The pattern of dealing with failure was crucial. Blaming others (individuals, teams, the project, management, the line organization) was a common reaction to unexpected expectations, behaviors, and outcomes. Those involved saw that blaming hinders line and project development. Working together through the process of switching perspectives was most successful when teams committed themselves to learning together to change their observation patterns. They reminded each other to overcome the pattern and look at the ecosystem (line and project). Opening the perspective for a joint future was key to overcoming the vicious circle of "blaming culture."

It was a hard way to learn: this problem was yesterday, today we have to look anew into the future and learn from yesterday. It helps us to focus on a new picture, prevents us from getting stuck in yesterdays' failures. We have to work more like a trial-and-error system. (Program manager, telecommunication)


Projects had potential to be incubators for innovation and learning for the line organization if they had a high degree of independence resulting in a strong sense of self. Projects invented their own structures and ideas of leadership fitting their own requirements. The more complex the social and content requirements, the greater the project organization's need for independence and risk tolerance. The higher the level of innovation and learning, the greater the need for the project to create its own structure, leadership and team culture. Projects used freedom and learning better than the line organization because they did not carry the weight of tradition or set structure and leadership patterns. Line management had to give freedom; project management had to take and use it:

The best situation had X as the sponsor. He is very hierarchically-minded, but he knew that I was the right person for that position in the project management. We valued each other in our diversity. (Project manager, manufacturing)

The project has to be a strong unit by itself. It's my responsibility to enable things; one can't expect that from the sponsor, even if that was the agreement at the beginning. (Project manager, bank)


Projects dissolve outdated line organization structures and demand differentiation and interplay of content, form or management. Organizational learning expects management to develop and constantly scrutinize structures and leadership tailored to their requirements. If the line organization's existing structural pattern remained unquestioned and leadership culture was taken as a given, organizational learning reached a dead end. Where sponsor and project manager developed structures and leadership culture tailored to their common requirements, the project had perfect performance conditions, and the line lasting organizational learning conditions. The essential idea was that management intervention must move away from only linear and hierarchical patterns of thinking.

The managers were so used to obeying and waiting.... It was hard work to change the leadership and cooperation style during the project. I nearly got burnt, it nearly cost me my job ... finally we made it, we got the overview. (Program manager, public sector)


When line and project found ways of dealing together with differing expectations, learning possibilities opened up. Opportunities for shared reflection and steering guaranteed that different approaches and outcomes received attention. Through appreciating otherness the line organization became able to use the differences produced by the project. Thus projects had potential to force line organizations towards functionality: Which structure, which leadership concept, which culture will move us as a whole toward our goal in a functional mode? Maintaining an overview of different structures and cultures was of great importance. For this to happen, both line and project thought in a functional, organizational way so as to act together as a whole. Learning to use differences and consider the unity of line organization and project required common goals for the future. Considering the unit as a learning ecosystem with different interests and cultures can create a new solution for dealing with different expectations, structures and leadership cultures in order to reach a shared future.

Organizational learning can prosper when project and line distinguish patterns through the interplay of oneness and differentiation and reunite them through the benefits of innovation. Reference to a meta-level is vital for this, by asking the question: Which different goals, structures and leadership cultures will bring us together to our shared future? This keeps otherness in balance on the basis of superordinate common future goals.


In successful cases the project manager acted as key figure and "360 degree leader." S/he took on the function of representative and "middle manager" by making differences transparent: perceptions and interests of each organizational system, important player and stakeholder. This included managing the borders between the different systems of the ecosystem by:

• Maintaining an overview of different interests and conditions and regulating conditions which limited as well as enabled.

• Providing frameworks, negotiation and reflection as steering actions to help the different functionalities of different systems to come into their own. Different systems, projects, and experts obtained useful orientation for working and acting in a learning spirit.

• Functionally managing the flux borders between ecosystem and environment in order to serve and develop the definition of shared future.

S/he had an overview of the differences and their interplay with existing conditions. Negotiation processes were cornerstones of the development of a shared mode in which different purposes were integrated, established and distinguished.

Project managers and sponsor were responsible for enabling a culture that bore in mind the functionality of the ecosystem, its differences and borders as well as its interfaces to the environment. Learning to learn on an organizational level must be formed and cultivated as organizational shared effort and investment. Successful survival as and within an ecosystem is based on the logic of homoeostasis, so the vicious blaming circle turns into a shared spirit of learning circle.


Davies, A., & Hobday, M. (2005). The business of projects: Managing innovation in complex products and systems. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press.

Grabher, G., & Ibert, O. (2011). Project ecologies: A contextual view on creativity and learning in temporary organizations. In P. Morris, J. Pinto, & J. Sôder-lund (Eds.), Oxford Handbook on the Management of Projects. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press

Kotter, J. (2005) Cultures and coalitions. In A. Toffler & H. Toffler (Eds.), Rethinking the future (pp. 164-178). London, England: Nicholas Brealey.

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