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The past, present and future of project management

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As a profession with millions of people working around the globe, project management is in a constant state of development. Advances in technology, processes and research mean that projects are becoming larger and more complex by the day, and keeping up with the latest approaches and techniques is a demanding task.

To help learn lessons from past projects, the Edinburgh Tram Inquiry commissioned Professor Andrew Davies of The Bartlett Faculty of the Built Environment at University College London to write an expert report on project management.

His report, which has been revised and published by APM, builds a picture of modern project management and offers an insight into the changing approaches to large-scale, complex projects. The result is a fascinating insight into the profession – where it’s been, where it is, and where it’s going. Here’s just a taste.

The past
Like all disciplines, a lot can be learnt about the future state by looking at its past. In the case of project management, it’s often claimed that the foundations were laid by The Manhattan Project – America’s plan to produce the first atomic bomb during the Second World War.
The processes, tools and techniques of project management were then developed throughout the 50s as America increased its activity in weapons, defence and space projects, with the development of the Atlas Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM) in the late 1950 and the Apollo Moon landing programme during the 60s and early 70s.

As project management became a formal discipline and the amount of people working on projects across different industries grew larger, a number of professional bodies were formed, with the aim to create standardised procedures, tools and processes for managing projects of all types and sizes. They included the International Project Management Association in 1967, the Project Management Institute in 1969, and the Association for Project Management (APM) in 1972, who define project management as ‘the application of processes, methods, knowledge, skills and experience to achieve the project objectives’.

The present
For the past 70 years, there’s been a ‘traditional’ approach to project management – a baseline plan is established and the project manager executes that plan with any changes or adjustments kept to a minimum, even if conditions or requirements change.

But over the past decade, a number of academic studies have challenged this traditional method, encouraging project professionals to change their thinking about project management and take a different approach. Instead of a simple and predictable model, two alternative approaches have been put forward: strategic and adaptive.

The first, strategic management of projects, focuses on the decisions taken during the ‘front-end’ planning phase. Here, project success depends on defining the requirements, governance and organisational structure, as well as evaluating the risks, estimating the costs, and designing an effective delivery strategy.

Meanwhile, adaptive project management argues that there is no ‘one-size-fits-all’ solution and the approach must address the specific challenges of each individual project. While some projects may be predictable, many are not, and this more realistic approach accounts for future conditions that cannot be predicted at the start of the project.

The future
Project management is in a constant state of evolution, its people and the solutions they create being reshaped by the changing environment in terms of complexity, uncertainty, urgency, novelty and size. In such times of rapid change, the answer lies in a more flexible attitude that allows the project manager to take a traditional, strategic or adaptive approach – or a combination of all three – to achieve the most successful outcome.

Many of the UK’s largest and most complex infrastructure projects, such as Heathrow T5, London 2012 and Crossrail, have already abandoned traditional models based on a single predictable strategy, in favour of flexible contracts and collaborative relationships to deal with unexpected risks and changing conditions.

As the world changes, project management must change with it, and work is constantly being done to ensure that each stage of large-scale projects is as efficient as possible, creating processes, tools and techniques able to handle increasingly complex projects for an increasingly complex world. The future of our profession depends on it.


Download the full report our latest APM published research report.


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  1. David Bewick
    David Bewick 03 March 2019, 11:08 AM

    The first evidence of project management was on the great pyramid at Giza with evidence of WBS, flexible workforce and a worker village. We weren't much further forward by the 1930's I would contend as the same things existed on the Boulder Dam and some would say less so! The first proper PM techniques arrived on the Polaris project with the introduction of PERT. The Manhattan project was an extension of the British Tube Alloys project which couldn't be delivered in GB due to lack of natural resources.

  2. Troy Freeman
    Troy Freeman 28 March 2019, 09:39 AM

    What an interesting read. Something sprung out to me as I thought about future challenges. And if I had to select one concept that should drive change and sharpen delivery, with an appreciation of past and present practices, it would be innovation. By keeping innovation at the forefront throughout planning, day to day management and even revised approaches to governance, new ways of tackling uncertainties around time, cost and quality will be produced. The Gantt Chart was an innovation back in the day. Agile management of projects was originally innovative, but is now accepted as a widespread and tailored project approach. Therefore, the ambition to manage ever-better should be driven by continually seeking fresh, innovative, ways of organising, communicating, controlling, monitoring and reporting. Here’s to the next game changer….