Integrated water resource management (IWRM) is a response to current acknowledgement of the complexity and wickedness of water management. IWRM aims to enable appropriate responses via multi-party participation. Adaptive management-purposeful learning for improved action-is a useful tool for integrating water resource management. It provides a framework to enable participatory processes and social learning to contribute to changed policies and practices. However, the institutional constraints on moving to adaptive management (and hence IWRM) are many and deeply entrenched. The paper explores these constraints by considering the almost unconscious, and generally uncritical, reliance on 'projects' in natural resource management. Using examples from Australia, it reflects on the defining features of natural resource management 'projects' and critically considers these in relation to the conditions needed for adaptive management, social learning and IWRM. Projects, bounded in time and space and strongly tied to political and financial cycles, encourage short-term planning and action, not to mention risk avoidance and solidification of power differentials. Active reflection on the nature of projects provides a useful space to explore a possible clash between the normative idealistic and the critical realist perspectives of integrating water management.