Change language:

How did we get here?

...and where do we go next


The Past

Although project management has been around for centuries, I think you can trace most, if not all, of the significant drivers of today’s pm environment back to 1979.

In the late 70’s project management was mainly the domain of the construction and engineering industries. Three key things to understand about those times are:

  • Project management was not seen a separate discipline. For construction contract managers it was simply the collection of things they did in order to do their job (and that hasn’t really changed much in the intervening 38 years)

  • Planning and scheduling wasn’t done by the project managers – that was the dedicated planners’ domain.

  • IT, then referred to as DP (data processing) was in its very early stages but had just started to try and formalise its approaches through guides such as PROMPT and SSADM.

So what happened in 1979? – computers moved on to the desktop.

Suddenly, the on-site planners were no longer beholden to the main frame computer bureau. They could create, analyse and report their schedules in hours rather than days. Planning and scheduling gained a much greater profile in a very short space of time.

The new microcomputer software companies found a ready market in construction planners but quickly started to sell to their own industry. Planning and scheduling became the big fashion in software development projects and along with that came the need for training – and trainers. The obvious place to get the trainers from was the construction industry.

Throughout the 1980’s there was a boom in project planning software (using techniques that originated on infrastructure projects) and associated training, delivered predominantly by ex-construction planners. What was becoming the IT industry gained a lot of its project management approaches and culture from construction.

In parallel, organisations were trying to come to terms with the increasing size and complexity of IT projects. Simpact systems had created PROMPT in the mid-1970s and this was adopted by UK government departments in 1983. By 1989 this had become PRINCE.

The 1990’s saw three further significant developments.

  • Around 1992, the UK's Central Computer and Telecommunications Agency (CCTA) commissioned another project to look at complex projects that involved business change. This time it was PA consulting that produced the guide, which first coined the term ‘Programme Management’ in the context of business change (albeit that in construction the term programme is still synonymous with ‘schedule’ or ‘bar chart’). In 1999 this guide later became Managing Successful Programmes (MSP) although parts of it were later hived off to become ‘portfolio management’ – yet another separate sub-discipline.

  • Also in 1992, the UK Association for Project Management (APM) produced its first ‘Body of Knowledge’ in an attempt to define the ‘profession’ of project management. This was followed in 1996 by the USA's Project Management Institute's (PMI) body of knowledge..

  • The CCTA contracted with the APM Group to launch PRINCE certifications. The range of certifications on offer from professional and awarding bodies exploded.

The 1990s saw the growth in certifications in the same way that the 1980s had seen the growth in planning software. But importantly the growth of certifications fuelled the need for compartmentalisation. Certifications were not in ‘project management’ they were in specific (renamed) sub-sets of what had previously all been seen as project management.

Typically, they addressed either projects or programmes or portfolios; they addressed either knowledge or method; they even addressed subsets of knowledge such as risk or scheduling. Guidance on how to manage projects (in the original broad sense of the term) became increasingly fragmented.

The dawn of the new millennium saw the IT industry react to the legacy of infrastructure approaches being applied to IT. A finished software project cannot be foreseen as easily as finished bridge or office block and rigid adherence to original plans and specifications was not working for software projects.

And so, in 2001 the Agile Manifesto was born. Although it was primarily about software development within a project management framework, it quickly grew to overtake its parent to be seen as Agile Project Management rather than Agile Development. Further fragmentation ensued with certifications being either agile or waterfall.

In the meantime, HR people were trying to deal with the explosion in demand for skilled project people. This was a world they didn’t really understand so how could they know who to choose. The answer was simple – certifications.

At some point during this decade the certification business crossed a very significant tipping point. It was no longer an advantage to have a certification on your CV, but it was definitely a disadvantage not to have one.

The ‘dumbing down’ of training had begun. Courses became about knowing the answers to an exam rather than knowing how to do the job. The APM and the PMI realised that there was a market for people who thought even one week was too long to get a ‘meaningful’ certification, and so the IC and CAPM were born. A movement towards ‘gamification’ in the early 1990s was subsumed in the drive to become certified.


The Present

We now find ourselves in a project management world of interesting conflicts:

  • The PMI lost the battle to stop the APM gaining Chartered Status because it would give the APM too much power but simultaneously guided a bill through Congress to get more significant influence for itself. There is a battle for the moral high ground.

  • The trichotomy of project vs. programme vs. portfolio is supplemented with the dichotomy of agile vs. waterfall. The discipline is becoming increasingly fragmented. In some cases this is leading to ‘sects’ that can be very antagonistic towards each other.

  • In a world of social media and an economy where people rely on productising knowledge, there is a cacophony of ill-informed opinion and re-cycled ideas that must be deeply confusing for new entrants to the profession.

  • Just as construction people tried to tell software people how to run projects 40 years ago, now ‘Agile evangelists’ are trying to apply agile to everything outside of IT.

  • Social media has an amplifying effect on all these factors.


The Future (what I think needs to happen)

Personally, I think profession is ripe for a rethink.

For example, we need to look at the discipline of project management in a more holistic way. It’s not about pigeon-holing initiatives into either project, programme or portfolio; or into waterfall or agile.

By definition all such initiatives are unique and therefore need a unique combination of all these sub-disciplines. A future competent professional must understand all these areas and then select the appropriate sub-set of tools for the job in hand.

The multiple, small training and development opportunities that the modern workforce employs need to have a system of aggregation so that they can build into something substantial. Knowledge based certifications need to be seen as simply the first step on the ladder towards being a skilled practitioner.

We need to address the cultural baggage that results in project failure surveys showing that despite all the developments of the last 40 years - nothing much has changed.

Naturally, I see the tools needed to achieve these changes as being available through Praxis. For example:

  • achieving what the World Health Organisation (WHO) did for surgery by using the checklist based capability maturity model;

  • producing managers with a broad set of competences by blurring the lines between project, programme, portfolio, agile and waterfall;

  • eliminating the false mystique of copyrighted guides (which ‘nudges’ people into an inflexible ‘by the book’ mentality) by making the base IP open and free;

  • ensuring that the base IP is flexible enough to deal with different organisational contexts and different personal styles, while retaining the ability to have consistent certification across different adaptations of the IP.


Only by changing the culture of the profession will we manage to change the one thing that hasn't changed for 40 years - the reasons why projects fail.

Whatever your views or your preferred flavour of project management, there is little doubt that the next few years will see significant cultural change in the profession.


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