In the Beginning…
As a formal discipline, many consider project management to be a fairly modern field of study. However, when you stop to think about it, the core concepts of project management are intricately connected to the history of mankind. Teamwork, communication, efficient use of resources, identifying and assessing risks, determining if a change is worth the effort it will take to achieve – all of these activities have been practiced since the dawn of civilization.
Of course, in the earliest days of human history, most projects focused on that all-important goal of just staying alive one more day. I’d like to think we’ve come a long way since then, but when I see people get into a shouting and shoving match over who gets to use the photo copier next, I do wonder a bit.
Although it was built around 2560 BC, the Great Pyramid of Giza still stands today – a true monument to the remarkable design and construction of this wonder of the ancient world. There are still quite a number of debates related to how the pyramid was constructed, which include differing theories on the transportation of the materials and the management of the workers.
Early theorists believed that a large portion of the pyramid’s construction workers came from a pool of slave laborers, but recent archaeological discoveries suggest that much of the construction was actually performed by paid skilled workers – possibly even including off-season farmers.
Considering the tools available at the time, the degree of architectural precision for the Great Pyramid is simply amazing. While the real details of the pyramid’s construction will probably always be something of a mystery, it’s fairly certain that a considerable amount of time was devoted to the project’s planning and many speculate that scaled models were used during this planning period.
Great Wall of China
The Great Wall of China is actually comprised of several fortifications joined together. The project of linking these various defense systems began under Emperor Qin Shi Huang around 220 BC and continued sporadically throughout China’s history, with a serious revival during the Ming Dynasty period (1368-1644) – and you thought you've worked on some never-ending projects!
A fairly recent study devoted to mapping the Great Wall estimates its length at about 5,500 miles (8,850 km), including natural defensive barriers incorporated into the wall’s construction. Far more than just a defensive structure, the Great Wall is an amazing monument to China’s rich cultural history that displays innovations in architectural design that came about over the wall’s 2000-year construction period.
Without a doubt, the early Romans were master architects and builders, constructing some of history’s most well-known structures such as the Roman Colosseum and the Pantheon. However, perhaps the Romans’ real gifts to the science of project management were their focus on building better infrastructures and dedication to developing better organizational and management techniques.
The early Romans were conquerors – but they were conquerors who were quick to see the value of various aspects of another people’s culture and adopt them as their own. As a result, the Romans may have been one of the first groups to develop a set of “best practices” collected from the conquered territories under their rule.
Sailing Around the World
In 1492, Christopher Columbus set out to find a quicker and safer all-sea route to the east by taking a “shortcut” west across the Atlantic Ocean. Since the Americas got in his way, he didn’t quite make it, but his findings paved the way for Ferdinand de Magellan to continue this project in 1519.
After bypassing the western lands by sailing south around the tip of South America, Magellan eventually made it to the Philippines. Although he was killed during that stopover, Magellan’s crew continued their way home to Spain and cemented the sea voyage as the first in history to circumnavigate the globe.
These early explorers were intimately acquainted with some of the finer points of risk management. Each time they set out to sea, they knew quite well that a sizeable percentage of crew, ships and supplies could be lost on the voyage. Although Columbus, Magellan and others like them were more than willing to accept such dangerous risks because of the potential rewards, they still developed meticulous contingency plans and re-evaluated their situations constantly in the hopes of minimizing these risks.
First Transcontinental Railroad
On May 10, 1869, the last spike was driven to complete the very first transcontinental railroad, connecting the Wild West with the more industrialized Eastern United States. Many are familiar with the construction stories about work teams starting from both the eastern and the western portions of the Pacific Railroad with a plan to link up somewhere in the middle, but the real project difficulties happened long before that.
When the concept of a transcontinental railroad was still in its idea stage, there were constant debates over which route to take (northern, central or southern) and varying proposals on how to obtain funding for the project. To make things worse, major project sponsors and champions kept dying throughout the proposal process! Thankfully, the project was popular enough that others were willing to step in and continue the work of their predecessors.
Finally completed in 1914 (although expansion and renovation efforts are still ongoing today), the Panama Canal could easily be considered one of the most difficult projects that has ever been successfully completed.
The earliest proposals to create a sea passage through Panama to connect the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans date as far back as the early 1500s when Holy Roman Emperor Charles V sanctioned a feasibility study for the project. Deemed impossible at the time, the idea was resurrected several times over the next few hundred years.
Ideas and plans finally turned into action when a French team took up construction efforts in 1880. Unfortunately, that attempt ended in failure and was abandoned – actual construction work stopped in May of 1889, although official liquidation was not completed until 1894. Although there are several factors that contributed to this failure, many believe that the key issue was the team’s refusal to deviate from the initial plan even though it was clearly not working.
The project began again in 1904 – this time backed by the United States. Although the construction still experienced more than its share of trials and tribulations, new excavation technology and medical efforts to counter the spread of malaria and yellow fever among canal workers made a huge difference. The first ship passed through the newly created passage on August 15, 1914.
Many consider the modern study of project management to have its roots in the theories of scientific management as introduced by industrialists and engineers such as Frederick Winslow Taylor, Henry Gantt and Henri Fayol. Just as the name implies, the concept of scientific management focuses on applying systematic, scientific principles to production and management functions.
In particular, Henry Gantt is known for his conception of the Gantt chart – a scheduling tool familiar to every project manager today. It’s interesting to note that a Polish engineer by the name of Karol Adamiecki is credited with using Gantt charts as early as the mid-1890s, and that Gantt independently developed the tool in the early 1910s.
The Program Evaluation and Review Technique (PERT) is a planning and scheduling tool developed by the U.S. Navy’s Special Projects Office in the 1950s. While this technique was first used primarily for government and military projects, it has been adapted for use in other large-scale endeavors, such as the planning of the 1968 Winter Olympics in Grenoble, France.
For many complex projects, it’s tough to efficiently manage time because so many activities and tasks have multiple dependencies and uncertain durations. PERT was developed as a means to help recognize and control some of these issues and to identify measures that can be taken to speed up project completion time. The technique is especially useful for large projects that are extremely time-sensitive.
Man on the Moon
That’s one small step for man; one giant leap for mankind. –Neil Armstrong
Most projects – whether they’re undertaken by the military, government or private organizations – have some sort of quantifiable benefits. Others, like the Apollo manned moon landings, are a bit more subjective in nature and are designed to satisfy mankind’s curiosity and desire for progress.
Without a doubt, space missions have been some of the most meticulously planned projects in history. Years were spent planning the successful Apollo 11 mission that sent Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong to the moon and back in 1969, while the actual round-trip took only eight days. As part of the contingency planning process, NASA and President Richard Nixon even prepared speeches to deliver in the event that Armstrong and Aldrin were unable to return from the moon.
Another interesting note: The Project Management Institute (PMI) was also founded in 1969, the same year as the historical Apollo 11 mission.
Yucca Mountain Nuclear Waste Repository
The amount of nuclear waste in the United States continues to build, with an estimated 18,000 tons produced each year. Most agree that building a central repository to store all this hazardous waste is a good idea, but no one wants that type of storage facility in their backyard – or even in their state.
In 1987, after years of research, the U.S. Congress decided to focus on Yucca Mountain (near Las Vegas, Nevada) as a potential site for a nuclear waste repository. Numerous stop-and-go efforts continued over the years with President Barack Obama finally canning the project in 2009 – but that’s not the end, since several proponents are still pushing for reconsideration.
While the Yucca Mountain debacle is big news, it’s not really that uncommon. A lot of long-term government projects have trouble maintaining continuous, ongoing project sponsorship and that lack of a champion often leads to project failure and/or abandonment. The problem is that most sponsors of government projects are elected officials, who may or may not still be in office next term. To make things worse, if a sponsor is not re-elected to his position, the person who takes his place often has opposing political views – so, that replacement may not only be unsupportive, he may be downright against the project.
What will become of Yucca Mountain? Who knows, but with $9 billion already spent researching the site, we have to hope at least some lessons were learned.
Looking to the Future
What will the big famous projects of tomorrow be, and what will we learn from them? If and when we do master the technology necessary to build a space elevator, will we still find one useful? I’m still holding out for the terraforming of Mars, but that’s because I like the idea of lower gravity.
What new trends are you seeing? Even more, what are some of the current frustrations you have with project management that might be eased with new technology and/or methodologies? Leave us a note in the Comments; we'd love to hear from you.
- Fordham University, Ferdinand Magellan's Voyage Round the World, 1519-1522 CE, http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/mod/1519magellan.asp
- Gantt.com, What is a Gantt Chart?, http://www.gantt.com/
- Chiu, Y.C., An Introduction to the History of Project Management: From the Earliest Times to A.D. 1900, Eburon Academic Publishers, 2010.
- NetMBA, PERT, http://www.netmba.com/operations/project/pert/
- BBC News, Nixon's unused Apollo speech, http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/science/nature/390933.stm
- PanCanal.com, Canal History, http://www.pancanal.com/eng/history/
- Stone, Daniel, "Yucca Nuclear Site Returns", The Daily Beast, http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2011/08/26/yucca-mountain-nuclear-waste-facility-plans-may-be-revived.html
- World Heritage Convention, The Great Wall, http://whc.unesco.org/en/list/438
- The Virtual Museum of the City of San Francisco, Driving the Last Spike, http://www.sfmuseum.org/hist1/rail.html
- BBC, Great Wall of China 'even longer', http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/asia-pacific/8008108.stm