How Projects Evolved
To put the definition of projects and the evolving art of project management in context, it is useful to consider the evolution of projects. If we look at the definition, we can conclude that projects have been an integral part of human nature since the origins of humankind. Today's project management is the result of a natural process of evolution and has been practiced throughout the history of humanity.
Hunting for food could be considered as one of the first human project-based activities. Going out to catch food for the family and the village was an activity with time and resource constraints, full of risks and with stakeholders expecting a result. Once hunting became more regular and the techniques had been mastered, the activity moved from a project to a routine activity. The establishment of the first villages, the first castles, the first irrigation systems, the wheel all these were new ideas that were made reality through a project mentality. They were perfected over time by introducing new techniques and learning from past mistakes.
Symbolically, there are two major projects considered as the first megaprojects in history. The first is the construction of the Great Wall of China, built between 250 BC and 1450 AD as protection against invading Mongolian forces and other nomadic groups. The stone-walls span over 6,000 kilometers and it remains the longest structure ever built.
The second is the great Pyramid of Giza (finished around 2560 BC), constructed in only 20 years with the goal of serving as the tomb of the Pharaoh. It was made from 2.3 million limestone blocks, which were sourced and lifted by human hands from over 800 kilometers away. The pyramid remained the tallest human-made structure in the world for over 3,800 years, unsurpassed until the 160‑metre-tall spire of Lincoln Cathedral was completed in around 1300.
Other ancient projects that have survived the age of time and have become landmarks are:
- The Taj Mahal in India, built in the mid‑1600s by the Fifth Mughal Emperor, Shah Jahan, as a tribute to his third wife. It took 22 years to be built and required a workforce of 20,000. The legend says that the emperor ordered the hands of the architects to be cut off so that they would not be able to build another similar monument.
- The Hagia Sophia in Istanbul, completed in the 6th century under the instruction of the Byzantine emperor Justinian. One of the technical challenges and novelties of the project was the need for the structure to withstand earthquakes.
- The Coliseum in Rome, built between 70 and 80 AD during the period of the Roman Empire to hold gladiatorial contests and other public spectacles, had a seating capacity of 50,000 spectators.
- The city of Teotihuacan in Mexico had a vast pyramid the Pyramid of the Sun built in the pre‑Columbian Americas with large residential complexes and colorful murals. The city is thought to have been established in 100 BC and may have had a population of 200,000 at its peak in 450 AD.
- Machu Picchu in Peru, also known as the Lost City of the Incas, is a pre‑Columbian 15th‑century Inca site that is located 2,340 meters above sea level on an Andes mountain ridge above the Urubamba Valley in Peru, South America. Archaeologists believe that it was built as an estate for the Incan emperor Pachacuti.
The many cathedrals that have survived to modern times are also historic projects, St Peter's Basilica in the Vatican being one of the most famous. Interestingly, as opposed to some of the other buildings, some cathedrals took centuries to build, being worked on by generations of builders, sculptors, architects and so on. Two main factors explain the duration of these projects that last centuries: the lack of public funds and the evolving design (scope) of the cathedrals, whose styles changed (Romanesque, Gothic, Renaissance, Baroque etc.) while the construction was ongoing.
A notorious project is the Sagrada Familia in Barcelona, which was started in 1882 and is expected to be completed in 2026, a century after the death of its original architect, Antoni Gaudi. It is said that when some of the leading architects of cathedrals were challenged about the long delays their projects were experiencing, they claimed that "God is not in a rush."