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PM his­to­ry comes with a shame­ful past. This is how we can turn process­es built from oppres­sion into oppor­tu­ni­ties for a demo­c­ra­t­ic future.

This should come as a shock­er, but not a sur­prise: project man­age­ment has a malev­o­lent his­to­ry. Its ori­gin sto­ry began with slav­ery plan­ta­tions and ear­ly indus­tri­al-age assem­bly lines. When the term project man­age­ment was coined in the 1950s, it wasn’t to extol the virtues of PM to make good in the world. It was because pres­i­dents want­ed to make an atom­ic bomb and max­i­mize prof­it on war efforts. Sad­ly, humans are often the last ones con­sid­ered in project man­age­ment. They still are in many cases. 

And, even more dis­cour­ag­ing: most PM resources strip this real­i­ty out of their para­graphs com­plete­ly because it’s uncom­fort­able. But when you do that, you elim­i­nate the chance to under­stand what hap­pened and how to move forward.

Well, we are dig­ging in. In this one-hour talk on The dark his­to­ry of PM, Cofounder of Loud­er Than Ten, Rachel Gertz, shares how Sci­en­tif­ic Man­age­ment the­o­ry and benev­o­lent work­place dic­ta­tor­ships got us here, and some path­ways for how we might show up togeth­er to rewrite our PM future.

Tracing the roots of PM

Here’s what led us here.

  • Before project management existed as a discipline, its principles evolved from the practice of enslaving Black folks on white-owned land and tracking their production, speed, efficiency, and depreciation in careful records.
  • Slavery was a business fuelled by capitalism that resulted in year-over-year revenue generation for white folks at the expense and extraction of labour from Black folks
  • Slavery was officially abolished in 1865, but evolved practices are still happening
  • Project management was born out of Scientific Management in the early 1900s, a principle that aimed to increase the productivity and efficiency of workers (while reducing waste).
  • Scientific Management dehumanized workers into economic units: it used ‘carrot-and-stick’ management as a perceived ‘more ethical’ replacement for slave-driving to punish slow workers and incentivize faster ones adopting data tracking practices similar to the ones used during slavery, often terrorizing workers to their breaking point.
  • Scientific Management is an early example of the gamification of labour.
  • Henry Gantt, creator of the widely used Gantt Chart, was born into a family that owned enslaved people.
  • Henry Gantt’s approach modernized PM and helped launch the Atomic bomb and Hoover Dam projects .
  • Modern project management was coined in the 1950s and warring nations used it extensively to plan and implement military projects.

The PM present

Here’s where we are currently.

  • Most companies are run as Human Resources Management type companies aka ‘benevolent dictatorships’—people have limited say beyond their basic human rights in what happens to them at work.
  • The common practice of tracking utilization still reduces humans into economic units, especially when used as a factor to determine compensation, work quotas, and employment.
  • Punch cards and minute-by-minute time tracking monitor worker outputs.
  • People work two hours more on average per day due to the shift to remote work (less travel time).
  • Surveillance apps track productivity (and punish workers for not meeting targets).
  • Companies monitor employee attention through keystroke and surveillance tracking apps and read through employee emails without consent.
  • Coercion, control, and surveillance are the tools of modern-day project management.

The cultural concept of the tyranny of work tells us we are born to work and that work is our identity.

A better PM future

  • We fight to death for democracy in our government, but the work environments we spend most of our waking hours in are designed like dictatorships. Let’s change this.
  • Democratic companies enable their workers to have a voice in what happens to them.
  • Project managers have a powerful voice in demanding equitable PM processes that don’t cut humans out of the efficiency equation.
  • Following a practice of ensuring ‘nothing about us without us’ means we collaboratively generate team agreements, meetings, processes, and project schedules that consider all of us.
  • Planning, scoping, estimating, assessing risk, and collaborating together are baseline ideas for how to create safer, more democratic work environments.

Here are a whole bunch more ideas for more democracy in PM.

Now it’s your turn

Evaluating the systems we run and making processes and company structures more democratic (by listening to every voice) is not only the right thing to do, it also increases margins, improves team happiness and communication, builds healthier relationships with clients, and makes teams more resilient in times of adversity. We have incredible power to challenge the existing PM systems around us and create a more humane, ethical way to show up and evolve our project management practices.

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