From Utopia to Reality: Project Management’s Origins in Literature to Our Mandate

As a student of project management, it’s fascinating to explore the earliest discussions of projects and their societal impacts. Understanding the origins of project management provides some insights into how early thinkers conceptualized organized tasks for the benefit of society. This post shares the foundational ideas that have influenced modern practices, showcasing the evolution of project management from its inception to the present day and where sustainability fits in. [Spoiler Alert: The intent has always been there.]

Literary Pioneers

Historically, Daniel Defoe has been widely recognized for his contributions to early project management thought, particularly in his essays that discuss the organization of societal tasks as ‘projects’ and those who lead them as ‘projectors’. Side note: My dear friend Dr. Reinhard Wagner who has done some brilliant work on the projectification of society often speaks of him and first turned me onto his book ‘An Essay Upon Projects’ years ago. It is a good read! My brother from another mother Peter Milsom has the Daniel Defoe special edition Mont Blanc pen and yes, I am jealous…

That last bit aside, a deeper dive into history reveals that Sir Thomas More, writing his seminal work “Utopia” in 1516, was actually the first to conceptualize the idea of organized tasks for societal benefit, predating Defoe by almost two centuries. From ‘Utopia,’ More describes a society where ‘no man has anything of his own, but the whole wealth of the country is divided among them,’ a principle ensuring that all societal projects are directed towards communal welfare.

A Tale of Two Eras

Sir Thomas More lived during the Renaissance, a period marked by humanism and the reawakening of classical knowledge, while Daniel Defoe penned his thoughts in a later era, during the Enlightenment, which focused on reason and individualism. This shift in societal values is reflected in their writings; More’s “Utopia” describes an idealized society organized through communal projects, whereas Defoe’s essays discuss projects as mechanisms for societal improvement and personal gain. The term ‘projects’ itself evolved significantly between these periods, from communal efforts for societal idealism to individualistic endeavors aimed at economic improvement.

The Shift from Sustainability to Efficiency

Historically, the concept of projects was closely tied to societal well-being and sustainable practices, as seen in Sir Thomas More’s “Utopia.” However, with the dawn of the Industrial Revolution and subsequent periods, the emphasis in project management began to shift towards manufacturing constraints such as time, cost, and scope, often misconstrued as the sole components of quality. This industrial focus led to the marginalization of sustainability as projects became more about economic output and less about their long-term impact on society and the environment. This shift highlights a departure from the holistic considerations that characterized early project thinking, suggesting a need to recalibrate modern project management practices back towards their original, more sustainable intentions.

Societal Solutions Through Projects

Both More and Defoe highlighted projects as means to solve societal challenges. More’s “Utopia” envisions a society where communal projects ensure equitable living conditions, emphasizing social welfare and collective responsibility. In contrast, Defoe’s approach in “An Essay Upon Projects” (1697) suggests projects as innovative solutions to economic and social issues, like the education of women and the insurance against widowhood, reflecting a more individualistic and economic perspective.

The Evolution of Project Management as a Profession

Over the centuries, project management has morphed from these philosophical notions into a structured discipline, often propelled by military needs which focused on efficiency and effectiveness in achieving tactical objectives. This historical pathway shows a progression from projects as conceptual societal constructs to strategic tools in both warfare and business.

Military endeavors have often been at the forefront of project management innovation. For instance, the construction of the Pentagon during World War II is a prime example of rapid project execution under pressure, completed in just 16 months amidst the exigencies of war. Similarly, the development of the Polaris missile project during the Cold War introduced the PERT (Program Evaluation and Review Technique) method, which has since become a cornerstone in both military and civilian project management for handling complex, time-sensitive projects with vast arrays of interdependent tasks.

More recent military projects such as the development of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter aircraft involve multifaceted project management challenges, integrating advanced technology, international cooperation, and vast budgetary allocations. These projects are not only technical endeavors but also require managing intricate logistics, supply chains, and diverse stakeholder groups across different nations.

From the construction of the Great Wall of China to the planning of the Roman aqueducts, project management has always been pivotal in realizing grand visions. In more modern times, the Manhattan Project during World War II exemplifies project management under intense pressure and high stakes, leading to significant advancements in science and engineering. Post-war, the development of the Interstate Highway System in the United States showcased the role of project management in transforming national infrastructure and boosting economic growth.

In the late 20th century, the rise of software development brought new challenges and methodologies to the field, notably the Agile management techniques first outlined in the Agile Manifesto of 2001. These methodologies emphasized flexibility, cross-functional teams, and customer feedback loops, fundamentally changing project management in industries characterized by rapid change and innovation.

Notable projects like the construction of the Burj Khalifa in Dubai or the development of the International Space Station further illustrate how project management has evolved to accommodate new technologies, complex stakeholder relationships, and increasingly ambitious goals. These projects not only push the envelope in terms of what is structurally and scientifically possible but also in how diverse international teams collaborate towards common objectives.

Reconnecting with the Foundational Intent in Modern Times

Reflecting on the initial writings of More and Defoe concerning projects (and their management), our P5 Standard for Sustainability in Project Management (a free resource) re-emphasizes the balance between achieving project success and societal well-being, encapsulating over 500 years of evolving project management thought.

The P5 Standard explicitly integrates More’s utopian ideals and Defoe’s practical approaches to societal improvement through projects. ‘People’ and ‘Planet’ focus on ensuring that projects contribute positively to social equity and environmental sustainability, mirroring More’s vision of a society where everyone benefits equitably from communal efforts. ‘Prosperity’ extends Defoe’s ideas of economic advancement, ensuring that projects not only achieve financial success but also contribute to the economic well-being of all stakeholders involved.

‘Process’ and ‘Products’ reflect the advancements in project management approaches that enable these outcomes. By emphasizing efficient and ethical processes, the P5 Standard ensures that the ways in which projects are carried out are just as important as the outcomes they achieve. This aspect aligns with More’s and Defoe’s early recognition of the need for integrity and ethics in managing projects that affect the public. ‘Products,’ referring to the outputs and deliverables of projects, are designed to be sustainable and to generate long-term value, thus reflecting the intertwined goals of societal benefit and project success. I will note that in our latest research ‘Insights into Sustainable Project Management’ 94% of projects that put the P5 into practice saw a tangible increase in project sustainability performance!

In this way, the P5 Standard not only captures the essence of historical project management philosophies but also adapts them to modern-day challenges and expectations. It serves as a comprehensive framework that guides project managers not just to meet deadlines and budgets but to do so in a way that advances the broader goals of sustainability and social responsibility.

Dr. Joel Carboni

Dr. Joel Carboni is a highly respected expert in sustainable project management. He is a graduate of Ball State University and holds a Ph.D. in Sustainable Development and Environment. He has over 25 years of experience in project management, including government, finance, consulting, manufacturing, and education. He is a frequent speaker at conferences and events related to project management and sustainability and has worked in more than 50 countries. In addition to serving as President Emeritus of the International Project Management Association (IPMA) in the United States and being a member of the Global advisory board, Dr. Carboni is also the founder of GPM (Green Project Management) and a visiting professor at Skema Business School. He is also the GPM representative to the United Nations Global Compact, where he was a founding signatory of the Business for Peace Initiative and the Anti-Corruption call to action and a contributor to the development of the UN 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development (SDGs). Dr. Carboni is the creator of the PRiSM™ project delivery methodology and the P5 Standard for Sustainability in Project Management and has written training programs on Green and Sustainable Project Management that are offered in more than 145 countries through professional training providers, business associations, and universities. He is the lead author of the book "Sustainable Project Management."

2 thoughts to “From Utopia to Reality: Project Management’s Origins in Literature to Our Mandate”

  1. Well written, Joel.
    Many years later, project managers will be talking about how P5 was the pivot point for maximizing project success.

  2. Deep history and context I never knew, all linked to our current challenges to close the circle. Thanks for sharing Joel.

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