How much can you scale incremental approaches?

I can still remember a seminar I’ve been to during my master’s studies. It was about project management, and the speaker was a very experienced project manager from defence industry. When you are building a submarine, or a fighter jet, you don’t get to do many iterations! We are quite used to engineering projects in defence industry that takes billions of dollars, and years to complete.

When you speak to engineers, project managers and other people in these projects, you see that they all have the same approach: “of course this is the way to do it!”. How else can you run something as big as this? In theory, as time and billions of dollars go by, these engineering practices should have become perfect, with all the lessons learned.

There are some signs however, that I can’t ignore. Consider the circumstances and technology when NASA managed to send a man to the moon. 50 years after that ( almost), and NASA has just announced that another launch to moon would be delayed to 2020. The innovation in space shuttles now comes from small private companies, which do not have the billions to spend. Look at NHS, look at other gigantic engineering projects. There is something wrong here, but people are perfect in ignoring the pink elephant in the middle of the room.

So I’m thinking, we should find a better way of ensuring agility, to the max we can do, we need to change a couple of things, even for larger projects. I’m not a core project manager, though I’ve done my share of it, but I’d like see some people with experience of both formal, and less formal and agile projects to try to join the two approaches.