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The Origins of Modern Project Management

"Men never plan to be failures, they simply fail to plan to be successful."
William A Ward

Keywords: Project Management, Origins, History.

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The Origins of Modern Project Management [P050]

Projects in one form or another have been undertaken for millennia:

However, it was only in the latter part of the 20th century people started to talk about ‘project management’; earlier endeavours were seen as acts of worship, engineering, nation building, etc. And the people controlling the endeavours called themselves generals, priests, engineers, architects, etc.

There is an important distinction to be drawn between projects: ‘a temporary endeavour to create a unique product, service or result’ and project management, or at least ‘modern project management’ as it is embodied in the various project management associations around the world. The profession of ‘project management’ is a creation of these associations over the last 30 to 40 years. Over this period, they have developed a generally consistent view of the processes involved in ‘project management’, encoded these views into ‘Bodies of Knowledge’ (BoKs), describe competent behaviours and are now certifying knowledgeable and/or competent ‘Project Managers’. 

Whilst the underlaying philosophies used by modern project management are much older2, the key change in the last 30+ years has been the melding of processes, techniques and management philosophies into a BoK, and the effective dissemination of the ideas of modern project management into the wider community. The central theme running through the various BoKs is that project management is an integrative process that has at its core, the balancing of the ‘iron triangle’ of time, cost and output. Whilst this core has been steadily extended to include the integration and management other elements such as risk, quality and communications, as they apply to the project. The objective of project management remains the completion of the project, as efficiently as possible, to the satisfaction of the project’s stakeholders. Also, despite the steady expansion of knowledge areas covered by the BoKs, the foundation techniques for modern project management remain the integration and control of scope, cost and time. All three facets must be present for a management process to be considered project management.

The evolution of two of these elements, scope and cost control, into relatively precise processes occurred prior to the industrial revolution of the 18th Century. However, whilst achieving deadlines has always been important, time management lacked effective measurement and control processes until much later.

The first ‘project’ to add science to the process of time control was undertaken by Kelley and Walker to develop the Critical Path Method (CPM) for E.I. du Pont de Numours. The meeting that approved the funding for this project was held in Newark Delaware on the 7th May 1957 and as they say, the rest is history . A few years later in 1969, Dr Martin Barnes (UK) first described the ‘iron triangle’ of time, cost and output in a course he developed called ‘Time and Money in Contract Control’; but interestingly, even then the course was not entitled ‘project control’.

The catalyst for the spread of discussions on project management and the formation of associations to support these new ideas appears to have been the spread of scheduling, and more importantly professional schedulers. Arguably, the evolution of modern project management is a direct consequence of the need to make effective use of the data generated by the schedulers as they calculated their ‘critical paths’, and the schedulers need for a forum to discuss and develop their new discipline. These needs led directly to the formation of the various project management associations. Certainly well over 50% of the people that founded each of the major associations studied for this paper were schedulers. Recollections of early conferences and the early publications from these associations also suggest that their focus was almost exclusively on project controls and ‘scheduling’ in the early years.

Once founded, it was (and still is) the various project management associations that led the development of a defined and documented ‘project management body of knowledge’. Only after the body of knowledge was formulated, did it become possible to define project management competencies, formally examine project management knowledge and start the process of creating a true profession of project management.

Assuming the central hypothesis in this paper holds true, that: the spread of scheduling was the genesis of ‘modern project management’ ; then the 50th anniversary of the start of the process that created ‘modern project management’ is the 7th May 2007.

Author: Patrick Weaver

1.  Chin-Ning Chu at PMI Global Congress, Bangkok 2006
2.  Whitty J. The impact of Puritan ideology on aspects of project management. 
     See also for a discussion of the ideas that created project management (memes and memeplex).

Origins of Modern Project Management

Download full The Origins of Modern Project Management paper.
Presented at: 4th Annual PMI College of Scheduling Conference
CPM Turns 50: A Birthday Celebration April 15rd-18th, 2007 - Vancouver - updated
& VPUG, July 2007 meeting
[ Download VPUG PowerPoint presentation ]

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