Coping with an unexpected event: Project managers' contrasting sensemaking in a stakeholder conflict in China

Sampo Tukiainen, Kirsi Aaltonen, Mervi Murtonen

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleScientificpeer-review

20 Citations (Scopus)


Purpose – The purpose of this paper is to examine the sensemaking processes leading to project managers' responses to an unexpected event in an international project setting. High uncertainty and unexpected events are prevalent in international projects conducted in challenging and complex environments. The paper analyzes how an unexpected event and the ways to cope with it were made sense of by a Finnish and a Chinese project manager in a system supplier's delivery project in China.

Design/methodology/approach – This paper builds on a qualitative case study of the two project managers' sensemaking processes in the face of a single unexpected event. Narrative interviews were used as the method for data collection. The actantial framework by Greimas was used in analyzing the interview narratives.

Findings – The paper shows how the project managers' sensemaking processes, even within the same project management team, are highly subjective, leading to the coexistence of multiple, and highly divergent responses to the unexpected event. The paper also highlights how these sensemaking processes create the coexistence of multiple, divergent systems of project structures and boundaries for coping with the unexpected event.

Originality/value – While the existing project management literature has distinguished various tactics used by project managers for responding to unexpected events, of lesser attention have been the actual sensemaking processes underlying and producing these responses. The paper especially stresses how the sensemaking processes between project managers coming from culturally different backgrounds can yield highly contrasting interpretations and responses to the same event.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)526-543
JournalInternational Journal of Managing Projects in Business
Issue number3
Publication statusPublished - 2010
MoE publication typeA1 Journal article-refereed


  • China
  • conflict management
  • narratives
  • project management
  • uncertainty management


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