Celebrating 50 years of influential projects

(BPT) - What were the greatest projects from the last 50 years? The World Wide Web? The moon landing? As 2019 marks the 50th anniversary of the Project Management Institute, PMI is celebrating by showcasing the 50 most influential projects of the past 50 years in science, technology, social, cultural movements and more.

What do these projects have in common? By definition, they were groundbreaking. From a project management standpoint, they all required spectacular feats of organization, collaboration, adaptation — and shared vision.

President and CEO of PMI Sunil Prashara explains, "Bringing ideas into the world takes effort, planning, discipline. It takes creativity and resilience, adaptability and perseverance. It takes vision, hard choices, commitment and sacrifice."

Here are some ways a few influential projects from the last half-century demonstrate how project management helped turn ideas into reality.

Organization

It took over a decade of planning for 12 countries to switch to a single new currency — the Euro. Prior to launch, banks had 80% of notes and 90% of coins in hand. Over half of cash payments and 99% of ATMs converted to euros within five days.

Antti Heinonen, director of bank notes for the European Central Bank, was lead project manager. "The launch has been described as the greatest exercise in logistics that Europe has known in peacetime," said Heinonen. "A smooth cash changeover could only be achieved in a short period of time by systematic and coordinated interaction on the part of all leading actors."

Collaboration

How do complex scientific breakthroughs happen, even when the technology to complete a project hasn’t been invented yet? Ask the team on The Human Genome Project, which spanned 20 research centers in six countries over 13 years. The project’s leaders identified each gene and measured its distance from other genes on the chromosome first, leaving sequencing for later — betting that technology would advance to enable the final step (it did). Project leaders managed input from hundreds of stakeholders, including scientists and advisory councils, with support from 17 universities and lab sequencing centers.

Two years ahead of schedule and $300 million under budget, the researchers succeeded in sequencing and mapping all the genes (together known as the genome) that make up homo sapiens. The impact of this undertaking is vast and ongoing, ranging from revolutionizing disease treatment to using DNA in forensics.

Adaptation

As project managers discover, things can go wrong at any time. The key is adapting to and learning from setbacks. In the lead-up to Apollo 11's 1969 launch, there were three astronaut fatalities during the 1967 Apollo I accident. Adaptation to fast-moving circumstances was a matter of life and death when sending a crew to the moon. A problem-solving matrix was developed to troubleshoot any possible scenario. Technical innovations deriving from Apollo 11 are wide-ranging, from cellphone cameras and laptops to CT scans and satellite TV.

"It may be that the most lasting legacy of Apollo was human …" said NASA chief historian Roger D. Launius, "… an improved understanding of how to plan, coordinate and monitor the myriad technical activities that were the building blocks of Apollo."

Vision

In 2007, Panama shared a vision for updating their century-old canal to meet modern shipping demands. The mammoth project required five years of study and a national referendum before the Panama Canal Authority could begin making progress. To execute successfully, the Panama Canal Authority created a project management office (PMO), putting over 50 employees through training to earn Project Management Professional (PMP) certification. That training paid off. By 2016, the expansion debuted, boosting international trade and uniting Panama in its singular goal.

The capacity to turn vision into reality reveals the power of project management to shape the future. As Prashara describes, "Taken together, this universe of accomplishments exemplifies how the fabric of our world has been shaped, and continues to be shaped, by the hard work of bringing ideas to life. It underscores the rising importance of projects in our future, and how excellence in project execution will be critical in meeting the challenges and opportunities of tomorrow.”

To explore the most influential projects of the past 50 years, visit PMI.org/most-influential-projects.

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