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Project Management and the Stories from an Old World


Human history has seen projects before the profession of project management -and even the concept of something similar- was defined as we know it today. Perhaps it wasn’t named until recent years and it didn’t share many of the foundations the profession has today, but big and old structures such as the pyramids were projects in everything but name.

The construction of the Great Wall of China started in 208BC and records indicate the planning went back even further. Perhaps the great pyramids at Giza had a Pharaoh willing to cut your head (something we’re thankful we don’t have today), but also they had managerial levels and some sort of a chain of accountability, but it wasn’t until the early 1900s that project management as we know it began to take the form we are familiar with.

When it all began

In 1911 appeared what is known as the first scientific approach to the discipline with the publication of Frederic Taylor’s The Principle of Scientific Management, based in his work in the steel industry, in an attempt to structure knowledge on how to help unskilled workers transition to new and more complex projects, providing simple learning techniques.

The first visual tool came with Henry Gantt, who is known because he created the eponymous scheduling diagram that takes his name. The Gantt chart was used in the building of the Hoover Dam in 1931, which was one of its first major implementations and is still in use today with different takes but keeping the original spirit.

The Critical Path is a technique developed by Dupont in 1957, and perhaps one of my favorites, it helped work through the complexities of shuttering their chemical plants for its usefulness at the time of predicting how long a project will take thanks to the fact that it analyzes which sequence of activities has the least amount of scheduling flexibility.

Project Management Methodologies – A Lot of Them

The PERT method was developed in 1958 by the United States Department of Defense’s US Navy Special Projects Office to analyze the tasks involved in completing a Polaris mobile submarine-launched ballistic missile project, based on the need to have a tool that would help to determine how much time was required to complete each task, which in time defined the minimum amount of time required to finish the whole project.

By June 1962, the United States Department of Defense, NASA and the aerospace industry published a document for the PERT/COST system which described the Work Breakdown Structure (WBS) approach as a complete hierarchical tree structure of the deliverables and tasks needed to complete a project.

Introduced by Dr. Eliyahu M. Goldratt in his 1984 novel The Goal, the management philosophy of the Theory of Constraints (TOC) came from the idea that a manageable system is limited in achieving its goals by several constraints, and than an organization needed help to deal with the uncertainties inherent in managing projects, while taking into consideration the limited availability of resources required to execute those projects.

In 1986 the term SCRUM was coined in a paper first published in the Harvard Business Review called “The New New Product Development Game” by Takeuchi and Nonaka as a project management framework, later on assimilated as part of a wider model known as The Agile Software Development model, codified with the creation of the Agile Manifesto or the Software Development Manifesto, in 2001.

In 1988 Taiichi Ohno published his book “Toyota Production System: Beyond Large-Scale Production” where he defined the Kanban method (from the Japanese 看板, signboard) thanks to his experience developing it inside Toyota, where he needed a way to manage and improve work across human systems, balancing demands with available capacity and improving the handling of system-level bottlenecks.

In 1989 the PRINCE Standard (Projects In Controlled Environments) was developed by the UK government as their standard for all information systems projects, later revised in 1996 as PRINCE2 due to criticism that it was too unwieldy and rigid, and therefore only suited for large projects.

The Institutions that Came to Be

There are a few, and perhaps some of those are a little bit shady, others are highly specialized in certain fields of the practice, and others have been washed into the forgotten shores of oblivion. But there is no place to deny than the human species likes to associate giving birth to some of those bodies of knowledge know as institutes and associations, like the International Project Management Association (IPMA), founded in 1965 in Vienna as a means for project managers to network, it is the world’s first project management association.

Later on, and founded by five volunteers in 1969 as a nonprofit, the Project Management Institute (PMI) held its first symposium in Atlanta in 1969, and has came to be one of the most well known and respected institutions in the field with the book A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK), where they outlined the processes and knowledge areas of project management, becoming a standard in 1998. With time they also evolved in a certification body, offering the Certified Associate in Project Management (CAPM) and the Project Management Professional (PMP) certifications.

Where to go from Here?

Out there we can find a lot of methodologies and associations related to project management, often tailored to accommodate the specific needs of different and highly specialized industries, there are even efforts to standardize its practice with ISO standards like ISO 21500:2012, the first project management ISO, the ISO 31000:2009 on risk management as part of the PMBoK5 concept of project management or the ISO/IEC/IEEE 16326:2009 on Life Cycle Processes, and that doesn’t mean everything is already done.

As a discipline, Project Management has a lot of room to grow and evolve, but is always important to note than people tend to forget how things where done in the past (the Agile craze of recent years is an example of that), which means than there is still a lot to learn, a lot to remember and a lot not to forget; and I’m not just talking about an empiric approach, but about studying the discipline, and getting the means to show those studies; besides that the future will tell.