The History of Project Management

Ancient History

Although project management as we know it today didn't begin until the middle of the twentieth century, it has been present, and steadily evolving, for thousands of years.

One of the earliest forms of project management dates back to Ancient Egypt – more specifically to the construction of King Khufu's Great Pyramid at Giza, in 2570 BC. According to historians and ancient records, Egyptians appointed managers to oversee the completion of each of the four sides of the pyramid, and they were also responsible for the planning and the execution of the project.

Another great example of how project management appeared in ancient history is the construction of the Great Wall of China, in 208 BC. This time, not only did the emperor order millions of people to complete the project, but he also made sure that his workforce was divided into three separate groups: soldiers, civilians and criminals (we guess the latter group got a raw deal).

The history of project management

The Early Years

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.

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.

The Gantt Chart

The 1950s

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.

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.

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

Development of 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.

With the roles that people fill in modern times becoming more flexible, and encompassing a far greater range of tasks, 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 as a project manager in many capacities. They may even be running many, small projects, that are not deemed to need a separate project manager to be involved.

This has meant that more people feel that they require project management as a skill, and as a result, far greater numbers have familiarity with the terms used above like Gantt charts, PERT than before, and also an exponential increase in the numbers of people that are becoming accredited.

The Future

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 will no doubt appear, which makes project management a very interesting and exciting place to be.