Sunday, June 16, 2013

Experimentation as part of dynamic planning

Project managers challenged dynamic environments may benefit from experimentation, discovery and selection processes. Pich, Loch and De Meyer (2002) related how NASA used this approach to develop the lunar module in the 1960s. More recently, Cleland (1999) spoke about how Kmart initiated a package of low-cost probes, monitoring progress and then switching resources to the most promising projects once feasibility had been evaluated. The key advantage here is the ability to confirm an approach with feedback from the real world, allowing either customisation or cancellation, thereby optimising resourcing. Sobek et al. (1999) report that car manufacturers develop a number of prototypes in parallel, choosing the ones that give the best market reaction. Pfizer’s disappointing heart medication, Viagra, turned into a success because the company took the time to investigate its side effects (Kling, 1998). The ubiquitous AK-47 assault rifle was designed through a contest, which was a common management technique preferred by Stalin in the Soviet Union because it created a sense of urgency that resulted in rapid development. According to McCarthy (2010), “rival teams were given a set of specification and deadlines, and through a series of stages, the teams presented prototypes” that were tested and ranked in the field. Design convergence was an essential part of the process, allowing teams to mix and match features from different submissions, with more ideas available at each cycle. At the end of the process, the best features were assembled into a new whole. Therefore, the weapon came about not through individual epiphany or entrepreneurship but through state-led group design.

Clearly, researchers cannot merely sit down and write a plan guaranteed to deliver a cure for a disease; rather, they experiment, identify likely possibilities, and methodically eliminate dead ends. Importantly, the time spent testing the ideas that don’t work is just as vital as the time spent testing the ones that do. The ability to select more promising ideas is enhanced by the elimination of others. Sometimes, as in the case of Viagra, researchers start with a completely different objective, but keep in mind alternate applications (Kling, 1998). A perpetual portfolio of initiatives (fixed-scope experiments) can test ideas and eliminate dead ends.

Simon Collyer

Collyer, S., Warren, C., Hemsley, B., & Stevens, C. (2010). Aim Fire Aim - Project Planning Styles in Dynamic Environments Project Management Journal, 41(4), 108-121. doi: 10.1002/pmj.20199

Collyer, S., Warren, C. M. J. (2009). Project Management Approaches for Dynamic Environments, International Journal of Project Management, 27(4), 355-364

Cleland, D. I. (1999). Project Management, Strategic Design and Implementation, McGraw-Hill.

Kling, J. (1998). "Modern Drug Discovery  - From Hypertension to Angina to Viagra." Modern Drug Discovery 1(2): 33-34.

Loch, C., et al. (2000). "Adjusting Project Management to Uncertainty." European Business Forum(3): 47-51.

McCarthy, E. (2010). "The AK-47: Questions About the Most Important Weapon Ever." Nov 2nd 2010, from

Sobek II, D. K., et al. (1999). "Toyota's Principles of Set-based Concurrent Engineering." MIT Sloan Management Review 40(2): 67-83.