Large Complex Project Success


Have we institutionalized the wrong lessons?



By Bob Prieto

Jupiter, Florida, USA


“Not everything that matters can be measured, and not everything
that can be measured matters.” Albert Einstein

This paper builds on my beliefs that the prevailing theory of project management has failed us with respect to large complex projects. I have written extensively on this including highlighting that the assumptions of Gantt and Fayol fall short at scale and complexity. In this paper I examine the successes that underpin modern project management theory and seek to understand how the resulting approach to project management has failed to deliver comparable successes with regularity. As I explored these questions, I sought to understand the unique characteristics of the Atlas and Polaris missile programs; the subsequent institutionalization of the perceived success factors; and importantly, did perception and reality align. In other words, have we made an incomplete set of assumptions and institutionalized them?

As I move through this paper I will look separately at Atlas and Polaris through a management lens. The technical richness of the history of the development of these two missiles provided context as I extensively researched these programs, but that engineering accomplishment is not the focus of this paper.

Having outlined each of these programs from a management perspective I will turn to the institutionalization of elements of these programs within the Department of Defense (DOD) largely at the impetus of then Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara. Finally, I will offer some comments on the further institutionalism of modern project management by the Project Management Institute, flowing in large part from the growing adoption of the institutionalized DOD practices or variants of them.

My review will be critical at times, but it is not intended as criticism but rather an attempt to maybe uncover some of the real drivers of Atlas and Polaris success. And perhaps more completely learn the lessons of these outstanding project management achievements.


Convair developed an innovative concept for an ICBM in the early 1950’s that utilized a pressurized tank as an integral part of the rocket structure. Left unpressurized the rocket would collapse under its own weight. Later in 1953, the Teapot Committee led by Dr. John van Neuman of Princeton Institute for Advanced Study recommended:

  • Special (dedicated) Air Force managing group (WDD was the result of this recommendation)
  • Special technical assistant group to serve as system integrator (a new term) to help AF make tough technical decisions and trade-offs. The system integrator concept originated in a prior (1952) committee (Millikan Committee) which looked at Convair’s response to AF RFP (January 1951 study). This recommendation, in part, also arose from concerns about whether Convair could handle the whole job

We see in the Teapot Committee a recognition of importance of a dedicated, empowered owner organization supported in a way that addresses and compensates for owner weaknesses.

The Western Development Division (WDD) was established by the Air Force in 1954 to lead development and installation. WDD organizational and management innovations included:

  • Focus on minimizing development time
  • Streamlining process for approving large financial commitments (They recognized importance of cash flow to contractors, something many of today’s owners have lost sight of.)

Their efforts were successful with Atlas being operational in October 1959, within two months of the target date set by the Air Force and Convair in 1954. The first full Atlas squadron went operational in 1960.

The Atlas development and deployment project required:


To read entire paper, click here

How to cite this paper: Prieto, R. (2021). Large Complex Project Success: Have we institutionalized the wrong lessons? PM World Journal, Vol. X, Issue I, January. Available online at  https://pmworldlibrary.net/wp-content/uploads/2021/01/pmwj101-Jan2021-Prieto-Large-Complex-Project-Success.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 750 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, Millennium Challenge Corporation Advisory Board 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 serves as an honorary global advisor for the PM World Journal and Library and 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/