A Short History of Project Management

construction of King Khufu's Great Pyramid at Giza

Have you ever wondered about the history of project management, or how it evolved into its’ present day usage? This article will cover most of the major project management happenings throughout history. The stages of time will cover the BC time period, the 1900’s where the root of modern project management was driven by the military, and we’ll end up looking at the ever evolving Agile methodology that more and more project manager are implementing now.

Let’s go back to Egypt first

Thousands of years before Christ, the Egyptians were building pyramids. Obviously, the architects and engineers were greatly involved in designing and building these huge complex structures. By default, these people were doing early project management by obtaining/transporting the heavy blocks of stones and related materials (procurement and quality management) and acquiring and scheduling the slave workers (resource and communications management) to do their work. Other early seeds of project management were developing (for example, building the ancient Greek temples and the Great Wall of China) around the world.

Henry Gantt and his chart

There were many men and women in the early 1900’s that made significant contributions for the application of analytical science to the workplace. One could say this was the birth period for modern project management. I would be remiss if I didn’t at least mention Henry Gantt. No discussion of project management would be complete without mentioning his contributions, as he applied the knowledge he learned during World War I building Navy ships by diagramming the processes with bars and milestones (see Figure 1.1). It goes without saying that this was very laborious to do by hand, but his famous Gantt chart is a standard format for displaying project activities and their corresponding start and finish dates in calendar form to this day. Project Managers (PMs) use Gantt charts as a standard tool for communicating project tasks and scheduling information, which is found in most project management software. Gantt’s contributions to military projects and to the overall project management profession have been enormous!

Figure 1.1: Draft Project Plan with Gantt Chart
Figure 1.1: Draft Project Plan with Gantt Chart

The WWII Era

During and after World War II, America’s Department of Defense (DoD) and its suppliers continued to focus on developing techniques and software to assist in managing large projects. The software included features such as generating a project network diagram to help create realistic schedules and the critical path to find the earliest completion date. Eventually DoD had their own project management methodology, which was product-oriented, and you had to use their methodology if you wanted to do business with them. The first three levels of their methodology uses work breakdown structures that cover project-end objectives, major product segments or subsections of the end objective, and decomposed components, subsystems, or subsets. These were the origins of the project as a unifying standard and management specialty. Eventually, project management was seriously looked at as a true profession.

Another major project related happening was the growing popularity of value engineering (VE), which was widely used at General Electric. This functioned to help measure the value of alternatives (for example, using cheaper resources and/or materials to reduce project costs or design-to-cost) especially when there was a scarcity of resources. We saw this in action, when, during WWII, 1943 American pennies were made out of zinc-coated steel so that the military could use the copper for everything from shell casings to radio wire. These “steelies” were often confused with ten cent silver dimes because they looked so similar. Also from 1942 – 1945, nickel was in critical demand to help support the war effort, so it was removed from the nickel five-cent pieces, which were made up of a combinations of other metals.

PMI on the scene

The Project Management Institute (www.pmi.org) is an international non-profit society for PMs founded in 1969 and currently celebrating its 50th anniversary. PMI has almost 600,000 members worldwide in over 200 countries and many different kinds of certifications. The most popular certification is the Project Management Professional (PMP), which has become the de facto standard certification for PMs. There are almost one million active holders of this certification. The next most popular certification is the Certified Associate in Project Management (CAPM) with almost 40,000 active holders. If an individual is serious about project management, they should seek the PMP or a CAPM certification. The PMP certification requires more work experience then a CAPM, but both are respected professional credentials and add professional marketability to the owner.

Currently, I am beginning to see a long-time overdue new trend in job postings for different types of engineers that prefer applicants to have a PMP certification. In fact, many universities that offer engineering programs (undergraduate and graduate) are beginning to make it a requirement that their students take some project management courses. This recent phenome is happening in other degree programs also (for example, Master of Science in Supply Chain and Logistics Technology at the University of Houston).

If I was a young engineer graduate, I would make it one of my top professional goals to eventually acquire one of these PMI certifications, making myself more marketable and helping me to rise to the top. Certification is the icing on the cake that offers evidence of the mastery of generally accepted project domain knowledge and demonstrates commitment to professionalism. Also, PMI has many different publications, seminars/webinars, and a valuable Knowledge Shelf library which has a wide-range of articles on many different topics submitted by its’ members.

Software Development Approaches

There are now many types of software development approaches or models to choose from. I suggest an organization should strive to have as few models as possible. Why? So that the project members will be most effective and productive using a model they understand and have experienced. Additionally, any model that is used should be examined routinely for improvement. I want to zero in on the two most popular used models. They are Waterfall and Agile.

The Waterfall model has been the traditional approach used since the 1970’s. The name comes from the appearance of the model. That is, when one stage is completed, the next one is started so there is a downward flow. The stages are usually requirements, design, development, testing, and deployment. This model is well suited for medium to large size projects that have well defined requirements. Unfortunately, the project success and failure rate following this model was not very good. The Waterfall model tended to limit interactions and dedicated team work, and put an emphasis on burdensome steps, procedures, and tools that often caused “scope bloat” or unnecessary features in a project. From many studies (for example, the Standish Group, a software statistical company) about 30% of projects were cancelled before they were finished, about 60% of projects were challenged because they had many different types of gaps, and 10% were considered successful. These percentages greatly improved (about 40% of projects were considered successful) by moving to the Agile model.

I first learned about the Agile model around 2003. Admittedly, I thought it was a fad that would never catch on with management (or change agents). Boy, I was wrong! In the past decade, Agile has become mainstream in most organizations. According to a recent survey from PMI, 80% of companies use Agile at least some of the time, and 40% said they use it either often or always. Most of the organizations that are using Agile are at a “still maturing” level regarding Agile practices. Agile approaches are a response to the need to modernize project management for small scale projects where clients have difficulty defining requirements. The bottom line is that it revs up your software development (for example, proto-typing) with a faster delivery time and a more flexible approach, which leads to higher user satisfaction. Agile is a great software development approach for software houses like Microsoft, Oracle, SAP, and web-design organizations. The core values of Agile are:

  1. Individuals and interactions over processes and tools.
  2. Working software over a lot of documentation.
  3. Customer collaboration over contract negotiation.
  4. Responding to change over following the plan.

Even though the roots of Agile methodology come from software development, the approach can be used in other areas of development like manufacturing processing. Today, most companies use the Waterfall and Agile models. In fact, many projects may use a hybrid of both models depending on the type of project being worked on. For example, embedded systems where the hardware, firmware, and software are used for large enterprises.

When the latest PMBOK Guide was published in 2017, PMI also published the Agile Practice Guide in partnership with the Agile Alliance (www.agilealliance.org). I have found this to be an excellent reference book to have and learn from. The Agile Alliance site has extensive resources to help you, as well as an index of independent Agile community groups across the world. Finally, the newest and fastest growing accreditation (almost 30,000 holders) from PMI is the PMI Agile Certified Practitioner (PMI-ACP).


Throughout the rest of this century, I will be excited to watch the advances in project management and the methodologies used. Organizations, to survive, will have to continually redefine themselves at a faster and faster pace to keep up with their competition. How about you? What changes to project management are you looking forward to?

Ronald Smith has over four decades of experience as Senior PM/Program Manager. He retired from IBM having written four books and over four dozen articles (for example, PMI’s PM Network magazine and MPUG) on project management, and the systems development life cycle (SDLC). He’s been a member of PMI since 1998 and evaluates articles submitted to PMI’s Knowledge Shelf Library for potential publication. From 2011 - 2017, Ronald had been an Adjunct Professor for a Master of Science in Technology and taught PM courses at the University of Houston’s College of Technology. Teaching from his own book, Project Management Tools and Techniques – A Practical Guide, Ronald offers a perspective on project management that reflects his many years of experience. Lastly in the Houston area, he has started up two Toastmasters clubs and does voluntary work at various food banks.
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