Project Practitioners > Projects Have Always Been Hard (Until Now)

Projects Have Always Been Hard (Until Now)

By DeAnna Burghart

Projects are harder and more complex than ever. Everyone knows this. They're so much more complicated in the modern world. They're so much more far reaching, so much larger in scope. It's almost a constant refrain in the project management world. And yes, we've been guilty of it too.

There's only one problem: It's not true. Projects have always been hard, especially long projects with sprawling scopes, conflicting stakeholder requirements, and impossible budgets and timelines. Basically, we've bought into our own PR, and it's a total fiction.

What's that you say? You want proof? Well, let's take a few obvious examples.

The Great Pyramid of Giza

Menkaure Pyramid, Giza, Egypt6 The Great Pyramid of Giza in 2011, only 5,000 years or so out of warranty. By Poco a poco (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons.

You think your projects are monumental in size and impact? Try engineering a massive burial crypt-slash-monument for a king with infamously changeable tastes and preferences. The massive pyramid built by the ancient Egyptians at Giza was the tallest man-made structure in the world until it was dethroned by a succession of cathedral projects in Middle Ages Europe.

The pyramid is a lot more than stacked stones. The joints between the building stones are less than a millimeter wide--accuracy any modern engineer could envy. Likewise, the orientation, size, and placement, were all incredibly precise. While we think of the pyramid as just the massive outer shell (which straddles a small hillock (how's that for engineering genius?), it also includes numerous internal burial chambers and passages. Construction took somewhere between 10 and 20 years, and required moving hundreds of metric tons of rock in the form of dozens of giant blocks of stone every day. While the Greeks assumed that the pyramids were built using slave labor (how else would they get anyone to work that much overtime, right?), more recent scholars have compiled evidence that the project was the work of massive gangs of skilled laborers, many of whom lived in settlements squatting around the base of the construction zone.

Just imagine being in charge of this incredible effort. Someone had to run it, right? Imagine being responsible for even a relatively small piece of it. But don't imagine that the entire project ran from start to finish without so much as a change request or dropped handoff. The archeologists who explored the inner chambers were surprised to find a relatively poor quality sarcophagus rather than the usual finely wrought stone artifact. Apparently, the original grand sarcophagus was lost or damaged, and a roughly hewn replacement was used instead. In addition, the burial chamber was apparently relocated from its original site deep under the pyramid's base, which couldn't have been a fun conversation, no matter whose idea it was. On a more mundane level, imagine the staggering cross-functional coordination: communication regarding requirements, feeding and housing the workforce, coordination of all the logistics, and on and on and on. How did they handle the inevitable workplace accidents, work lapses, holiday schedules, training replacement workers?

Your year-long project doesn't look nearly as intimidating by comparison.

Ah, but you say, this was just the same old thing on a bigger scale. It's not the first pyramid they ever built after all. My project is completely new! Okay, let's talk innovation.

Lighthouse of Alexandria

The Lighthouse at Alexandria LACMA 65.37.294 The Lighthouse (Pharos) at Alexandria was completely original when it was built in 270 BCE, and passers-by probably thought the entire project was completely nuts. By Antonio Tempesta (Italy, Florence, 1555-1630) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

So you control a massive harbor with incessant commercial and private traffic that's absolutely critical to your economy. How best to mark your territory and keep people from losing valuable cargo in the waves? I know, let's build a gigantic tower as tall as we can possibly make it, maybe a bit taller, and put a a giant furnace at the top!

The Lighthouse at Alexandria was literally unprecedented, and still serves as the template for modern lighthouses. Construction consumed 12 years, two kings, and vast sums of money. To make the harbor entrance visible from miles off shore, a mirror (possibly a piece of polished metal) was used to reflect sunlight during the day. At night and in storm weather, a fire blazing in a massive furnace provided direction to incoming sailors. The masonry stone used to build the tower was set with molten lead (that must have been fun to work with), and survived centuries of pounding waves and at least three major earthquakes before the ruin was finally disassembled and used for other structures.

Okay, the ancients did have to do a lot of things for the very first time. But the politics I have to deal with. If you had any idea! (Oh, but we do.)

Library of Alexandria

Ancientlibraryalex Your project documentation probably feels overwhelming, but it's nothing compared to the card catalog for this place. (Yes, they had one.) By O. Von Corven [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

Lost to history (more's the pity) this grand ancient structure was probably the closest analogue to what we think of as a modern university. The huge building contained not just incalculable scrolls, but also a cafeteria, lecture halls, meeting rooms, reading rooms, gardens, and more. It was not just a center of knowledge, but also of study and cultural exchange. It was, in a word, epic.

Leaving aside the by now obvious construction challenges, imagine the day-to-day management required to assemble and curate the knowledge contained in the library. Take your modern public library's coordination requirements, and multiply it by some impossibly huge number, and you're probably in the neighborhood. Books were acquired through trade with Rhodes and Athens (at trade shows, believe it or not), and the library virtually monopolized the ancient papyrus trade. (Stakeholder management, anyone?) Works held in the library collection were also copied in house, and those copies distributed to rich patrons, scholars, and wealthy rulers, creating a sort of production line of ancient knowledge.

What negotiation and political management went into acquiring new material for the library? At a time when books were entirely hand crafted, right down to the words on the page, they held enormous material as well as social value. Getting a wealthy patron to part with a rare work, even for the time required to copy it, must have been an act of sublime negotiation and tradeoffs. The considerable egos of authors and thinkers who held symposia in the library had to be assuaged (divas are hardly a modern phenomenon) and ship holders whose original works were confiscated and replaced with copies had to be appeased. Add to the difficulties the general political upheaval in Alexandria in the first decades of the Roman Empire, as Egyptian dominance was declining, and you have an extremely volatile project environment. At one point, all foreign scholars were ejected from the library by the Egyptian pharaoh, and while we typically refer to "the burning of the library" as a single event, it's likely that it was attacked and damaged several times, both as acts of war and of cultural dominance.

Well, okay, politics are eternal. But has anyone had to manage at this level of detail until the modern age? I'm glad you asked ...

But Wait, There's More!

Colosseum2 11-7-2003 I need you to plan a party for 70,000. We'll be there in two weeks. By Bjarki Sigursveinsson (Self-photographed) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

Still the largest ampitheatre in the world, and eternal symbol of the Roman Empire, or at least of the Pax Romana, the Coliseum seated between 50,000 and 80,000 (as much as a modern football stadium), and included extensive and elaborate systems of underground tunnels, winches, levers, platforms, and cages for housing, transporting, staging, and eventually revealing (with the requisite dramatic flourish) the people and animals doomed to die within its ornate walls. This grand exercise in public placation is one of the greatest achievements of Roman engineering. Sited on land reclaimed after Nero's unmourned demise, the construction was overseen by two different emperors (Vespasian and Titus) and a substantial expansion completed by a third (Domitian). In addition to the labyrinthine corridors obvious in this picture, the facility included a retractable awning (yes, really), with seating and emergency exits remarkably similar to modern stadiums.

Vendor supply issues? Imagine being the unfortunate manager in charge of supplying the Spanish Armada. Over 150 ships, 8,000 sailors, and 18,000 soldiers would take a fair amount of water and provisions. The ships would have also needed ammunition for guns, small arms, extra sails, pitch, even ropes. Even using the king's authority and power of the purse, none of that just materialized on the docks. Someone had to coordinate all of that. (Footnote: Columbus sailed to the Americas using sails made of handspun thread, hand woven on handmade looms. And it was nothing unusual; that's where all sails came from. Imagine how many people's efforts had to be coordinated to create something like that. The market trade must have been amazing to witness.)

Construction of Notre Dame, the quintessential gothic cathedral, took over 100 years under four different architects, and involved innumerable change requests. Some were required when design flaws became apparent (the flying buttresses used to support the choir walls after cracks were discovered) and some were the result of changing stakeholders and project leads. You think your project is complicated? Try running one that spans generations.

I could go on (and on, and on, and on), obviously. Yuri Gagarin's orbit. The Eiffel Tower. The building of the Titanic. I'm sure a few spring to your mind by now. These historical projects were all insanely complicated even by modern standards. All had to navigate the vagaries of changing regulations, shifting priorities, work interruptions, inadequate funding, and multiple stakeholders with conflicting expectations. Teams were just as likely to be multicultural as in the modern world, and resource constraints and supply chain challenges were just as likely, perhaps more so.

The Many Ways We Have It Easy

In part, I'm just rebelling against a canard that irks me on principle. No, most modern projects are not more complicated than their ancient counterparts. If anything, the internet, telephones, electronics, and other modern technology make these projects far simpler than their ancient counterparts. Can you imagine the parchment required for planning and managing the construction of the Coliseum? They didn't have AutoCAD, either.

But also, I'm hoping to point out that the foundation that makes us feel projects are harder and more complex is our own self-imposed reality distortion field. Confronted with impossible project deadlines and ridiculous requirements, we succumb to good-soldier syndrome. Like the pyramid builders of old, we arrange our team under that imposing slab of rock and try to "motivate" them to drag it forward. Do we really imagine that the pyramid builders never went back to Pharaoh and laid it out for him? "Listen, you need to either give us more manpower or more time, because it doesn't matter how hard I drive them, they'll never finish at this pace." Given the possibility of ending up shorter by a head, the conversation was undoubtedly more nuanced and respectful, but it's inconceivable that it didn't happen at some point.

It's time to stop buying into our own press. We need to stop kidding ourselves that projects are more complicated and involved and difficult and impossible than ever, and yet somehow we manage to pull off a miracle anyway. The truth is that projects are just as complicated and involved and difficult as they have always been, but we have more tools and ideas and experience at our disposal than ever before. We need to shake off our self-imposed reality distortion field, look the executives in the eye, and tell them why things won't work, or how they will work better. If the original scope can't be accomplished with the allocated resources, you need a smaller scope or more resources. (For the record, driving everyone to work mandatory crunch time is an attempt at adding more resources. I say "attempt" because all too often the death march results in halving your available personnel power, rather than doubling it, but I digress.) If the assigned team doesn't have the necessary skills or experience, nothing but time or training will fill that gap. Even if your project technology and objectives are completely new in the whole of human history (and there are probably a handful of project teams on the planet who can honestly claim that), someone, somewhere, at some point has lessons learned from a project that's similar enough to be useful.

Fact is, most of the time when someone tells you that projects are more complicated than ever, they're trying to sell you something. That includes us, by the way. So I pledge to you here and now that you will not hear that phrase from ProjectConnections ever again. We need to stop focusing on how hard everything supposedly is anyway. We have more tools, technology, and talent at our disposal than ever before. We need to stop focusing on how hard everything supposedly is, and instead focus on how we can take advantage of modern advantages.

Let's stop making things "harder than ever" and instead find ways to make them easier and more successful.

Who's with me?

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