Exploratory Projects


An exploratory project has as its principal objective the finding out of information.  Exploratory projects are often characterized by low cost, especially when compared to the cost of product development.  They usually have a number of unknowns that need to be explored.  And they may have unknown unknowns -- that is, areas where there is so little information available that a mapping is needed to determine what is known and what is really unknown.  Another way of looking at this is that often proof of feasibility of a proposed product is needed, and the exploratory project is launched to provide this proof.  All of these factors contrast sharply with product development which cannot tolerate this kind of uncertainty.


Starting exploratory projects should be easy -- little money is at risk, usually -- no great justification should be required.  However, this ease carries with it an implied responsibility: knowing when to stop.  Even small exploratory projects have a habit of growing on their own and finding ways to continue in existence long after they have done what they were originally started to do.


When starting an exploratory project, certain judgments need to be made.  Consider the topic of "claw marks" which is discussed here in a separate section.  And try to make some judgment as to whether the exploration will be easy (and inexpensive) or hard (and expensive).  Does the project violate the laws of physics?  Don't laugh!  It is amazing how many times proposals are made that simply don't make sense at the basic scientific level.  Be clear, to yourself and others, about what you expect from the project.  Again, it is knowledge, not design or a product, that will be the objective.  And acknowledge that one of the possible results of acquiring that knowledge may be that the project is not feasible, or that one (or more) of the unknowns is insurmountable.  An exploratory project that reaches such a negative conclusion must be regarded as a success -- that was what you wanted to find out.  You must reward and honor the personnel of the project accordingly, particularly if they have reached this negative conclusion expeditiously.  And it is then up to you to be sure that time and funds are not expended beyond the point where such a conclusion was reached.


One of the problems, in my experience, in such projects is that the project personnel will work on the things that they know how to do and will tend to leave the hard or unknown parts to later.  Of course, this is just the reverse of what was intended.  Make sure that the key issues on the project are confronted first and that time and funds are not spent on other things until the issues are resolved.  This is a human error, but it is still an error and is, unfortunately, common.  Do the hard part first so that time will not be spent on things that turn out to be infeasible or impossible or, if the issues are resolved positively, the easier parts of the project can be carried out efficiently, leading to a decision to move to product development (or not).


The issue of knowing when to stop a project looms large in my view.  Any fool can start an exploratory project, with little real risk, but it takes management skill to know how and when to stop one.  This is such an important aspect of the management of science and technology that it is dealt with both here and in the section on development.  With respect to exploratory projects, key criteria include:

Does the project violate some law of physics?

Does project turn out to violate the assumptions made at its start?

Does the project violate (or has it forgotten) the evaluation criteria established at its start?
Is the project busily working away at something outside the scope of what was established at the beginning?


Another aspect of exploratory projects is that their personnel often are chosen for their ability to explore the areas of interest, or perhaps are the originators of the ideas on which the project is based.  If the exploratory project is successful and product development is planned to follow, it is natural that the people who carried out the exploration will assume that they will continue on to do the development.  But this is often a bad decision as they may be quite inexperienced and unqualified to do the exacting work of product development, which demands a different mind set from exploratory work or research.  This will come as a jolt and a disappointment to the people involved and will have to be handled skillfully if everyone is to end up satisfied that the right decisions have been made.  Please review my thoughts on technology transfer in this connection.  Of course, there are exceptions where the originating personnel have the right skills to carry out later development.  But this is the exception, even though the people involved will almost always expect to continue with the project as it progresses.