Lost Roots of Project Management: Think Agile that Scales

April 25, 2013 · · Posted by Greg Lloyd

The Manhattan Project, Atlas, and Polaris projects are cited as roots for traditional phased stage-gate Project Management, but didn't use that model. New high innovation projects shouldn't either; think agile that scales. Read this fascinating 2009 paper by Sylvain Lenfle and Christoph Loch of INSEAD, cited on Twitter by Glen B. Alleman who calls it "breathtaking".

Launch of an Atlas B intercontinental ballistic missile - Wikipedia USAF photo

Lost Roots : How Project Management Settled on the Phased Approach (and compromised its ability to lead change in modern enterprises) 
Sylvain Lenfle and Christoph Loch, 2009/59/TOM
INSTEAD Research Working Paper

Quoting from Introduction:

“Modern” Project Management is often said to have begun with the Manhattan Project (to develop the nuclear bomb in the 1940s), and PM techniques to have been developed during the ballistic missile projects (Atlas and Polaris) in the 1950s. The Manhattan Project “certainly displayed the principles of organization, planning and direction that typify the modern,management of projects.” “The Manhattan Project exhibited the principles of organization, planning, and direction that influenced the development of standard practices for managing projects.”

This characterization of the roots of PM represents a certain irony – the Manhattan Project did not even remotely correspond to the “standard practice” associated with PM today, and both the Manhattan and the first ballistic missile projects fundamentally violated the phased project life cycle: both applied a combination of trial-and-error and parallel-trials approaches in order to “stretch the envelope”, that is, to achieve outcomes considered impossible at the outset.

However, the Project-Management discipline has now so deeply committed itself to a control-oriented phased approach that the thought of using trial-and-error makes professional managers feel ill at ease. In our seminars, experienced project managers react with distaste to the violation of sound principles of phased control when they are told the real story of the Manhattan Project (or other ambitious and uncertain projects). The discipline seems to have lost its roots of enabling “push the envelope” initiatives, de facto focusing on controllable run-of- the-mill projects instead.

How could this happen? And does it matter? In this paper we describe how the discipline lost its roots and we argue that it matters a great deal: it has prevented the project management discipline from taking center stage in the increasingly important efforts of organizations to carry out strategic changes and innovation.


Update Feb 6, 2016: See Glen B. Alleman's Herding Cats blog post, Agile at Scale - A Reading List (Update 9)

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