adoption and, following that, its heralding within the organisation as ‘best practice’. We tried to analyse this phenomenon using a variety of theoretical lenses – none of which could satisfactorily explain what we had been observed. We then attempted to construct our own theorisation of the phenomenon which we called ‘complicity theory’ because the phenomenon was only allowed to persist because of the complicity between the organisation and its major customer and between multiple levels of the organisation. But our theory of complicity proved to be very narrow in context – it is only useful where complicity exists. Where it is absent there is no need for the theory. We compared our original case study with another on-going major project case where many best practice/accepted/promising practices had been adopted – the construction of Heathrow’s Terminal 5. At the time this was being heralded as a great success and an example of a breakthrough innovation in project management. However, a year later the Terminal opening was described as a national disaster when multiple problems emerged which resulted in the cancellation of numerous flights and thousands of pieces of baggage being separated from their owners. So here was another paradox: how does a major success become a major failure almost overnight? The paradoxes highlighted above are just two examples of the many paradoxes in the world of projects and project management that researchers and practitioners in the domain have identified. We realised that by focussing down too narrowly on specific examples of paradox we researchers can only develop theories of limited scope. Given the prevalence of paradoxes in the world of projects perhaps we should move beyond labelling these phenomena to explore them and to contribute insights more in tune with organizational complexity and ambiguity (Lewis, 2000).
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationIRNOP VII Project Research Conference
Publication statusPublished - 2009
EventIRNOP VII Project Research Conference - Berlin, Germany
Duration: 1 Jan 2009 → …


ConferenceIRNOP VII Project Research Conference
Period1/01/09 → …


  • Heathrow airport
  • Terminal 5
  • Project management
  • Complex Product Systems (CoPs)


Dive into the research topics of 'Living with Paradox in Project Context: A clue to the way forward?'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this