It’s 2019 and project management tools are having a moment. And if Slack, Asana or Airtable’s recent valuations and funding are any indication, project management is only getting more popular. It makes sense, since these tools are designed to increase workplace success, collaboration and productivity — its hard to argue with that.
But what even is project management, aside from checking things off some glorified to-do list? First things first, a “project” is defined by the Project Management Institute as a temporary, unique undertaking that has “specific set of operations designed to accomplish a singular goal,” and often involves diverse groups working together. The project is then “managed” through the “application of knowledge, skills, tools, and techniques to project activities to meet the project requirements.” The processes themselves fit into five groups: initiating, planning, executing, monitoring/controlling, and closing, with the main goal being efficient, quality completion.
Project Management is an Ancient Practice
Currently, project management techniques are most often applied in the workplace, as it is the area where most people need to apply a set structure and timeline. But exactly how long have people been employing similar methodologies?
It turns out that project management techniques and applications have been around for thousands of years. It’s even widely believed that the first account of project management was conducted when the Egyptians were constructing the Great Pyramid of Giza.
Archaeologists believe that both the pharaohs and pyramid “architects” used project management-like strategies to construct the pyramids. Ancient records prove that there were managers assigned to each of the four individual faces of the Great Pyramid; each “face leader” was responsible for overseeing its completion, and how it would come together in the final structure.
The same fastidious, organized planning was also demonstrated by the Qin Dynasty while constructing the Great Wall of China. Per historically collected data, the labor force constructing the Great Wall was organized into three groups: soldiers, common people, and criminals. Each group tackled specific tasks, and this project management trick allowed for a more efficient build.
Project Management in the Early 20th Century
If you fast forwarding a few thousand years to the start of the 20th century, we begin to see the rise of modern project management. Enter Henry Gantt, one of the forefathers of modern project management, who created the self-named scheduling diagram, the Gantt chart, in the 1910s, which is still utilized in project management today. Henry Gantt worked as a mechanical engineer and created the Gantt chart to help illustrate the phases and progress of a project via milestones and extensive descriptors.
One of the most impressive Gantt chart accomplishments was that they were used to built the Hoover Dam in the 1930s. A project doesn’t get much bigger than that!
Project Management in the Mid-Late 20th Century
The use of modern project management tools continued into the mid-20th century, when the massive conglomerate DuPont developed Critical Chain Project Management (CCPM). In the 1950’s, the company started utilizing this tool to gauge the duration of projects and work through material delays with a series of “activity sequences” and buffers. The practice was designed to mitigate chemical plant shutdowns, which were costing the industrial firm large chunks of revenue.
Within the first year of implement the strategy, DuPont saved over $1 million in maintenance fees and costly shutdown periods. To this day, DuPont still utilizes components of their groundbreaking, cost-saving project management strategy.
In the mid/late 20th century, America also saw the rise of highly militarized project management strategies. In particular, the US Navy’s Polaris Project of the late-50s brought about the Program Evaluation Technique (PERT), which is regarded as one of the biggest project management milestones in recent history.
Developed during the Cold War to craft and deploy submarine ballistic missiles, PERT is a method involving time-sensitive restrains and “push-factors” that can be used to complete a project in the minimum time required. At its ideological core, PERT is a time-saving procedure that can shave-off hours, days, weeks from a project’s initial due date.
Project Management in the Digital Era
At the turn of the century, project management became synonyms with computerization. And it’s largely maintained that connotation to this day — digital, app-based project management is the version we all know and love.
Today, web-based project management applications and tools — like Hive, SmartSheets, and Monday.com — are a key tool for “getting things done” in the modern working world, which is becoming increasingly remote and decentralized. At their core, these web-based PM applications do the same things as the older methods we’ve discussed, but have become more individualized, helping people prioritize, schedule and complete work in their day-to-day life.
What’s Next for Project Management Tools?
It’s clear that project management tools and solutions will continue to evolve in the future — but how?
Many industry experts believe that the next few decades will be marked by one clear trend: automation. It’s been hypothesized that project management tools will encourage high levels of autonomy, capable of self-organization or even self-completion of certain tasks. And when that day does invariably come, it’ll usher in a new type of productivity we haven’t yet seen in human history.
And who knows, maybe one day an autonomous project management tool might be used to refurbish some of those ancient relics that helped birth project management in the first place.