Learning from the Ambiguous Past with Project Reviews

John K. Christiansen*, Jan Mouritsen

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalJournal articleResearchpeer-review

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Purpose: Knowledge is supposedly a good ally of the future. Postproject reviews aim to create knowledge and improvements based on the past, but what happens when those observations are ambiguous? Based on intriguing observations on developing structured postproject reviews, implications of the ambiguities of the past are analyzed and discussed.
Design/methodology/approach: The present research departed from an interactive clinical action research approach (Schein, 1987), employing several rounds of interaction over 11 months. The studied company had a clear objective to improve its project evaluations and learn from three past projects to improve future ones by developing a framework to facilitate project evaluation.
Findings: Despite top management support and a benevolent organizational climate, the development process encountered problems. The list of issues to consider grew ever more extensive, and the expected data refinement and accompanying insights did not happen. Participants debated what to observe, and there was uncertainty about how to link the elements and confusion and disagreement about what was learned.
Research limitations/implications: Learning from past projects was more problematic and difficult than predicted based on the postproject review literature. The past did purvey multiple interpretations.
Practical implications: Learning from the past is not effective if the goal is generating causal knowledge, scoring forms and checklists for future use. Postproject reviews provide an opportunity to decide what the past should be about rather than identifying what it was about.
Originality/value: The past might appear stable, but, when examined, ambiguity emerges. Research on knowledge generation from postproject reviews assumes that a project’s past is more or less stable and agreed upon. However, this study addresses the critical role of ambiguity about the past and the challenges when organizations try to learn from history through project reviews and evaluation processes.
Original languageEnglish
JournalInternational Journal of Managing Projects in Business
Issue number1
Pages (from-to)179-204
Number of pages26
Publication statusPublished - 2021

Bibliographical note

Published online: 19 October 2020.


  • Project review
  • Postproject review
  • Evaluation
  • Action research
  • Clinical
  • Ambiguity
  • The ambiguity of the past
  • Learning
  • Knowledge
  • Experience
  • The ambiguity of experience
  • Assessment

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