Project management evolution

past history and future research directions


School of Technology Management

Stevens Inst. of Technology


Dov Dvir

School of Management

Ben Gurion University

Proceedings of the PMI Research Conference 11-14 July 2004-London, UK


The statistics of a project's success suggest that most projects fail to meet time and budget goals and that many completed projects fall short of fulfilling their business expectations. The premise of this paper is that there is still a gap between what we need to know about projects and what we actually know. We believe the discrepancy between knowledge and reality is often the reason projects fail. From a research perspective, there is much that can help close this gap. This paper discusses project management research in its historical perspective and offers some insights into its evolution. The paper outlines the development of project management thinking over a period of 50 years, discusses some current trends in research, describes the role of theory, or lack of it, in the development of the field, and summarize, with some projections on future directions of research.


In times of continuous change, project management has become a central activity in most organizations. Projects are used today not just for new product development or construction, but for numerous other reasons: product improvement, system deployment, process building, process reengineering, new service initiation, software development, and marketing campaigns, among many others. Yet, project failure, delays, and disappointment are still much too common to be neglected. The statistics of project success is quite alarming. With most projects failing to meet time and budget goals, and many completed projects not fulfilling their business expectations, there seems to be a gap between what we need to know about projects and what we actually know. We believe the discrepancy between knowledge and reality is often the reason for major project failures. From a research perspective, there is much to do to help close this gap. The purpose of this paper is to discuss project management research in its historical perspective and offer some insights for the future. We must emphasize, however, that our perspectives are totally personal. In no way are they exhaustive. Neither are they to preclude different views or further conceptual exploration. We will start with a brief description of the history of project management.

On the History of Project Management

While projects as an organized activity of mankind could be found in every civilization, as a formal managerial discipline, project management is still relatively young. It started only in the middle of the 20th century when the first Program Evaluation and Review Technique (PERT) charts marked the beginning of a new discipline (Morris, 1997). Starting in the early 1960s, businesses and other organizations began witnessing the benefits of organizing work around projects and understanding the critical need to communicate and integrate work across multiple departments and professions.

Yet, we can find the roots of modern project management in the second half of the 19th century, with the rising complexities of the business world. In the United States (US), the first large organization was the transcontinental railroad, which began construction in the early 1870s. Suddenly, business leaders found themselves faced with the daunting task of organizing the manual labor of thousands of workers and the manufacturing and assembly of unprecedented quantities of raw material (Sisk, 2003).

By the turn of the century, Frederick Taylor began detailing his studies of work. He applied scientific reasoning to work and showed that labor can be analyzed and improved when its elementary parts are studied. Taylor's associate, Henry Gantt, studied in great detail the order of operations in work. His Gantt charts, complete with task bars and milestone markers, outline the sequence and duration of all tasks in a process. Gantt charts proved to be such a powerful analytical tool for managers that these diagrams have remained virtually unchanged for nearly a century (Sisk, 2003). Interestingly enough, around 1896 in Poland, Karol Adamiecki developed the theory of work harmonization. This theory was the forerunner of work flow network planning, which was to become popular 60 years later with Critical Path Method (CPM) and PERT. An early forerunner of project management was Procter & Gamble's development in the 1920s of product management (brand management), which was in practice making a manager responsible for the planning, controlling, and marketing of a product (Morris, 1997).

The Manhattan Project of building the first atomic bomb during World War II was perhaps one of the greatest research and development projects ever undertaken. Although the Manhattan project may not have used network scheduling or Work Breakdown Structures, it certainly displayed the principles of organization, planning, and direction that typify the modern practice of managing projects.

Beginning in the 1950s, large and complex projects during the cold war demanded new approaches to project management. The System Support Contractor approach evolved from the ICBM (Intercontinental Continental Ballistic Missile) program, led by the United States Air Force (USAF). Later on, as part of the Navy Polaris program, the management control procedure PERT was developed. Together with the CPM approach, which was developed in parallel by Dupont mainly for construction projects, PERT and CPM became the basic planning tools for the next 20 years and became almost synonymous with project management.

In order for a business to survive, all of its functional parts must work in concert toward specific goals. The first attempt to see organizations as integrated entities was made in the early 1960s, when general system theories were applied to business interactions. This formed the basis for modern project management, as we know it today, which Gaddis eloquently presented in his seminal article on the project manager (1959). From that time on, the perception of project management kept changing every few years. The next four decades can be seen as representing four generations, according to the styles that dominated project management attitudes (Laufer, Denker, & Shenhar, 1996).

The first generation, which emerged during the 1960s, is noted as the scheduling era. It started with the introduction of PERT and CPM to the construction and the space and aeronautics industries. The prevailing model at that time concentrates on coordination of sequential or parallel activities and control of performance.

A different approach evolved in the 1970s. Organizations realized the need for managing complex projects mastered by different disciplines. The challenge here was to ensure integration and teamwork and to make the team perform as a unified entity. Managers were expected to orchestrate manifold, complex operations.

The third generation of project management started in the 1980s, when the main thrust was uncertainty reduction to a manageable level. The challenge was to make stable decisions that stand the test of time and protect against uncertainties.

The accelerated pace of business during the 1990s made time-to-market the driving factor in many industries. The dominating management style can be coined as simultaneity, which means integrating tasks and people while differentiating between them at the same time (Laufer, 1997). Goals and means are not resolved sequentially and separately, but rather simultaneously and interactively.

Period Central concept Main thrust Means
1960s Scheduling Coordinating activities Information technology, planning
1970s Teamwork Cooperation between participants Process facilitation, role definition
1980s Uncertainty reduction Making stable decisions Search for information, selective redundancy Risk management
1990s Simultaneity Orchestrating contending demands Responsiveness
2000s Adaptation One size does not fit all Adaptive approach
    Connect project management to business  
  Strategic focus   Build a project strategy
    Off-shore projects  
  Globalization   Virtual coordination

Table1: Generations of Project Management Conceptualization

Finally, the 2000s bring three new views and trends: adaptation, strategic thinking, and globalization. The first suggests that projects differ and “one size does not fit all.” Organizations must, therefore, adapt their project management to project type. The second trend of the 2000s is the realization that project management is about business and that it must connect practices with business strategy. The third trend is about globalization. More and more projects are being carried out in cooperation with teams at different parts of the Globe. These three trends could drive project management research in the coming years.

Current Project Management Research Challenges

One Size Does Not Fit All: Toward Better Project Categorization

One common myth and misconception in the discipline of project management is that all projects are the same, and that project managers can use similar tools for all their project activities. While some distinction can be found, most books and articles, as well as training and application tools, are still treating all projects similarly, suggesting that managers could succeed if they would use a universal set of tools and techniques. This project-is-a-project-is-a-project syndrome may lead to project failures and delays when companies use similar approaches for all their projects. On the other hand, while all projects have goals, budgets, and timeframes, there is more to project management than just a few common elements. In reality, projects differ in many ways and one size does not fit all! Yet, very few organizations have learned how to explicitly distinguish between their project efforts and tailor the right approach to the right project.

This difficulty can be illustrated by two famous projects of recent times. The first involves NASA‘s Space Shuttle Program. This development program, carried out during the 1970s and 1980s, has suffered from extensive problems, delays, and engineering mishaps, along with the loss of the Challenger and Columbia space shuttles. Research, as well as investigations into each accident, has shown that the shuttle program was managed with the wrong project management style. From the beginning, it endured on a road that did not fit its level of complexity, uncertainty, and risk (Shenhar, 1992; CAIB, 2003).

The second project related to the construction of the Denver International Airport. Although the construction of an airport should not pose any particular risk, one component of this undertaking had a higher risk than the rest - the automatic computerized baggage-handling system, which was the first of its kind to handle a high capacity baggage flow. Yet, this component was treated as a standard, well-proven subsystem, which can be managed in a traditional way. Failing to adapt the right management style to the baggage handling system resulted in extensive delay of the entire airport and an accumulated loss of $1.5 Billion.

Project management literature and research has not yet fully responded to this challenge. Most studies do not distinguish between different project types, and the discipline has not yet adapted a standard way in which projects could be categorized. Even when project types are identified, the question is what style to use for what project.

Two research teams recently focused on project differences: Shenhar and Dvir have developed a typological theory of project management and have explored traditional contingency concepts in the project environment (Shenhar & Dvir, 1996; Shenhar, 2001). They have summarized their studies in a model titled NCTP. It suggests four dimensions that could be used to classify most projects (Shenhar & Dvir, 2004): Novelty – how new is the product in the market. Complexity – how complex is the product, the task and the organization. Technology – how much new technology is used by the project. And Pace – how critical is the time frame.

The second study is by Crawford, Hobbs, and Turner. With a grant from the Project Management Institute (PMI), they examined project categorizations as used by numerous companies around the world. This team identified that the primary organizational purposes for categorizing projects include strategic alignment, capability alignment, and categorization that enables differentiation between projects and ongoing operations. They also identified a range of attributes that are used in practice in organizations to categorize projects. They found that the same attributes are often used for different organizational purposes (Crawford, Hobbs, & Turner, 2002).

Future research should explore project differences in various environments. Typical questions, for example, may be: Should there be a common categorization to each industry? Are software projects different than hardware? Does training in project management need to address differences upfront? We believe these and other questions will be the topic of further research in coming years.

The Strategic Approach to Project Management

In the traditional project management world, projects typically focused on efficiency and operational performance, which mainly means meeting time and budget goals. Today, however, dynamic business environments and global competition require finding new ways to use projects as powerful, competitive weapons. Almost all projects are initiated with a business perspective in mind and a goal that is typically focused on achieving better business results. In modern organizations, project managers are increasingly required to focus on business aspects. Their role is expanding from getting the job done to achieving business results and winning in the market place. There is a clear distinction between operationally managed projects and strategically managed projects. Operationally managed projects focus on getting the job done, while strategically managed projects focus on achieving business results. Management teams in strategically managed projects spend a great deal of their time and attention on activities and decisions that will improve business results. They are concerned with customer needs, competitive advantage, and future market success, and rather than sticking to the initial product definition and project plan, they keep making adjustments that will create better business outcomes and higher competitive advantage. Such projects, however, are quite rare today, and most projects are still managed with an operational mindset, focusing on short-term results and delivery, such as meeting time and budget goals. While time to market is often critical to business success, in most cases a more long-term, strategic perspective must be used.

Today's organizations find that dealing with strategy at the executive level is not enough. More and more project managers are required to grow and become real leaders. And they must handle all aspects of project leadership: strategic, operational, and human. In the future, an increasing number of projects will require being managed as strategic activities. But to make this change, project management research must expand its focus to include the strategic aspects of project management. Researchers must establish better connections between business strategy and project management.

The National Science Foundation (NSF) and PMI have recognized this need, and in recent years have awarded several grants to study the strategic aspects of project management. Shenhar has developed a strategic framework for project management titled Strategic Project Leadership® (Shenhar & Dvir, 2004). It is based on a formal framework for project planning and execution. It includes a set of principles that guide the way projects are initiated, organized, and managed in organizations. The framework is built on a hierarchy of five components: strategy, spirit, organization, processes, and tools. While the lower components of processes and tools represent the traditional project management paradigm, the higher levels represent the new approach. Project strategy, for example, is the new link that must be formally defined for every project in order to fill in the gap between a business strategy and a traditional project plan. And project spirit means translating project strategy into an inspiring vision, building an environment where excitement and commitment is driving the project team. Only after selecting the right strategy and creating the right spirit can project leaders plan and build the more traditional components of organization, processes, and tools. Strategic Project Leadership also provides guidelines and a list of seven principles on how to build these components in a formal way and implement the new approach in the modern organization.

Future research is needed to explore the strategic approach. Once again, research has to identify what measures different companies and industries actually take to connect project management to business strategy, and how these companies and industries educate the next generation of project managers to think strategically.

Other Contemporary Research Topics

Several additional research topics have been identified in recent years. Here are a few examples:

  • Critical success factors: Typical reasons for project success and failure.
  • Planning methods: Budgeting, scheduling, and resource allocation.
  • Project management tools: Tools for planning, controlling, and selecting.
  • Project portfolio management: Selecting a collection of projects and setting priorities among them.
  • Team building: Issues of leadership, team communication, and team commitment, among others.
  • Project management maturity models: How do organizations learn gradually to instill better project management practices?
  • Project management office: How do organizations create a central function for project management guidelines and training?
  • Project processes: Issues involving phases, milestones, decisions, and PMBOK® Guide (A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge) (PMI, 2000) processes, among others.
  • Project risk management: The tools and techniques for determining a project's risk assessment and risk mitigation.
  • Project management careers: Issues involving training, career development, and project management education.
  • Global project management: how to organize teams that are scattered around the globe, and still maintain an integrated and coordinated project outcome.

In Need for Project Management Theory

Project management is a problem-driven field. It often deals with actual important questions and improvement in our society, economy, and business. Most of the learning in project management is based on lessons learned, experience, and best practices. Similarly, teaching project management is also based on tools and applications (or case studies, which are relatively scarce). However, for doing meaningful and impactful research, the field needs theory. Current project management concepts and theories are scant; the discipline still suffers from a lack of concepts and frameworks. The value of theory is two fold. First, theory helps us explain situations, matters, and consequences. By understanding theory, one can better learn from case studies and better predict what may work or not in other cases.

Second, theory is needed to attract more scholars to conduct research and make the field an acceptable discipline in academia. The current lack of theory is a constraint that needs to be removed.

In summary, we believe that much more theory development as well as new conceptual frameworks are needed in project management. New theory will attract new scholars from other fields and will enrich the project management research community.

A Framework for Future Project Management Research

To look at the future, we combined current and future project management trends according to a unified framework. This framework is based on five components: strategy, spirit, organization, processes, and tools. Together, these represent a comprehensive framework that may address many needs of future research. Mapping the collection of topics into this framework can be observed in Table 2.

Top Down Components Strategy Spirit Organization Processes Tools
Project strategy
Global project
PMBOK® Guide
Maturity models

Table 2: A Framework for Future Project Management Research


Project management research is still young. It has not yet established its role among the more traditional academic disciplines of management, which include marketing, finance, and operations. Perhaps, as we mentioned, one of the reasons for this is that project management still suffers from a scanty theoretical basis and a lack of concepts. Future research needs to address this lack. With more theory, more scholars will be attracted to do more research, subsequently establishing the field among their colleagues in academia. Another problem is the outlets for research. Just like other fields, academic research on project management should strive to publish in the most prestigious journals. A recent 2002 survey of project management research has shown that out of more than 3000 research publications in 30 years, only less than 3% were published in the leading management journals (Kloppenborg & Opfer, 2002). To gain recognition and establish itself as an attractive field of research, project management needs more coverage in prestigious journals. Researchers should seek out only the most prestigious publications for their research results.

Project management research has great potential. Half of today's organizational activity is wrapped up in projects. The field is rich with challenges. With more young researchers pursuing careers in project management research, and more resources being allocated for research, the future of project management as a scholarship pursuit appears promising.


CAIB (2003). The CAIB report (Vol. 1). Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office.

Crawford, L., Hobbs, J. B., & Turner, J. R. (2002). Investigation of potential classification systems for projects. Proceedings of PMI Research Conference 2002, Seattle, WA: PMI, pp. 181-190.

Gaddis, P. O. (1959, May-June). The project manager. Harvard Business Review, 89-97.

Kloppenborg, T. J., & Opfer,W. A. (2002). The current state of project management research: Trends, interpretations, and predictions. Project Management Journal, 33(2), 5-18.

Laufer, A., Denker, G. R., & Shenhar, A. J. (1996). Simultaneous management: The key to excellence in capital projects. International Journal of Project Management, 14(4), 189-199.

Laufer, A. (1997). Simultaneous management. New York:AMACOM.

Morris, Peter W., (1997). The management of projects. London: Thomas Telford.

PMI (2000). A guide to the project management body of knowledge. Newtown Square, PA: Project Management Institute.

Shenhar, A. J. (1992). Project management style and the space shuttle program: A retrospective look. Project Management Journal, 23(1), 32-37.

Shenhar, A. J. (2001). One size does not fit all projects: Exploring classical contingency domains. Management Science, 47(3), 394-414.

Shenhar, A. J., & Dvir, D. (1996). Toward a typological theory of project management. Research Policy, 25, 607-632.

Shenhar, A. J., & Dvir, D. (2004). How project differ and what to do about it. In J. Pinto, & P. Morris (Eds.), Handbook of managing projects. New York: Wiley.

Sisk, T. (2003). History of Project Management. Project Managers in Pharmaceuticals. Retrieved from



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