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The History of Project Management

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The History of Project Management

The History of Project Management

A post from our Project Management blog

Article author: Sam Carr
      Written by Sam Carr
Most modern managers have heard of project management and have participated in it in some way at some point in their careers.

For many experienced business executives, project management is crucial to day-to-day life. While the term was coined in the 1950s, the skills have evolved for thousands of years since early civilizations. Throughout history, the practice of project management has grown and transformed into the techniques and strategies we use today.

Project management is a relatively new term, drawing on historical approaches and developing new techniques to help modern companies maximize their resources. Still, it has become a central part of contemporary business management and is now crucial for the success of any business or organization across the public and private sectors.

What Is Project Management?

Project management is a general term that refers to applying various skills, techniques and experiences to take any given project from start to finish.

Usually, the project manager is the individual who leads the team and coordinates the work, as well as documenting everything in the project management documents.

There are many different approaches to project management, and each has its benefits and downsides and is best applied to a specific type of project or organization.

For example, Agile project management works well for software development projects and others where there are lots of small tasks to be completed that don't need to be done in a specific order but are each required for the project to be successful.

Alternatively, Extreme Project Management is a widespread technique in technology industries, as it allows managers to cope with external factors and how they affect the project's outcome.

Each approach is unique and allows project managers to plan their projects and adapt to changing circumstances.

Early Beginnings in History

Most project management articles focus on the 1950s and 60s as the starting point for the project management market, but it actually has its roots throughout history.

While it might not have been known as project management, some of these practices have been present in significant projects dating back to ancient civilizations.

Large-scale construction projects, such as the Great Wall of China and the Pyramids in Egypt, required oversight to ensure that they were created correctly and that each section was completed to the desired standard. 

The history of project management

Splitting up sections of the project and putting specific managers or teams, such as armies or groups of convicts, in charge of them formed the basis for project management as we know it today.

The Industrial Revolutions

The first and second Industrial Revolutions brought about significant changes in the development of project management. Although the two revolutions are mainly associated with improved working and living conditions, with urbanisation and great engineering works (like the first railway and the completion of the first transcontinental railroad) their effect on project management shouldn't be overlooked either.

During the industrial revolution, industry expanded rapidly all over the world. The beginning of automation and the growth of factories meant that everything was done on a much greater scale. This, in turn, meant that people were able to manage projects in a completely different and more extensive way.

The 20th Century

The 20th century saw significant changes in the world of project management. Both Frederick Taylor (often referred to as the Father of Scientific Management) and his friend Henry Gantt played an important role in the way projects were managed – and are still managed today.

The Gantt Chart

Henry Gantt, known as one of the forefathers of project management, is probably best known for creating and designing his famous diagramme, the Gantt chart – a radical idea at the time, and an innovation that changed the way projects were managed and documented in the 20th century.

The Gantt Chart

Developed in 1917, the aim of Gantt's chart was to track the progress of ship building projects during World War I. By documenting and examining each step of the process, he was able to get a clear overall view of the entire project and gather information about the connection between various functions.

And over 100 years later, Gantt Charts are still used in projects today.

The 1950s: the Start of Modern Project Management

The 1950s marked the beginning of the modern project management era, when project management became recognised as a distinct discipline and companies began to apply formal project management tools and techniques to complex projects.  This was aided by the creation of The American Association of Cost Engineers in 1956. The aim was to offer resources for cost managers and other stakeholders in important corporate projects to help them to achieve their operational goals in line with their budgets and timelines. 

One of the most important inventions of the decade was the Critical Path Method (CPM), developed by DuPont Corporation and Remington Rand Corporation in 1957. The aim of CPM was to assess and calculate the activities required to complete a project and predict the length of each of these phases. The idea was so successful that it is reported to have saved the company $1 million in its first year of implementation.

Another significant development from this era is the Program Evaluation and Review Technique (or simply PERT), developed by the United States Navy as part of the Polaris missile submarine program. Similarly to CPM, PERT is used for analysing the tasks that are required to complete a specific project, as well as estimating the time needed to complete each of these task, and the project itself.

Although the two methods are very similar, there is a critical difference between the two. While CPM is used for projects where the time at which each individual task is supposed to be carried out are known, PERT is used for projects where these times are either varied or unknown. Because of this difference, CPM and PERT are used in completely different contexts, and are not interchangeable.

The 1960s: Becoming a Profession

The 1960s saw the foundation of two project management associations. The International Project Management Association (IPMA, although it was initially called the International Management Systems Association) was founded in Vienna in 1965. A federation of more than 55 national and international project management associations, the aim of IPMA is to develop and promote project management as a profession, as well as to establish and provide guidelines for the work of project management professionals worldwide. Today, the association has nearly 400,000 members all over the world.

Another key development was the birth of the Project Management Institute (PMI) in 1969. The aim of PMI is to promote project management as a profession, and it also offers various certifications to project management professionals.

In the UK, the Association for Project Management (APM), a professional certification body and project management association, was founded in 1972, and has been at the forefront of the development of project management ever since. Representing more than 20,000 project management professionals, APM is now a key influence in the industry.

Project Management certification

The 1980s: Development of Different Approaches

Possibly one of the biggest developments of the 1980s involved the development of Agile project management. The most important feature of Agile is that it divides responsibility among more than one team member. Projects are then completed in small sections, after which each section is reviewed and critiqued by the project team.

In 1986, Scrum – a subset of Agile – was named as a project management style by Takeuchi and Nonaka in their paper, The New New Product Development Game.

The following year, PMI published A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge, a document that has since become one of the most important documents in the industry.

In 1989, the PRINCE method was born. After its launch, PRINCE (an acronym for "Projects in Controlled Environments") became the standard for all government information system projects. In 1996, this method was upgraded with the release of PRINCE2, a generic project management method which later became a de facto standard for project management in many UK, as well as various international government departments.

Project Management as a General Skill

The 20th century has also seen project management grow as a general skill that more and more people require as part of their lives. In other words, you don't need to be a Project Manager to need project management skills!

That's because the roles that people fill in modern times are becoming more flexible, and encompassing a far greater range of tasks, so general project management is a skill that many people now require in order to stay on top of their work. They may not see themselves as project managers, but certainly are functioning in this capacity at times. They may even be running many small projects where it would not be viable for a specialized project manager to be involved.

This has meant that more people feel they require project management as a skill, and as a result, far greater numbers have familiarity with terms like Gantt charts and PERT than ever before.

Why Today's Organisations Can't Function Without Project Management Strategies

Today, no organization can function properly without project management strategies. That's because modern commercial projects are complicated and have multiple stakeholders with high expectations.

Contemporary businesses use project management to ensure that the goals of all stakeholders are aligned and that everyone involved in completing the project understands their role.
For leaders and customers, project management techniques can allow them to track the project's progress and make them feel like they're getting good value and excellent service.

Business leaders and project managers can use project management techniques to show value to their stakeholders and clients. They can also review the status of each stage of the project to see whether it's on track, and potentially rescue the project from failure.

Project management involves creating project budgets and schedules, which can be vital for informing team members and ensuring everything is completed on time.
Splitting up sections of the project and putting specific managers or teams, such as armies or groups of convicts, in charge of them formed the basis for project management as we know it today.
  • AI and Automation
    Technology plays a significant part in modern project management, and many> project management tools will help. Ever-improving AI and automation solutions make it easier for managers to save time and improve project efficiency.
  • Increased Remote Working
    Remote or hybrid working is rising in popularity, meaning that project managers must adapt to deal with the challenges and changes this poses. That means focusing on communication technology and using shared digital storage to deliver work and fulfill aspects of the project.
  • Security as a Focus
    Security will remain a core focus for project managers as they seek to avoid a potentially costly data breach. With the rise in project management techniques and the increased focus on remote work, businesses will explore ways to keep their projects secure using technology and techniques.
  • Reduced Budgets
    Many businesses are seeking ways to cut costs due to global economic turmoil. One approach is reducing their budgets for new and existing projects. That means that project managers must find ways to cut costs and show value across every stage of their upcoming projects.
  • Networking Is Critical
    Networking and developing strong relationships across various industries is a crucial element of project management today, as most projects now involve many external factors and different skill sets. So, the industry's future will rest on project managers' ability to build and maintain valuable relationships in and around their fields of expertise.
Thanks to globalisation and our rapidly changing world, projects are becoming larger and more complex, and therefore increasingly difficult to manage.
New project management techniques and more efficient practices are developing all the time, which makes project management a very interesting and exciting place to be.

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