Projects that ‘Stand-Out’


Towards a Theory of Project Salience



By Isaac Abuya, PhD

Department of Management Science and Project Planning
Faculty of Business and Management Science
University of Nairobi
Nairobi, Kenya


Why do some projects ‘stand out’ and attract a lot of attention and interest from diverse stakeholders, publics and the media, while others in similar contexts do not? What makes such projects to stand out?  To answer this and other related questions, we formulate a definition of project salience and propose a theory of project salience.  The formulated definition of project salience is inclusive as it incorporates iconic engineering /architectural projects and non-iconic, but equally salient projects. Based on a review of salience literature, this paper proposes and discusses a theory of project salience, that may be useful for researching and managing high profile projects.  Hopefully, this paper makes an important contribution to project management theory development. Further, we hope that the proposed theory of project salience will make an important contribution to project management research.

Keywords: Project salience, theory of project salience, salient projects, theory development, projects that stand out.

  1. Background

Why do some projects ‘stand out’ and attract a lot of attention and interest from diverse stakeholders, publics and the media, while others in similar contexts do not? What makes such projects to stand out? Do these projects require and present qualitatively and quantitatively different design, planning, implementation and evaluation approaches from other projects in similar contexts? And why is it important for project management scholars and practitioners to focus renewed attention on ‘projects that stand out’? Is there an overarching theory that explains these types of projects?  These are important questions requiring theoretically and conceptually grounded response. Managing and leading projects that stand out, in a field that is getting more complex and unpredictable, require focus on these questions.

Different scholars have provided different definitions and conceptualizations of projects that stand out from other projects in similar settings. These conceptualizations include, among others: mega projects (Flyvbjerg, Bruzelius, & Rothengatter, 2003; Frey, 2016; Garemo, Matzinger, & Palter, 2015; Gellert & Lynch, 2003); urban mega projects ((Orueta & Fainstein, 2008; Fainstein, 2008; Flyvbjerg et al., 2003; Gunton, 2003; Glass et al., 2019; Gualini & Majoor, 2007; Schindler & Kanai, 2019; Swyngedouw, 2005);  flagship projects (Bianchini et al., 1992; Doucet, 2009; Smyth, 1994; Grodach, 2010; Healey et al., 1992); prestige projects (Bianchini et al., 1992; Doucet, 2009; Smyth, 1994; Grodach, 2010; Healey et al., 1992); global projects (Orr & Scott 2008 ;Dodson, 1998), among other conceptualizations.

While these conceptualizations have helped project management scholars to conduct useful and innovative studies on such types of projects, we submit that conceptualizing projects that stand out around these concepts (. i.e., mega/ flagship/ global/prestige, etc.), narrows and limits theorization of projects that stand out , and reduces such  theorization to the ‘iconic’, architectural, engineering and construction projects, thereby excluding other projects (e.g. cyberterrorism projects, counterterrorism projects, hate crime projects, policy innovations, trade and investment facilitation projects, breakthrough medical research projects, research and development projects, electoral reform projects, among other high profile projects) that are not necessarily ‘iconic’, architectural, engineering and construction related but equally stand out and have the potential to attract a lot of attention and interest from diverse stakeholders, publics and the media.

Limiting projects that ‘standout’ only to their exogenous features, reduces the scope of such projects and theoretical and conceptual values of these projects. Projects that stand out, irrespective of their nature are high profile. And so, we prefer the use of high-profile projects, since it is inclusive. We also submit that projects that stand out are high profile because of their salience, and it is their salience and their high-profile nature that make them to stand out. Thus, mega projects, flagship projects, prestige projects and other projects that stand out in their contexts stand out because of their salience.  We use these concepts to propose a theory of project salience.

The paper makes one important contribution. The paper contributes to theory building in project management. Kuskela (2000) had charged that the underling theory of project management is obsolete. While what Kuskela has posited is ‘theoretically provocative’, we believe that both theory development and theory testing are both important for project management research and practice.

The paper is structured into three sections. Section two reviews extant and recent theoretical literature on the concept of Salience and explicates important elements of salience.  In the third section of the paper, we formulate and propose a definition of project salience and a theory of Project Salience, based on the critical elements from the literature and discusses the elements of Project Salience.

  1. Literature Review on Salience

We present a review of extant and recent literature on salience drawn mainly from architecture and built environment, cognitive, social and experimental psychology, sociolinguistics, marketing, consumer behavior and from other social sciences, to explicate the critical elements of salience. We admit that different perspectives emphasize different components of salience. Notwithstanding the lack of consensus on the meaning of salience, scholars from diverse disciplinary backgrounds have explicated critical elements of the concept of salience.


To read entire paper, click here

How to cite this paper: Abuya, I. (2022). Projects that ‘Stand-Out’: Towards a Theory of Project Salience; PM World Journal, Vol. XI, Issue IV, April. Available online at https://pmworldlibrary.net/wp-content/uploads/2022/04/pmwj116-Apr2022-Abuya-towards-a-theory-of-project-salience.pdf

About the Author

Dr. Isaac Abuya

University of Nairobi
Kisumu, Kenya


Dr. Isaac Odhiambo Abuya teaches project planning and management and also coordinates the PhD, Master and Bachelor Programmes in Project Management at the University of Nairobi, Kisumu Campus. His research interests include the integration of multidisciplinary perspectives in project management research and their application to small island and minority communities. He has a combined 25 years of experience in teaching both in high schools and universities in Kenya and in managing development projects in the country. He was a Project Director at World Vision Kenya, National Programme Manager at AED/FHI 360, Project Coordinator at ADRA International, Programmes Coordinator at Nyanza Reproductive Health Society (NRHS), and Chief of Staff, Homa Bay County, Kenya. Isaac has consulted for leading non- governmental organizations in sub- Saharan Africa. He holds Master and PhD degrees in Project Planning and Management from the University of Nairobi, a Master of Arts degree in Counselling Psychology from Kenyatta University, Kenya and a Bachelor of Education degree from Egerton University, Kenya. Dr.  Abuya is also the Director of Better Futures for Children, an island-based organization (IBO) committed to advancing reading literacy among orphans and vulnerable children in small islands in Kenya’s Lake Vitoria. Isaac is a native resident of Rusinga Island. He is working towards the development of Island Research for Island Development Initiative (IRIDI), to advocate for the translation of research conducted in Kenya’s small islands to support sustainable development of the small islands. Dr Abuya serves as an Honorary Academic Advisor for the PM World Journal and Library. He can be reached through Abuya@pmadvantage.co.ke