Managing exploratory projects: A repertoire of approaches and their shared underpinnings

Morten Wied, Nina Koch-Ørvad, Torgeir Welo, Josef Oehmen

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Uncertainty exists when action must be taken without knowledge of the possible outcomes and the probabilities of their occurrence. This is evidently the case in many real-life projects. Recent literature calls such projects ‘exploratory’, i.e. their goals and the means to attain them are uncertain at the outset. This presents a challenge to traditional project management—working from known means towards known ends—and may explain high rates of project failure. Nonetheless, prescriptions for managing exploratory projects remain situational and fragmented across schools of thought. The aim of this paper is to identify the repertoire of approaches adopted in practice by managers of such projects, and to outline the theoretical underpinnings of exploratory project management. Through the lens of resilience theory, we investigate the approaches adopted by 19 managers of exploratory projects across 14 Danish firms. The paper's contribution is two-fold: First, we present a consistent repertoire of eleven generalizable approaches to managing exploratory projects across a range of industries and project types. Second, outlining shared theoretical underpinnings, we explain the repertoire as preparatory, (pre-action), attemptive (during action) and responsive (post outcome) efforts to achieve resistance to and recoverability from unexpected events. Fundamentally, we argue for shifting focus from ‘what we know’ to ‘how we act’ when faced with exploratory projects.
Original languageEnglish
JournalInternational Journal of Project Management
Issue number2
Pages (from-to)75-84
Publication statusPublished - 2020

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