An Historical Perspective on Project Management

In theory, we should be able to learn from how humans have managed projects since the start of civilisation. This should be an enlightening area for study, but is one that appears to have yielded little of practical use for project managers today.

For one, the constraints are hardly the same today as they were. One very successful civilisation – the Roman Empire – did not have the same resource constraints that project managers face today. As one historian pointed out, if they wanted any more resources to complete their projects, they simply had to go and conquer the region that had those resources and take them. Maybe this is more reminiscent of industrial practice today than we credit

In addition, timescales and expectations were much less. Construction of some of Europe’s great churches was accomplished over periods of many decades, or often over hundreds of years. Today, the expectation is that it will be ready tomorrow. In addition, we do have a ‘survivor bias’ for projects carried out by them – we do not find so much evidence of their failures as of their successes.

Recently, the nature of project management has changed. It has ceased to be dominated by the construction industry, where much of the case material under this heading is based, and is now applicable in all organisations.

Project management is now an advanced and specialised branch of management in its own right. As a result, the nature of project management has had to change. It is no longer simply an extension of a technical specialism (e.g. engineering or marketing), but requires a full structure to take a project from strategy to action. In addition, the hard systems approach, which treated the project as a mechanical activity, has been shown to flawed. A further elaboration of the development of the subject is shown in the table.

Stage Era Characteristics
Pre-1950s No generally accepted or defined methods
1950s ‘One best way’ approach, based on numerical methods established in the USA for managing large-scale projects
1990s A contingent approach based on strategy

Obviously, small- and large-scale projects were undertaken before the 1950s. Individuals managed events and other situations. For example, the Pyramids were constructed, wars were fought, and products were developed. However, project management in the way that we would understand it today did not exist until the 1950s.

During the 1950s, formal tools and techniques were developed to help manage large, complex projects that were uncertain or risky. The chemical manufacturer Du Pont developed Critical Path Analysis (CPA) for scheduling maintenance shutdowns at the company’s production facilities. At the same time, the defence contractor RAND Corp. created Programme Evaluation and Review Technique (PERT) for planning missile development.

These tools focused almost exclusively on the project planning phase, and there were no close rivals for their use. The methods have survived and became ‘the way it is done’, despite never apparently having been the subject of any trial that questioned their usefulness.

As well as project planning and control, the role of projects is today being re considered. A strategic approach is taken to the design of the project process, rather than the highly reactive approach that has been prevalent until recently. Conventional methods developed to manage large-scale direct-value-adding projects with timescales of years such as heavy engineering are too cumbersome when projects require short timescales to exploit market openings quickly, in particular in an information-based economy.

The third stage of project management emphasises the strategic role of projects, especially those processes that the project manager must put in place to deliver the end objective of the project and satisfy the needs of all the project’s customers. In this new approach, project managers become project integrators, responsible for Integrating the required resources, knowledge, and processes from the project’s beginning to end. This third stage has also been greatly influenced by the changes that have occurred in the context in which modern projects operate.

In particular, the ready availability of technology (especially communications technology) has led to the emergence of virtual teams as a means of running projects. Similarly, there has been considerable development of powerful project planning and software and the computer processing power to support it. Both of these have the potential to change the way that we work in projects.

This consideration of the evolution of the subject brings us to the issues that practitioners and academics are facing today.

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