Project Management in a Nutshell

From pyramids to nuclear missiles

Chris Lennon
4 min readDec 14, 2020

“A project is a temporary endeavor undertaken to create a unique product, service or result.”

Project Management Institute

The evidence that projects have been around for a long time is not hard to find. One of the most recognizable shapes on the planet, the Great Pyramid of Giza shown above was a massive project, and when one considers the basic technology in use at the time, over 4500 years ago, even more remarkable.

There is however a difference between achieving a feat, however difficult, and the body of knowledge that constitutes Project Management. Like much of our modern business knowledge today Project Management has its roots in scientific management — the application of scientific principles to the managing of work — and the works of Frederick Taylor (1856–1915).

Henry Gannt

Henry Gannt was a follower of Taylor and had a flair for producing charts that helped the industrial age managers of the day. His charts graphed the productivity of each worker, allowing managers to reward high performers or, more commonly, punish those who were not fulfilling their assigned quota. For more on this whole area see my blog Management Theory in a Nutshell.

With the advent of World War I came a need to massively ramp up munitions and therefore a need to manage a hugely pressurized and complex supply schedule. Gannt’s contribution was to produce a new kind of chart, one that showed the various activities and their completion schedule. These early charts were basic and had to be meticulously hand-drawn, but in essence were the same charts that are generated by modern Project Management Software

The Gantt Chart, a Working Tool of Management by Wallace Clark. Pub 1922

The U.S. Navy advances the field

PERT Summary Report — Special Projects Office, Bureau of Naval Weapons Department of the U.S. Navy. 1958

It was the principles of Scientific Management, combined with the innovation that war sadly drives that produced another milestone in the history of Project Management. PERT (Program Evaluation Research Task) is a technique pioneered in the late 1950s by the U.S. Navy to manage and gain visibility of complex research projects, such as Nuclear Missile research programmes. Like the Critical Path Method, developed around the same time, the sequence of activities needed to accomplish a significant goal are laid out and analyzed. This analysis is powered by some complex formulas as the above excerpt from the original 1958 U.S. Navy PERT report shows.

The rise of Project Management

In the 1970s and 80s the Project Management body of knowledge expanded into areas beyond the sequencing and management of project activities, responding to the many business functions that projects at this time needed to intersect with. This saw the establishment and growth two of today’s most well-known Project Management organizations: the Project Management Institute (PMI) — popular in the United States, and Prince2 — more favored in the UK. Both organizations publish an authoritative guide (PMI’s Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBoK) and Prince2’s Managing Successful Projects with Prince2) and both organizations offer certifications.


PMI breaks a project conceptually into five phases, Initiating, Planning, Executing, Monitoring and Controlling and Closing. Across each phase are ten process groups, and in the intersection of a phase and process group one or more specific processes.

Image Credit: iCertGlobal


The Prince2 body of knowledge is divided into three ‘sevens’: 7 principles, 7 themes and 7 processes. Prince2 puts a big emphasis into dividing a project into phases or ‘stages’ as Prince2 calls them, and tightly managing stage boundaries.

The Prince2 Framework

Prince2 also puts an emphasis on project roles, unlike PMI which stays reasonably neutral on roles, advising that the project have clear roles but not prescribing specific roles.

The Prince2 project roles can be visualized as:

Image Credit:

Iron triangle?

By Mapto — Own work, Public Domain,

The iron triangle, sometimes known as the ‘triple constraint’ — holds that there are three fundamental elements to any project — scope, cost and time (quality is sometimes placed in the middle of the triangle) — and that it is not possible to optimize all three. “Good, fast, cheap. Choose two” as the phrase has it. However this concept has no real deep roots in project management history, and both PMI and Prince2 distance themselves from the concept. I’ve included this model in this nutshell for completeness, but it really is more of a side-line than a fundamental part of Project Management.

The future of Project Management

The rise of knowledge work and Agile approaches to work have seen what is known in Agile circles “Waterfall Project Management” take a battering. Certainly knowledge work, with its inherent complexity and fluidity brings a different paradigm, however many of the Project Management principles have value in knowledge work. For more on this see my blogs I’m bringing Project Management back, baby! and Agile in a nutshell



Chris Lennon

Agile coach. Ways of Working researcher. I live in beautiful New Zealand and work for Spark. I am also the founder of a start up — Views are my own.