The History of Project Management: Into the 21st Century

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Bits and Boxes Increase the Need for Project Managers

Over a century ago, when Taylor and Gantt toiled to make steel plants and textile mills more efficient, they could not have predicted the end result of their work. As social and economic demands pushed project management to the forefront in many companies, new tools and transportation methods underscored the importance of proper project planning.

By the 1970s, large corporations already used mainframe computers to automate many of the processes of project management. Employee schedules, vendor deliveries, and other key data points could be fed into systems that helped project managers set deadlines and priorities. Over time, the processors required to handle these complex calculations shrank to the size of tiny microchips. While the project management tool of choice is usually a personal computer, some project managers find sufficient power in PDAs and smart phones to handle their routine duties.

Meanwhile, the growth of FedEx and UPS as inexpensive, express shipping options changed the nature of manufacturing and distribution. Instead of creating long-term projects that could be refined over time, manufacturers could focus on developing small batches of easily distributed projects. Especially in the computer and auto manufacturing industries, viewing product release cycles as finite projects has increased innovation and minimized employee burnout.

Finally, the project management philosophies espoused by Gantt have taken root in the software industry. With no physical product to ship, thanks to the Internet, developers can use their project management prowess to refine popular titles. Project management tends to be looser in many programming shops, based on the need to maintain quality control and the desire to respond to customer requests.

Top-Down vs. Bottom-Up Project Management

One of the most noticeable changes in project management over the past few decades is the trend for some companies to put powerful planning tools into the hands of line workers. “Bottom-up” project management techniques are especially popular and effective in highly collaborative organizations, like creative agencies and computer programming companies. While bottom-up techniques, like Agile and Scrum, can impact schedules and deadlines, they can also avert costly errors that impact end users. Because bottom-up project management rarely impacts physical products, managers can use it to maintain maximum flexibility.

However, “top-down” project management still rules the day within most organizations that ship physical products. Top-down project management centralizes control of a project within a small team or even with a single project manager. However, today’s top-down project management includes line workers in the decision-making process far more than Taylor would have envisioned. By exposing line workers to real-time data and company metrics, project managers can help inspire them to surpass expectations and beat deadlines.

Although most project managers feel secure in their jobs, it’s amazing to realize that such key tools and philosophies have only been around for about a hundred years. With the efficiency that project managers bring to American companies, it’s fun to speculate what the next century of effective planning can produce.

This post is part of the series: The History of Project Management

Five key periods in the evolution of project management practices and principles.

  1. The History of Project Management: Frederick Taylor and 19th Century Peak Performance
  2. The History of Project Management: Gantt and the Early 20th Century
  3. The History of Project Management: Change Through the 1950s
  4. The History of Project Management: Late 20th Century Process and Improvements
  5. The History of Project Management: Into the 21st Century