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Exploration, project evaluation and design theory: a rereading of the Manhattan case

Sylvain Lenfle (Department of Economics and Management, University of Cergy‐Pontoise (THEMA) & Ecole Polytechnique (PREG‐CRG), Paris, France)

International Journal of Managing Projects in Business

ISSN: 1753-8378

Article publication date: 15 June 2012




There is a widespread agreement in the managerial literature that projects produce much more than what they deliver. However, most of the literature focuses on what project delivers (new products, processes, services …). This can be misleading, especially for highly innovative projects for which neither the goals, nor the means to reach them, are clearly defined at the beginning. Thus, contemporary research argues for a model in which project management is, first and foremost, a way to organize the exploration process. The question becomes the definition of a framework to evaluate the project results (success or failures). The purpose of this paper is to study this question by bridging project management and design literature. Indeed research on design processes propose tools that could help managers to better understand what has been delivered and learned during the exploration journey. The paper relies on the Manhattan case to illustrate the fruitfulness of this approach.


The paper opted for an exploratory study using an historical case study: the Manhattan project. The author was able to draw on a large amount of historical material which has not yet been used to study the management of exploration projects. The paper focuses on a specific set of events likely to reveal the problems raised by the evaluation of exploration projects. Given the information available, it was considered that the point of “theoretical saturation”, which Glaser and Strauss proposed as the criterion to stop collecting data, had been attained.


The paper shows how recent development in design theory may provide a fruitful theoretical framework to develop a new evaluation framework to assess the results of exploratory projects in terms of both products designed and knowledge developed.

Research limitations/implications

Because of the chosen research approach, the research results may lack generalisability. Therefore, researchers are encouraged to explore this question further.

Practical implications

The paper includes implications for the development of new evaluation tools for exploratory projects.


The question of project evaluation is of the greatest importance to enhance the management of exploration processes. The paper's bridging of design theory and project management constitutes an original approach.



Lenfle, S. (2012), "Exploration, project evaluation and design theory: a rereading of the Manhattan case", International Journal of Managing Projects in Business, Vol. 5 No. 3, pp. 486-507.



Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2012, Emerald Group Publishing Limited

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