Five things you might not know about: project management

Robert Oppenheimer (left), who famously declared "Here's your damn organization chart," while working on the Manhattan Project, may not have been the best project manager, but at least he got to hang out with Einstein (Image: Wikimedia Commons)

Robert Oppenheimer (right), who famously declared “Here’s your damn organization chart,” while working on the Manhattan Project, may not have been the best project manager, but at least he got to hang out with Einstein (Image: Wikimedia Commons)

By Dan Wilcock

The modern concept of project management, the art and science of ‘getting it done,’ sprang to life in the 1940s with the $2 billion Manhattan Project. Since then, project management has grabbed an increasing share of mankind’s activity. Sometimes projects are executed superbly, and tend to be taken for granted; others get derailed disastrously—as the headlines about healthcare.gov attest and anyone familiar with the Silver Spring Transit Center will tell you.

Here are a handful of facts about project management that PM novices (like me) might find surprising:

1) A quarter of the earth’s gross domestic product gets spent each year on projects of all kinds according to the Project Management Institute (PMI)*. That’s 18 trillion USD using the 2012 World Bank global GDP estimate. In terms of the animal kingdom, that puts us humans on par with beavers for project-focus.

2) The ranks of professional project managers are growing explosively. Back in 1993, there were only around 1000 certified Project Management Professionals (PMP). By 2011 there were 467,000. Globally more than 16 million people call themselves project managers. Fewer than half of U.S. companies had a project management office in 2000, and now more than 80 percent do.*

Like beavers, we humans tend to focus on projects (Image: Wikimedia Commons)

Like beavers, we humans tend to focus on projects (Image: Wikimedia Commons)

3) Project management success rates resemble batting averages in baseball. For IT project management, the best work tracking this phenomenon is done by the Standish Group, which produces the CHAOS report, the first iteration of which found that only 16.2 percent* of IT projects succeeded. Things have improved since then with the rise of project management science. Still, more than half the time, PMs cannot balance the “triple constraint” of scope, time, and cost. Incidentally, the Standish Group has some wise thoughts about the healthcare.gov debacle on their blog.

4) Sometimes projects are delivered within the triple constraint, but the deliverables get scrapped anyway. The $34 million Camp Leatherneck in Afghanistan made headlines this summer when it was completed. Three years ago a general tried to stop construction of what was to become the “Taj Mahal” of US command centers, reportedly saying “I don’t want it, don’t build it, I won’t use it. So stop construction,” but the project continued regardless. Neither the US nor the Afghan military plan to use the base as intended.

5) Even for the experts, it’s hard to maintain success rates and quality. An internal audit at the World Bank found that performance on projects such as roads and schools has been declining for a decade despite amplified investments to counter the global financial crisis.

In other words, if you work with a project manager or a PM team, and they are delivering the goods as specified, on time, and as budgeted, respect is due.

*Schwalbe, K. Information Technology Project Management, 7e

4 thoughts on “Five things you might not know about: project management

  1. Hi Dan,

    That’s an excellent post that many project managers will appreciate. I would like to republish it on PM Hut where many project managers will benefit from it. Please either email me or contact me through the contact us form on the PM Hut website in case you’re OK with this.

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