Biggest Innovations in Project Management History
What do the Great Wall of China, the Parthenon, and the Taj Mahal have in common?
If you answered, “They were all built in the last 3,000 years,” then you would be correct. However, that barely scratches the surface. These structures are not only impressive for the creativity of their architects, but also for the systematic methods used to complete their construction — methods with similar characteristics to modern project management.
That’s right. These historical monuments were all projects at one point.
Typically, they had project charters, business justification, and project sponsors. More impressively, they also followed phases we know today as Project Management Process Groups, as well as all nine PMBOK areas.
Though these structures are to be admired, modern innovations in project management history have simplified the way we tackle similar mega projects. For instance, we’re no longer accustomed to project timelines spanning 20-276 years.
Until the 1900s, projects were generally managed by architects and engineers. A lot has changed since then. From visualization tools to agile methods, project management as we know it today was mostly shaped in the last century. Let’s examine the biggest innovations in project management history that defined the industry and changed the way we work.
Prior to 1958: Laying the Foundation
When the 20th century was ushered in, project management was just a twinkle in Henry Gantt’s eye. His namesake, the Gantt Chart, was developed by 1915 to illustrate a project timeline. This bar chart quickly shows if a project is on schedule, ahead of schedule, or behind schedule. Even now, modern project management software often includes this critical chart.
Fast forward to the 1940s, when the Kanban system was developed by Toyota engineers to optimize their manufacturing process. However, Kanban didn’t go mainstream for another 60 years. So what else was happening? Notable projects of the time include:
- 1931-1936 Hoover Dam, completed under budget and two years ahead of schedule with 5,200 workers
- 1933-1937 The Golden Gate Bridge
- 1942-1945 The Manhattan Project
1958-1979: The Birth of Modern Project Management
This phase of project management is defined by technological innovation. In 1959, Xerox introduced the first copy machine, development on the UNIX language began in 1969, and Bill Gates founded Microsoft in 1975.
During this period, the International Project Management Association (IPMA) and the Project Management Institute (PMI) were both founded, legitimizing project management as a discipline. Additionally, several core project management tools including the first email software and an early instant messaging system were introduced. Meanwhile, the first project management software companies were founded: Artemis and Oracle in 1977, followed by Scitor Corporation in 1979.
Notable projects of the time include:
- 1956-1961 Polaris Missile Project (with help from CPM/PERT methodologies)
- 1963-1972 Apollo Project: NASA successfully led six missions to explore the moon
- 1963-1972 ARPANET (the technical foundation of the Internet) was established and the concept of an “Intergalactic Computer Network” was well underway
1980-1994: The Rugby Approach
In 1986, Scrum was named as a project management style. This flexible, holistic approach to product development strategy is named after the sports term and remains relevant today — especially in software development.
In this phase, computer-based tools for scheduling were developed and the first commercial instant messaging system was available. People shifted from mainframe computers to personal computers, and could manage complex project schedules digitally. Project management software for PC became widely available, which made project management techniques more accessible.
Notable projects of the time include:
- 1989-1991 The Channel Tunnel, which overcame the barriers presented by multiple languages, metrics, financial institutions, and engineering companies
- 1983-1986 Space Shuttle Challenger, this disaster heightened interest in risk and quality management
1995-Present: Project Management for All
At this time, the internet begins to change nearly all business practices. Instant messaging as we know it becomes popular and eventually spawns video calling. These tools enable real time project management collaboration— a necessity for dispersed and remote teams.
The use of instant chat for business was driven by employees using consumer software at work, rather than technology created and distributed by IT departments. In response to the demand for secure and legal business-grade IM, “Enterprise Instant Messaging” was created when IBM launched Lotus Sametime in 1998.
Salesforce arrived in 1999, and pioneered the concept of delivering enterprise applications via a web browser. A growing trust in SaaS, the development of universal high-speed bandwidth, and interoperability standards finally brought project management to the masses in the 2000s.
In 2001, the Manifesto for Agile Software Development was published to circumvent pitfalls associated with waterfall methodology and promote “lightweight” project management techniques. This is also when Kanban is redesigned and goes mainstream as a method for software development and knowledge work.
Currently, there are hundreds of project management tools available for personal and business use. Many of the innovations that took decades to develop have defined the industry, and are now commonplace in project management software: Gantt charts, Kanban boards, instant chat, cloud storage, software as a service, etc. Thanks to these innovations, The Intergalactic Network that J.C.R. Licklider dreamt up — where everyone on the globe is interconnected and can access programs and data from anywhere— is pretty much a reality.