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The History of Project Management and Predictions for the Future

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Project management is all about change.

Think about it: scope changes, personnel changes, and budget changes are all part of the job.

The best project managers find a way to stay on top of change—not just within individual projects, but across the span of a career.

For all of the benefits of education and certifications, you can never replace the value of boots-on-the-ground project management experience.

With that in mind, we put out a call asking veteran project managers for their thoughts on how project management has changed over the past several decades—things like the Agile movement, remote teams, and the evolution of software tools—and what changes they think we’ll see in the future. Most of those who responded have over a decade of experience managing formal projects.

The history of project management through the ages

While you could argue that project management concepts were used during the construction of ancient wonders like the Egyptian Pyramids and the Great Wall of China, modern project management really started to take shape in the early 1900s with the development of Gantt charts.

In the 1950s, project management methodology began to take form with the advent of critical path method (CPM), Lockheed’s revolutionary Polaris missile project, and the U.S. Navy’s development of the program evaluation and review technique (PERT).

In the 1960s, project management was largely based around Waterfall techniques. This was good enough to land men on the moon and bring them home safely.

But the world has only become more complex, and we’ve seen project management techniques adapt to those changes over the course of time.

The good old days of project management

1. The Agile revolution?

The first thing most project managers would think of if asked what has changed in project management over the last 30 years would be the emergence of Agile methodology.

“The more complex projects have become, the more the need to be flexible in project management activities,” said long-time project manager Crystal Richards, principal and owner of Mosaic Resource Group. “With Agile, changes are welcomed, within the confines of a vision or road map (i.e. scope).”

But others suggest that people have been using Agile methodology to manage projects long before it had a name.

“While Agile is currently reshaping the face of software development, its roots and practices go back over 30 years,” said Alan Zucker, founding principal of Project Management Essentials, LLC.

For example, W. Edward Deming’s PDSA (Plan-Do-Study-Act) cycle dates all the way back to the 1950s.

Chuck Cobb, 15-year project management veteran and author of “The Project Manager’s Guide to Mastering Agile,” thinks that the fundamental approach to project management hasn’t really changed since the space race.

“The way we do project management has gotten more sophisticated and we are able to do larger and more complex projects with more predictable results, but it is all based on a traditional plan-driven approach to project management,” he said.

What has changed is the way we identify roles in project management.

2. Project manager became a recognized position

Zucker of Project Management Essentials recalls his start in project management, which had very little to do with becoming a designated project manager:

In 1987, I started what would become my career in project management…I was, what we would now call, the product owner, the business analyst, and the project manager.

But, as Zucker points out, project manager was still not a recognized career path.

In 1987, there were ‘project managers,’ but we did not have the systematized processes, procedures, and tools that we do today. Most of us were self-taught, having wandered into project management from another profession.

Now, there is an entire industry built around project manager training and certification. Why? Being a certified Project Management Professional (PMP) can be a lucrative and rewarding career.

According to Zucker:

Even though the Project Management Institute was founded in 1969, the first certification exam was given to 43 people in 1986. Now there are nearly 750,000 certified PMPs…PMI now offers 8 different types of project management credential, from risk to Agile to program management. There are also 136 graduate programs that confer a master’s degree in project management.

As it turns out, all that training became important as the projects and people that PMs managed were altered by technological advances.

3. Teams became distributed

Thirty years ago, if a project manager wanted to check in on their team, they would do so face-to-face or, maybe, over the phone. Now, that same interaction often happens via video chat or messaging with dedicated collaboration tools.

According to Dmitriy Zaitsev of Devexperts:

Along with the new degree of flexibility and access to new talents in the distributed teams, a project manager also needs extended knowledge in a variety of collaboration tools, cross-border and cross-cultural communication, motivation, hiring and coaching techniques… The work with a distributed team also requires timezone-agnostic skills.

Even as teams spread out and communication became more digital, however, the importance of humanity in successful projects became more evident.

4. Projects became more about people than products

As projects have become less tactile and tangible and more digital and cerebral, the human element has proven vital.

According to Todd Williams, author of “Rescue the Problem Project: A Complete Guide to Identifying, Preventing, and Recovering from Project Failure”:

Projects used to be focused primarily on physical results: buildings, roads, pyramids. Today more and more projects are about business process. These are not focused on paying customers but internal users: people that need to use a new process (in unanimous fashion) and can choose not to use it. Adoption, involvement, and motivation are key.

For that reason, Williams sees person-to-person communication and team buy-in as more important than ever before.

We do not live in a world where [CEOs] tell their employees what direction the company is going and the employees will follow so they can please the boss and make it to their gold watch at retirement. If we do not like a direction, we will advocate (or even sabotage) to get a new direction. Our projects have to accommodate whim, human nature, and willingness. This requires far more soft-skills, leadership, and an understanding of change management.

Rather than making project management more impersonal, some technological innovations have actually fostered better communication. And the “human” element—along with all the communication that goes with it—is the future of the project management industry.

5. Technology broke down barriers and removed inefficiencies

Phil Wolff, co-lead of Open Oakland with more than 20 years of industry experience, has keenly watched as computers and new technology have revolutionized project management by connecting people across traditional chasms and breaking through logjams:

Digital project modeling let us rapidly iterate and reshape project plans, squeezing out many project costs and risks. Before MS Project and Primavera, large scale meant slow coordination. [Computer-aided design] meant much less building-the-wrong-thing and better integration among project members. Internet and mobile communication broke distance as a barrier to partnering on projects. So much that time zones became a bigger problem.

The future of project management

As project management becomes more and more automated through dedicated PM tools and more general collaboration systems, the project manager position will also change. The veteran project managers we heard from predict that interpersonal skills will differentiate the elite from the crowd, as we’ll discuss below, and new technology and innovation will force project managers to constantly adapt.

An example of a successful project on Mars?

1. Methodology labels will lose importance

Cobb predicts that as project management evolves, traditional methodology labels will become meaningless:

We live in a much more uncertain environment… that is beginning to severely strain a traditional plan-driven approach to project management. There have been many projects that may have successfully met their cost and schedule goals but failed to deliver an appropriate level of business value.

Cobb suggests that rather than getting bogged down by the tired Agile vs. Waterfall debate, project managers should look to apply their experiences to each individual project.

The project manager of the future needs to be able to blend these two approaches in the right proportions to fit any given situation. Any project manager who only knows how to do traditional plan-driven project management and attempts to force-fit all projects to that approach will be at a serious disadvantage.

As corporations grow, however, the tolerance for free-styling project managers may be limited, and that could be a dangerous path.

2. Big corporations aren’t Agile

Williams has already watched as companies start off lean and agile, then grow to the point that their size stifles their own innovation.

Startups can move quickly because they are small, so we have seen changes in project management to meet those needs. But as [corporations] have gotten big and added overhead that comes with handling the complexities of meeting a diverse customer base, that agility decreases. So does the project management’s agility.

Williams goes on to suggest that if the project management industry stays on this path, project managers risk getting chewed up and spit out by the corporate machine.

The company’s situation drives project management, not the other way around. This combination of higher speed of delivery and the expectations of having it tomorrow is a huge change for projects. [Large corporations] burn out their PMs, throw them out, and just hire new ones. This is unsustainable.

In other words, for project managers to thrive in the future, they will need to think independently and creatively within their organizations to question inefficiencies while still serving stakeholders.

3. Project managers will give way to project leaders

Williams believes it will be necessary for project managers to evolve into project leaders, who can not only manage projects, but also influence organizational change when necessary:

Many of the responsive methodologies cannot scale to meet [the rapid growth of corporations]… That is where the landscape of project management will change—deploying completely re-architectured solutions that meet business needs better. Project management will also bifurcate between projects needing managers and those needing leaders.

Williams suggests the need for a new title with a new approach: the project leader.

Project managers will become a disposable commodity and project leaders will rise to the top. The latter will be the person who can manage and lead. One who knows organizational change management, is exquisite at negotiations, knows the business, and can motivate people.

Sandeep Srivastava, transition leader at Wipro BPS, agrees:

Emotional intelligence, especially conflict management and use of power in project management, will become the key skills needed for PMs.

What Srivastava is suggesting is that the project managers—or leaders—of the future will need to be more aware of what their people are doing and how they are feeling.

4. Time tracking will become more important

As teams become more distributed, and working remotely becomes the norm rather than the exception, Isaac Kohen of Teramind predicts that knowing how your employees spend their billable hours will be vital to a project’s success or failure:

In order to increase company performance, you need to understand what projects your employees’ time are being spent on—including how much time and how much money is being spent per task/project. Aggregated data per department that reveals anomalies in user behavior can be strong indicators of employees who are not focused on their role or are pulled away from doing their assignments because others are asking them to complete other tasks.

This doesn’t just mean embarking on a witch hunt to find which employees are managing their fantasy baseball team instead of getting their work done. It means having a bird’s eye view of your team so you can best allocate your most valuable resources.

5. The PMIAA Act will increase the need for certified PMs

In 2016, then-President Barack Obama signed the Program Management Improvement and Accountability Act, increasing the importance of certification and formal project management job titles in the government.

According to Richards:

There is an increasing need for professionals to understand the foundation of project management through formal training and develop their skill sets in communication, leadership, and stakeholder engagement. With the passage of [PMIAA] there is more emphasis to create competency models and have certified project managers working on U.S.-based government projects.

While experience remains the most important indicator of a capable project manager, those wishing to work on government projects will need formal training and certifications.

The more things change, the more they stay the same

I think that Zucker summed it up best when he reflected back on his years as a project manager, and contemplated the future of the industry:

I was initially attracted to project management because you could see the tangible fruits of your labors—a completed and hopefully successful project. Over the years, the processes and techniques have changed some. But project management is still a dynamic and fascinating profession… it is great to be part of industry that is always striving for more.

Change can be scary. The future can be scary. But if you’re a veteran project manager, or just getting your start in the industry, take solace. The world will always need project managers—whether it’s for building railroads or spaceships—and project managers will always find a way to adapt, because that’s what you do.

What are your thoughts on the future of project management?

Are you a veteran project manager? If so, what are the biggest changes that you’ve seen since you started your career and what did we miss while covering the history of project management? And, based on your experience, what changes do you anticipate coming to the industry over the next 30 years.

Keep the discussion going in the comments!

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About the Author

Andrew Conrad

Andrew is a content writer for Capterra, specializing in church management and project management software. When he’s not striving for the perfect balance of information and entertainment, Andrew enjoys the great outdoors and the wide world of sports. Follow him on Twitter @CapterraAC.

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