Scaling up to business agility


Advances in Project Management


By Prof Darren Dalcher

Director, National Centre for Project Management
Lancaster University Management School

United Kingdom

Recent articles in this series have examined crisis management and recovery (see, for example, Dalcher 2020; Dalcher 2021). Ideas for novel and creative solutions, that prove to be essential to recovery from crisis and to flourishing in turbulent times, require rapid testing and exploration as we seek to make sense of a turbulent and fast changing environment. Indeed, the notion of fail fast, fail often is invoked in such demanding settings (Edmondson, 2011; Kahana et al, 2016). Yet, many organisations struggle with identifying the mindsets and approaches that would enable, underpin and support such activity in an organised fashion. This article looks at general approaches for supporting nimble adjustments and rapid learning in organisations.

Experimentation matters

Many organisations struggle with innovation, not least because so much is unknown in relatively unexplored contexts, domains and situations. Thomke (2003) observes that an organisation’s ability to innovate depends on a process of experimentation where new products and services are created and existing ones are improved. However, organisations are tempted to persist with what appears to be working well, and the cost of additional experimentation is often viewed as prohibitive, thereby limiting the potential for future improvement or innovation. Yet, the challenges of turbulent conditions and emerging crises introduce new imperatives to prepare for the unexpected and to continuously ask uncomfortable questions (Brooks & John, 2018). What-if type questions can thus become essential in highlighting hidden assumptions, pushing boundaries, testing the rules, and discovering new insights.

Questions, and the resulting reflection, play an important part in fuelling the innovation process. It is well acknowledged that trial-and-error provides a powerful mechanism for iterative discovery, reflection and experimentation, which promotes resilience. Indeed, resilience develops by sampling the unexpected in small doses and diverse ways through iterative cycles of trial-and error (Wildavsky, 1988). To benefit from experimentation under turbulent conditions, organisations need to become aware of the power of experimentation, but must also develop the appetite, mindset, process, organisation and governance structures that would support and enable such discovery. Ironically, in difficult and turbulent times, when experimentation is most needed, it is often dismissed as an unnecessary or a luxury extra. In reality, experimentation holds the key to exploring what is different now, what might be feasible, and how things might be organised when a new normal is established.

Continuous innovation is challenging. Innovation requires trial-and-error experimentation and discovery. It demands attention, resources and commitment, especially in difficult times when these prove to be scarce. Continuous experimentation enables responsive reactions to emergent conditions and budding opportunities. Consequentially, it also develops high-velocity responsive capabilities that can prove particularly useful during disastrous, turbulent and uncertain periods.

Ultimately, experimentation as an activity is not something that is conducted in the basement, when no one is looking. It is an unrelenting attitude, a passionate curiosity and an information buying strategy to explore irregular, volatile and demanding contexts. However, embedding experimentation within organisations requires the development of an agile, flexible and nimble repertoire of processes and capabilities for probing and responding.


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Editor’s note: The PMWJ Advances in Project Management series includes articles by authors of program and project management books published by Routledge publishers.  Each month an introduction to the current article is provided by series editor Prof Darren Dalcher, who is also the editor of the Routledge Advances in Project Management series of books on new and emerging concepts in PM.  Prof Dalcher’s article is an introduction to the invited paper this month in the PMWJ. 

How to cite this paper: Dalcher, D. (2021). Scaling up to business agility, Advances in Project Management Series, PM World Journal, Volume X, Issue V, May. Available online at https://pmworldlibrary.net/wp-content/uploads/2021/05/pmwj105-May2021-Dalcher-scaling-up-to-business-agile.pdf

About the Author

Darren Dalcher, PhD

Author, Professor, Series Editor
Director, National Centre for Project Management
Lancaster University Management School, UK


Darren Dalcher, Ph.D., HonFAPM, FRSA, FBCS, CITP, FCMI, SMIEEE, SFHEA, MINCOSE is Professor in Strategic Project Management at Lancaster University, and founder and Director of the National Centre for Project Management (NCPM) in the UK.  He has been named by the Association for Project Management (APM) as one of the top 10 “movers and shapers” in project management and was voted Project Magazine’s “Academic of the Year” for his contribution in “integrating and weaving academic work with practice”. Following industrial and consultancy experience in managing IT projects, Professor Dalcher gained his PhD in Software Engineering from King’s College, University of London.

Professor Dalcher has written over 300 papers and book chapters on project management and software engineering. He is Editor-in-Chief of Journal of Software: Evolution and Process, a leading international software engineering journal. He is the editor of the book series, Advances in Project Management, published by Routledge and of the companion series Fundamentals of Project Management.  Heavily involved in a variety of research projects and subjects, Professor Dalcher has built a reputation as leader and innovator in the areas of practice-based education and reflection in project management. He works with many major industrial and commercial organisations and government bodies.

Darren is an Honorary Fellow of the APM, a Chartered Fellow of the British Computer Society, a Fellow of the Chartered Management Institute, and the Royal Society of Arts, a Senior Member of the Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers, a Senior Fellow of the Higher Education Academy and a Member of the Project Management Institute (PMI), the British Academy of Management and the International Council on Systems Engineering. He is a Chartered IT Practitioner. He sits on numerous senior research and professional boards, including The PMI Academic Insight Team, the CMI Academic Council and the APM Group Ethics and Standards Governance Board as well as the British Library Management Book of the Year Panel.  He is the Academic Advisor, author and co-Editor of the highly influential 7th edition of the APM Body of Knowledge. Prof Dalcher is an academic advisor for the PM World Journal. He can be contacted at d.dalcher@lancaster.ac.uk.

To view other works by Prof Darren Dalcher, visit his author showcase in the PM World Library at http://pmworldlibrary.net/authors/darren-dalcher/