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Ben Davern

Ben Davern

28th May 2024

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What History Teaches Us About Impactful Project Management

Project management, an essential discipline in modern business, has roots that stretch deep into history. From the construction of the Great Wall of China to the Apollo moon landings, successful project management has driven some of humanity’s most impressive achievements and provides valuable lessons for modern practitioners. This article explores historical examples of impactful project management and extrapolates lessons that can be applied to contemporary practices.

The Great Wall of China

The construction of the Great Wall of China, initiated during the 7th century BC and continuing through the Ming Dynasty (1368–1644), stands as one of the most ambitious projects in human history. The wall stretches over 13,000 miles, built to protect Chinese states and empires from invasions.

Key Lessons

Long-term Vision and Planning: The Great Wall’s construction required meticulous long-term planning and vision, a principle still vital in project management today. Projects must align with broader strategic goals and overarching business objectives, with impactful project managers ensuring every step contributes to the final objective.

Resource Management: The project demanded enormous resources, both human and material. Effective resource allocation, ensuring the right resources are available at the right time, remains a cornerstone of successful project management. Modern project managers and project leaders can draw parallels in ensuring that resource allocation is optimised for the project’s needs, mirroring historical practices of efficient resource utilisation.

Adaptability: The Great Wall was built in stages, adapting to changing political and military needs – exemplifying the necessity of flexibility. Likewise modern project managers and leaders must remain flexible, adjusting plans to accommodate new information and shifting circumstances. Impactful project management requires leaders to be adept at making swift, informed decisions to maximise efficiency against changing project needs.

The Panama Canal

The construction of the Panama Canal (1904–1914) is another monumental engineering feat, overcoming significant technical and logistical challenges. The canal transformed global trade routes by connecting the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, illustrating the power of impactful project management.

Key Lessons

Technological Innovation: Leveraging advanced technology was crucial for the Panama Canal’s completion. Contemporary project leaders should similarly harness cutting-edge tools and methodologies to improve efficiency and outcomes, much like the innovative techniques used historically.

Risk Management: Facing numerous risks – from disease outbreaks to landslides – the Panama Canal project highlights the importance of identifying potential risks and developing mitigation strategies. Effective risk management strategies – including contingency planning and risk mitigation, along with scoping and estimating – are essential for navigating uncertainties with any project.

Stakeholder Engagement: Successful completion of the Panama Canal required coordination among various stakeholders, including engineers, labourers and political leaders. Modern projects benefit from transparent communication and collaboration with all stakeholders to align interests and facilitate smooth progress and successful project execution.

The Apollo Program

The Apollo program, culminating in the moon landing in 1969, exemplifies the zenith of impactful project management in the 20th century. This monumental project involved unprecedented collaboration across government, industry and academia – it’s only 20th century megaproject rival would be the Manhattan Project, as depicted in the 2023 blockbuster, Oppenheimer.

Key Lessons

Clear Objectives and Milestones: The clear goal of landing a man on the moon by the end of the 1960s provided direction and motivation. Defining clear objectives and setting measurable milestones remain crucial for maintaining focus and tracking progress with any project.

Team Coordination and Integration: The Apollo program’s success hinged on the seamless integration of efforts from thousands of engineers, scientists and support staff. Effective project management requires fostering a cohesive team environment and ensuring robust coordination across all facets of the project.

Learning from Failure: The Apollo program faced several setbacks, including the tragic Apollo 1 fire. Each failure was meticulously analysed, and lessons were incorporated into future missions. Embracing a culture of continuous learning and improvement is vital for long-term success.


Applying Historical Lessons to Contemporary Project Management – an IMI Framework

Strategic Vision

Modern programs emphasise the importance of gaining clarity and foresight to develop and execute projects that align with broader business objectives.  Every leader, regardless of industry or sector, must possess the ability to develop and execute projects aligned with overarching business objectives. The clarity of strategic vision ensures that initiatives drive meaningful progress towards organizational goals and long-term success.

Embracing Agile Methodologies

Modern project management increasingly relies on agile methodologies, emphasising flexibility, continuous improvement and stakeholder collaboration. Historical projects like the Great Wall and Apollo highlight the importance of adaptability and an iterative process, principles central to agile practices. However, in an ever-changing business landscape, adaptability and agile decision-making are essential skills for all leaders in responding to shifting priorities and unforeseen challenges. Leaders must be adept at making swift, informed decisions to keep projects on track and mitigate risks effectively. Agile methodologies enable leaders to respond effectively to change, ensuring projects stay on track and within scope – regardless of sector.

Leveraging Technology

Technological advancements continue to revolutionise project management. Tools for real-time collaboration, data analytics and automation enhance efficiency and decision-making. Drawing from the technological innovations seen in the Panama Canal project, contemporary leaders should embrace new technologies to streamline processes and improve outcomes.

Prioritising Risk Management

Risk management remains as crucial today as it was during the construction of the Panama Canal. Identifying potential risks, developing mitigation strategies and maintaining contingency plans are essential for navigating the complexities of modern projects. Identifying potential risks and developing mitigation strategies are essential for minimizing disruptions and ensuring project success.

Resource Optimisation

Just as the builders of ancient wonders optimised resources for maximum impact, modern leaders must make strategic decisions about resource allocation to ensure projects are delivered on time and within budget.

Fostering a Collaborative Culture

The success of historical projects often depended on effective stakeholder engagement and team coordination. Modern project managers should cultivate a collaborative culture, ensuring transparent communication and active participation from all stakeholders. Clear and concise communication is the cornerstone of successful project management. Leaders must articulate project goals, expectations and milestones to ensure alignment and foster collaboration among team members.

Stakeholder Engagement and Clear Milestones

Effective communication and collaboration with stakeholders are critical for garnering support and aligning interests towards project success. Modern leaders must cultivate robust communication skills to manage stakeholder expectations and foster collaboration across diverse teams to drive enhanced support and a smoother project execution. Establishing clear milestones and deliverables provides a roadmap for project execution and allows for progress tracking. Modern leaders must define measurable outcomes and hold teams accountable for achieving them.


Impactful project management has driven some of history’s most remarkable achievements. By studying these historical examples and applying their lessons, contemporary project managers and leaders can navigate the unprecedented complexities of today’s projects, ensuring successful outcomes and lasting impact. The principles of long-term vision, resource management, adaptability, technological innovation, risk management and collaboration remain as relevant now as they were in the past, guiding us toward a future of continued progress and achievement.

However, in today’s dynamic environment, leaders are often tasked with driving initiatives that may not be explicitly labelled as projects but demand the same skill set as traditional project management. Whether it’s implementing a new software system, launching a marketing campaign, or restructuring organisational processes, the ability to plan, execute and monitor initiatives is paramount. Project management is not confined to a particular sector but is a fundamental skillset for all leaders and managers. Whether leading a team, department or organisation, the ability to plan, execute and deliver projects effectively is essential for driving innovation, achieving strategic objectives and fostering organisational success. By recognising the universal relevance of project management skills and honing them as part of their leadership toolkit, modern leaders can navigate the complexities of today’s business landscape with confidence and competence.

Final places remaining for IMI’s Impactful Project Management short programme, beginning June 10th, 2024: https://www.imi.ie/product/impactful-project-management/

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