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Experimenting in the unknown : lessons from the Manhattan project


  • Thomas Gillier

    (MTS - Management Technologique et Strategique - Grenoble École de Management (GEM))

  • Sylvain Lenfle

    (i3-CRG - Centre de recherche en gestion i3 - CNRS - Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique - Université Paris-Saclay - X - École polytechnique)


Experimentation is of paramount importance in innovation. On this topic, the seminal book of Prof. Thomke entitled "experimentation matters" has received a warm welcome from innovation scholars and practitioners. Unfortunately, the companies still have major difficulties to organize experimentations in situation of high uncertainty. This research aims at verifying the validity of Thomke's principles in such situation. For doing this, this research studies the exemplary experimentations carried out by the Manhattan Project to create the first implosion type fission bomb. Our findings show that the Thomke's organizational principles by are ill adapted to manage experiment in the unknown. In particular, the lack of theoretical knowledge, the crisis of the scientific instruments and the absence of pre-established organizations are critical aspects. Finally, research avenues for experimenting in the unknown are formulated.

Suggested Citation

  • Thomas Gillier & Sylvain Lenfle, 2015. "Experimenting in the unknown : lessons from the Manhattan project," Working paper serie RMT - Grenoble Ecole de Management hal-01483018, HAL.
  • Handle: RePEc:hal:gemwpa:hal-01483018
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    References listed on IDEAS

    1. Svenja C. Sommer & Christoph H. Loch & Jing Dong, 2009. "Managing Complexity and Unforeseeable Uncertainty in Startup Companies: An Empirical Study," Organization Science, INFORMS, vol. 20(1), pages 118-133, February.
    2. Christoph H. Loch & Christian Terwiesch & Stefan Thomke, 2001. "Parallel and Sequential Testing of Design Alternatives," Management Science, INFORMS, vol. 47(5), pages 663-678, May.
    3. Sylvain Lenfle & Christoph Loch, 2010. "Lost Roots: How Project Management Came to Emphasize Control Over Flexibility and Novelty," Post-Print hal-00557549, HAL.
    4. Svenja Sommer & Christoph H. Loch & Jing Dong, 2009. "Managing Complexity and Unforeseeable Uncertainty in Startup Companies: an Empirical Study," Post-Print hal-00491684, HAL.
    5. Alfred Kieser, 1994. "Why Organization Theory Needs Historical Analyses—And How This Should Be Performed," Organization Science, INFORMS, vol. 5(4), pages 608-620, November.
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    7. Stefan Thomke & David E. Bell, 2001. "Sequential Testing in Product Development," Management Science, INFORMS, vol. 47(2), pages 308-323, February.
    8. Maidique, Modesto A. & Zirger, Billie Jo, 1985. "The new product learning cycle," Research Policy, Elsevier, vol. 14(6), pages 299-313, December.
    9. Simge Tuna & Georg Windisch, 2014. "Efficient front-loading through knowledge integration," International Journal of Product Development, Inderscience Enterprises Ltd, vol. 19(5/6), pages 286-306.
    10. Ely Dahan & Haim Mendelson, 2001. "An Extreme-Value Model of Concept Testing," Management Science, INFORMS, vol. 47(1), pages 102-116, January.
    11. Thomke, Stefan & von Hippel, Eric & Franke, Roland, 1998. "Modes of experimentation: an innovation process--and competitive--variable," Research Policy, Elsevier, vol. 27(3), pages 315-332, July.
    12. Chris Freeman & Luc Soete, 1997. "The Economics of Industrial Innovation, 3rd Edition," MIT Press Books, The MIT Press, edition 3, volume 1, number 0262061953, January.
    13. Fiona Lee & Amy C. Edmondson & Stefan Thomke & Monica Worline, 2004. "The Mixed Effects of Inconsistency on Experimentation in Organizations," Organization Science, INFORMS, vol. 15(3), pages 310-326, June.
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    More about this item


    radical innovation; exploration; project; unknown; expérimentation; innovation radicale; exploration; inconnu.;

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