A Deeper Look at the Physics of Large Complex Projects

A Neo-classical Project Management Theory is Required



By Bob Prieto

Chairman & CEO
Strategic Program Management LLC

Florida, USA



I have previously written about the transition that I believe is necessary in project management thinking related to large complex projects[1]. In those writing I describe the shift as analogous to the shift from Newtonian to relativistic physics[2]. Subsequently, I have compared the nature of large complex programs to open systems[3]. Reflecting back, classical project management theory was very much based on closed systems thinking and early applications of systems thinking to projects and engineering was also very much based on closed systems thinking.

This is analogous to the closed systems of Newton and Einstein’s correction of his original General Theory of Relativity through the introduction of the cosmological constant to close a system which he believed behaved mechanistically and not expanding. In hindsight the cosmological constant was not necessary but does suggest some properties of the universe and became relevant in explaining an accelerating expansion of the universe. Subsequently, there was at least one special case where the deterministic nature of a closed system broke down when considering General Relativity suggesting at least some open nature to this system.

As I reflect on an open system analog for the universe a large complex project exists in, I will begin by attempting to create some thought equivalence between aspect of Einstein’s work and subsequent physical theorems and large complex projects. It has been many years since I’ve used any of my nuclear engineering training so what follows may be overly simplistic for any one with serious training in physics.

Relativistic Energy and Mass

At the most fundamental level for Einstein, relativistic energy (kinetic and potential energy) was associated with the photon. Mass represented the conversion of relativistic energy such that energy (E) times a conversion factor (1/c2 in the case of special relativity) was equal to the mass resulting from the conversion of energy to a more tangible form. I have always thought of mass as “frozen” energy but more relevant here is the nature of mass created by the conversion of energy times a conversion factor. In the universe of large complex projects I think of energy as related to the work done by one person unit of work. The resultant output is the frozen energy of people if you will. Mass represents the tangible form of some units of work times a conversion factor. The conversion factor will more likely be analogous to Einstein’s more general form found in General Relativity but we will return to that later.

So at the most fundamental level in a large complex project we have a source of energy (human work) that can through a defined process be translated into a tangible object or outcome (a mass equivalent).


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How to cite this paper: Prieto, R. (2020). A Deeper Look at the Physics of Large Complex Projects: A Neo-classical Project Management Theory is Required; PM World Journal, Vol. IX, Issue VIII, August. Available online at https://pmworldlibrary.net/wp-content/uploads/2020/07/pmwj96-Aug2020-Prieto-Deeper-Look-at-the-Physics-of-Large-Projects.pdf



About the Author

Bob Prieto

Chairman & CEO
Strategic Program Management LLC
Jupiter, Florida, USA


 Bob Prieto is a senior executive effective in shaping and executing business strategy and a recognized leader within the infrastructure, engineering and construction industries. Currently Bob heads his own management consulting practice, Strategic Program Management LLC. He previously served as a senior vice president of Fluor, one of the largest engineering and construction companies in the world. He focuses on the development and delivery of large, complex projects worldwide and consults with owners across all market sectors in the development of programmatic delivery strategies. He is author of nine books including “Strategic Program Management”, “The Giga Factor: Program Management in the Engineering and Construction Industry”, “Application of Life Cycle Analysis in the Capital Assets Industry”, “Capital Efficiency: Pull All the Levers” and, most recently, “Theory of Management of Large Complex Projects” published by the Construction Management Association of America (CMAA) as well as over 700 other papers and presentations.

Bob is an Independent Member of the Shareholder Committee of Mott MacDonald. He is a member of the ASCE Industry Leaders Council, National Academy of Construction, a Fellow of the Construction Management Association of America and member of several university departmental and campus advisory boards. Bob served until 2006 as a U.S. presidential appointee to the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Business Advisory Council (ABAC), working with U.S. and Asia-Pacific business leaders to shape the framework for trade and economic growth. He had previously served as both as Chairman of the Engineering and Construction Governors of the World Economic Forum and co-chair of the infrastructure task force formed after September 11th by the New York City Chamber of Commerce. Previously, he served as Chairman at Parsons Brinckerhoff (PB) and a non-executive director of Cardno (ASX)

Bob can be contacted at rpstrategic@comcast.net.

To view other works by Bob Prieto, visit his author showcase in the PM World Library at https://pmworldlibrary.net/authors/bob-prieto/


[1] Prieto, R. (2015). Theory of Management of Large Complex Projects; Construction Management Association of America; ISBN: ISBN 580-0-111776-07-9; October; https://www.researchgate.net/publication/299980338_Theory_of_Management_of_Large_Complex_Projects

[2] Prieto, R. (2015). Physics of Projects; PM World Journal Vol. IV, Issue V – May; https://www.researchgate.net/publication/275888028_Physics_of_Projects

[3] Large Complex Programs as Open Systems; National Academy of Construction Executive Insight; https://www.naocon.org/insights/