From the time humans first worked together to build a shelter or cultivate a crop, there have been projects and project management. Yet it has been only since World War II that a formal project management discipline has emerged. During and immediately after the war, the U.S. government was engaged in enormous weapons development projects. The Manhattan Project, in which the first atomic bomb was designed and built, is generally recognized as the first project to use modern project management techniques.

If one of you decides to build a tower, will he not first sit down and calculate the outlay to see if he has enough money to complete the project? He will do that for fear of laying the foundation and then not being able to complete the work. ”

—LUKE 16:28-29

Subsequent government initiatives to build nuclear-powered submarines and warships required so much innovation and invention, and were so hugely expensive, that they could not be governed by existing management techniques. The first modern project management methods were constructed to deal with these enormous projects. Their names—program evaluation and review technique (PERT) and critical path method (CPM)—are still well known today.

Project management discipline, how did we end up here?

Understanding the development of project management discipline can lend insight into its role in the world today. Before World War II, project management was considered a subset of technical knowledge.

For example, John Roebling, who conceived and led the building of the Brooklyn Bridge with his son, Washington, was a civil engineer who pioneered the building of suspension bridges with steel cables. But even though Roebling was known as a great civil engineer, his triumphs building this and other bridges were due at least as much to his management skills.

Similarly, Michelangelo, the architect of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, also managed the project, which included tasks such as wrangling with the popes over finances. Even today, as project management gains recognition as an independent discipline, it is still common to view it as the rightful domain of the lead technician, whether this individual is an engineer, accountant, or physician.

The experience of the U.S. government with the aforementioned atomic and nuclear projects began to change this notion. Because there were so many facets to these giant projects, no one person could be responsible for all the technical decisions. Bottlenecks involving coordination and communication began to restrict progress. In addition Congress demanded some accounting of the enormous amounts of money pouring into these programs. This crucible of change forged the first formal management procedures for planning and managing projects. Even though expert knowledge of nuclear physics or submarine warfare was still necessary, the managers of these projects were no longer required to be the leading experts in their field.

Since then, the U.S. government has been a leader in developing and promoting project management techniques, for the very good reason that these techniques continue to be necessary to manage its huge defense, space, and civil projects.

During the last half of this century, project management has evolved from an unacknowledged skill set into a recognized profession, complete with academic degrees and certifications.

But some questions still remain:

  • Is project management a set of knowledge and techniques that can be understood and applied independent of a technical specialty?
  • To what degree is technical knowledge required to effectively lead a project?
  • Could John Roebling have designed the Brooklyn Bridge and then employed a project manager with no engineering skills to complete it?

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