Journal of Management Information Systems

Volume 39 Number 3 2022 pp. 640-672

Rethinking Project Escalation: An Institutional Perspective on the Persistence of Failing Large-Scale Information System Projects

Berente, Nicholas, Salge, Carolina Alves de Lima, Mallampalli, Venkata KP, and Park, Ken


Project escalation involves the continued, persistent commitment to a failing project. Through a qualitative meta-analysis of 15 published cases of large information systems (IS) projects in escalation situations, we develop an institutional perspective on IS projects in escalation situations. This perspective describes how project persistence emerges from a plurality of legitimizing institutional logics that decision-makers draw upon at different project stages to maintain and reduce their commitment to the project. Logics related to the project’s approval are not the same logics that guide decisions throughout the project. For example, while we find that innovation and economic logics of return on investment are salient before approval, economic costs tend to be more salient after approval, along with technical impositions and managerial concerns. We further find that managerial logics are particularly salient in reducing commitment to projects, and we detail the differences and point out contextual triggers of external scrutiny and leadership changes that can contribute to reduced commitment to a project and eventual de-escalation.

Key words and phrases: IS projects, project escalation, project de-escalation, project legitimacy, project commitment, institutional logics, IT projects