A Short History of Modern Project Management



By Alan Stretton

Sydney, Australia

When people talk about the history of project management, it is quite common for the Egyptian Pyramids (or the like) to be exampled as early historical projects. But there is rather widespread agreement that what could be validly called modern project management had its genesis in the 1950s. In the ensuing years, many distinctive project management tools, techniques and concepts have been, and are being, developed – particularly as the areas of application of project-based management have been proliferating so widely. This short history of modern project management focuses on mainstream issues and developments in the past forty-odd years. It also attempts to identify emerging trends in concepts and practices in project management at the time of writing (1994). The majority of the reference materials are US-sourced, with some references to early Australian developments in which the author was personally involved.

  1. The 1950s

1.1 Earlier 1950s: Bechtel (USA)

Bechtel (1989) records that

Bechtel first used the term Project Manager in our international work beginning in the 1950’s. This use didn’t entail a Project Manager operating in a matrix organization as we know it today, but rather the assignment of a great deal of responsibility to an individual operating in a remote, strange and often hostile environment, usually with a self-contained autonomous team.

He also records that the 1951-53 Transmountain Oil Pipeline in Canada was the first project in which Bechtel, as an organization, actually functioned as the project manager – although, as he hastens to explain, they didn’t call it project management then. But “the approach and organization was a forerunner of what was to come”.

Bechtel discusses the problems in getting the company’s divisions to shift to a project management approach in the early 1961s as follows:

They [the divisions] were accustomed to having the Project Engineer be the Project Manager in the early stages of a job and the Constuction Manager or Site Superintendent on the latter phase of the work. The change to recognizing the Project Manager role and having someone in that position full-time through the life of the job has not always been an easy one.

There is one particular theme which emerges from the above, and that is the concept, and the initiation of the practice, of the individual Project Manager (or the project organisation as the Project Manager) having total responsibility throughout the entire project, from inception to completion – i.e. “undivided responsibility” for the prosecution of the total project.

1.2 Mid-1950s: Civil & Civic (Australia)

Civil & Civic (C&C), which later became a recognised leader in project management in the Australian building industry, was formed as a construction company in 1951, and broadened into design-and-construct (1953) and property developer (1954). It came into project management in a somewhat similar way to Bechtel. At that time in Australia there were no established concepts or practice of managing the design process, or value analysis, design efficiency/effectiveness, or the like.  As recorded from a later seminar (Civil & Civic, 1976),

Consultants, particularly architects, enjoyed a powerful almost God-like position. Teamwork and performance to time/cost criteria were virtually ignored.

In 1954-55, C&C first project managed the design of a major subdivision project which the company itself was developing. It is recorded that,

By persistent analysis and investigation of design aspects, a 40% reduction was achieved in site costs [based on consultants’ designs and projected capital expenditure] and the project converted from a marginal investment to a successful venture” (Civil & Civic, 1969).

From that point, C&C appointed its own “project engineers” to manage the design phases of all its own development projects.

It was a natural extension of the above for C&C to then market itself as a Project Manager to external clients, taking full responsibility for the execution of all phases of projects, from inception to completion. This move was initiated in 1958, but really substantial market penetration was not achieved until towards the mid-60s, after which time the demand for what they then described as “project management services” had put the organization at the “cutting edge” of innovation and performance in the industry. This seemed to reflect a circumstance which was nicely described by Cleland (1991) – admittedly at another time, and in another context, thus – “Project management is clearly an idea whose time has come”.


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Editor’s note: Second Editions are previously published papers that have continued relevance in today’s project management world, or which were originally published in conference proceedings or in a language other than English.  Original publication acknowledged; authors retain copyright.  This paper was originally prepared for a Modern Project Management Course at the University of Technology, Sydney, Australia, by professor Alan Stretton in the early 1990s.  The paper was also originally published by the Australian Institute of Project Management (AIPM) in instalments in the “Australian Project Manager”, Part 1 in Vol 14, No 1, March 1994; Part 2 in Vol 14, No 2, July 1994; and Part 3 in Vol 14, No 3, October 1994. It was also republished in the October 2007 edition of PM World Today.  It is republished again here with the author’s permission.

How to cite this paper: Stretton, A. (2023, 2007, 1994). A Short History of Modern Project Management; originally published in the Australian Project Manager in 1994; republished in the PM World Journal, Vol. XII, Issue VII, July. 2023. Available online at https://pmworldlibrary.net/wp-content/uploads/2023/07/pmwj131-Jul2023-Stretton-short-history-of-modern-project-management-2nd-edition.pdf

Author’s note 1 to 2007 version: Shortly after this paper was written (in late 1993), Peter Morris published a book entitled The Management of Projects (London, Telford, 1994) which included a very thoroughly researched and detailed history of modern project management. This book is likely to be regarded as the definitive work on project management history for many years, and to be an essential source for future historians. The book is an excellent “read”, and is highly recommended, not only for its historical coverage, but also for Morris’ very detailed analysis of the current situation and future prospects for project management.

Author’s note 2 to this version: There have been several good histories of project management written since my 2007 “Short History” reprint – particularly another book by Peter Morris in 2013 on “Reconstructing Project Management.” So I had some doubts about the value of another reprint of my history, which was originally published in 1994.  But two prominent reviewers believe that it still has some historic value, partly because it includes some early Australian initiatives, together with a personalised perspective of developments in which I was personally involved, and/or unearthed in early explorations.

About the Author

Alan Stretton, PhD     

Faculty Corps, University of Management
and Technology, Arlington, VA (USA)
Life Fellow, AIPM (Australia)


 Alan Stretton is one of the pioneers of modern project management.  He is currently a member of the Faculty Corps for the University of Management & Technology (UMT), USA.  In 2006 he retired from a position as Adjunct Professor of Project Management in the Faculty of Design, Architecture and Building at the University of Technology, Sydney (UTS), Australia, which he joined in 1988 to develop and deliver a Master of Project Management program.

Prior to joining UTS, Mr. Stretton worked in the building and construction industries in Australia, New Zealand and the USA for some 38 years, which included the project management of construction, R&D, introduction of information and control systems, internal management education programs and organizational change projects.  He has degrees in Civil Engineering (BE, Tasmania) and Mathematics (MA, Oxford), and an honorary PhD in strategy, programme and project management (ESC, Lille, France).

Alan was Chairman of the Standards (PMBOK) Committee of the Project Management Institute (PMI®) from late 1989 to early 1992.  He held a similar position with the Australian Institute of Project Management (AIPM) and was elected a Life Fellow of AIPM in 1996.  He was a member of the Core Working Group in the development of the Australian National Competency Standards for Project Management.  He has published 250+ professional articles and papers.

Alan Stretton can be contacted at alanailene@bigpond.com.au.

To view more works by Alan Stretton, visit his author showcase in the PM World Library at http://pmworldlibrary.net/authors/alan-stretton/.