Aaron J. Shenhar, Professor of Technology Management, James J. Renier Visiting Chair, Center for the Development of Technological Leadership, University of Minnesota, MN and R. Max Wideman

This paper is the first of a series of six papers describing the search for a best practices linkage from project classification through management style to project success. It represent part of the research conducted between 1992 and 1998. This paper was presented to an INFORMS Conference in Washington, DC, in May, 1996, and briefly reviews the genesis of modern project management and its scope in today's business and technical environment.

Published here December, 2001.

Background  | Genesis | Scope | Typology | Classification | Linking | Conclusion


Change, at a seemingly ceaseless increase in pace, is recognized today as one of management's greatest challenges. Consequently, management focus is shifting from traditional routine 'enterprise' management, to one of capturing needed competitive change through establishing a project or a program of projects. Competitive change and projects are synonymous, but to be successful different projects require different management approaches. Therefore we need to establish an effective classification for both the scope of project management and for different types of project. Table 1 - A Hierarchy of Management Orientation shows the consequential implications of shifting focus from one to the other.





Continuity defined by
- sets of Objectives


Change defined by
- sets of programs


defined through
- strategies


defined through
- sets of Projects



achieved through
- Tactics


achieved through
- sets of Tasks


achieved through
- consistent Activities


achieved through
- variable Effort


result in
- continuous product


results in
- unique product




Table 1 - A Hierarchy of Management Orientation

Historically, projects have been associated with the construction of buildings and facilities and records tend to focus on the challenges of the construction work itself. However, even ancient history has something to tell us about the problems faced on the management side of project work.

For example, the earliest pyramid at Saqqara in Egypt was the first stone building of any size to be found in the world. It was commissioned by King Zoser of the third dynasty and while the king was clearly the 'sponsor' of the project, one of his ministers, Imhotep, was the 'project manager'.

We are told that "Although no trustworthy details of the lives of Zoser and Imhotep have come down, we can be sure that they were able men who worked long and effectively together. Probably, Imhotep was a universal genius like Archimedes and Leonardo da Vinci. Such was his repute as a physician, architect, writer, statesman, and all-round sage that in later times collections of wise sayings circulated under his name."[1]

Thus was born the reputation of the project manager, but this particular project was not without its management problems. The account goes on

"[previously] ... Egyptian kings and nobles were buried in a tomb called a mastaba ... [but] ... Zoser and Imhotep ... built a stone mastaba of unusual size and shape. It was square instead of oblong like its predecessors, and was over 200 feet on side and 26 feet high.

"Not yet satisfied, Zoser and Imhotep enlarged this mastaba twice by adding stone to the sides. Before the second of these enlargements was completed, the king changed his mind again. He decided not only to enlarge the structure still further, but also to make it into a stepped pyramid, resembling four square mastabas of decreasing size piled one atop the other. Then Zoser changed his mind once more. The tomb ended as a stepped pyramid of six stages, 200 feet high on a base 358 by 411 feet ... ."

This brief but age-old example demonstrates some of the classic difficulties experienced by project management in the modern world such as: controlling the scope of the project, the impact on cost and schedule, handling a difficult client, and the frustrations of the project manager. While the account suggests that Zoser and Imhotep worked well as a team, it is unlikely that Imhotep for his part was faced with the current-day need to 'gain and retain team commitment' of those working for him. No doubt he had available a powerful enticement. Those who failed to perform could be summarily executed!

Today, this form of incentive has been mostly discredited, though not entirely. Its modern-day equivalent, summary dismissal, is to be found in the corporate world, but has the attendant difficulties of extended litigation if not conducted with due care. While the remaining workers may work more intensively, morale implications suggest that they work less effectively.

The traditional techniques of project management, estimating, budgeting, scheduling and monitoring the work are relatively easy to master. The difficult areas, to which most problems can be traced, is to be found in the planning and controlling of the work, and organizing and motivating the people who do it. Moreover, the availability of 'universal geniuses' like Imhotep are few and far between, so that understanding the project management process and enabling project management learning becomes of primary importance. Major issues include: On what basis will the project be managed? How will it be controlled? And, how shall we know if it has been successful?


1. Sprague de Camp, L., The Ancient Engineers, Ballantine Books, New York, February 1974, p21.
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