3 Project Management Lessons from U.S. History

July 1, 2014 Shelbi Gomez

Recently we've highlighted project management disasters in our recent Project Management Hall of Shame infographic—but what about successes? The feats that teams are capable of when they get project management right are nearly limitless.

With Independence Day around the corner here in the United States, I thought it appropriate to dig into our history for examples of projects that set the bar in how to complete a project efficiently and successfully. golden-gate-bridge

1. The Golden Gate Bridge

How to connect the headlands of Marin County and the budding city of San Francisco was a question that plagued the Bay Area's brightest minds from as early as 1869, when the city's self-proclaimed Emperor Norton decreed a bridge be built. The Golden Gate was no simple spot, however. A mile and a half of water separated the gate's north and south ends, which was too wide for a single span to cover. This meant having to build one of the bridge's towers off shore in deep and turbulent waters, which many engineers ruled out as impossible.

The challenge thrilled engineer Joseph B. Strauss, however, and Strauss spent more than a decade selling his vision of the bridge to Bay Area residents. After the critical vote passed in 1930, he went to work making his impossible dream reality. First step: assembling the right team. Strauss called upon a brilliant University of Illinois engineering professor, Charles Ellis, who worked out the math for supporting the stress and strain of the bridge in a surprisingly short amount of time. From there, Strauss brought in Clifford Paine and Russell Cone from Strauss's Chicago-based engineering firm to execute the bridge's construction with their practical expertise and swift decision-making. These men had the ability to see the nuts and bolts needed to support Strauss's ethereal dream.

Next, the team had to battle against Mother Nature, with her pea-soup fog that shrouded the Bay, giant swells that crashed against the construction site, and the dangers of the deep waters. While the project was dangerous and incredibly difficult, the allegedly impossible project was possible after all, and the project wrapped in May 1937—ahead of schedule, below the initial bid estimates, and into center stage as an American icon in all its international-orange glory.

Lesson learned: Anything is possible when you build the right team, selecting players who can dream big as well as those who excel in the granular details of execution. Getting them to then buy into the overall project's goal is essential, too. When the vision becomes their own dream, too, they'll work against the setbacks that inevitably come up and challenge to dash the project to pieces.


2. Settling the Mountain West

How do you move 80,000 pioneers 1,300 miles on foot from Europe and the fertile hills of the Midwest to the arid, undesirable haven of then-Mexico's desert and include enough food, water, and shelter when they get to their destination? Organize, organize, organize.

When Brigham Young moved a host of pioneers in the mid-1800's to what is now known as Utah, Idaho, Arizona, and Mexico, organization was a matter of survival. Each pioneer company moved hundreds of people at a time, which required massive organization and communication to move efficiently. Each company had president and two assistants at its head, and then there were captains over groups of 10, 50, 100, and, in larger companies, 500 as well. This well-defined org chart provided each traveler with several layers of leadership and resources, especially the poor, widows, fatherless, and families of men who had gone into the military.

This same knack for organization would make it possible for these settlers to hew a hearty living out of the harsh landscape of the Western U.S., raising enough food to provide for both themselves and the continuing influx of new arrivals.

Lesson learned: Projects rise and fall on an understanding of roles and assignments—or a lack thereof. Clearly outlining who will do what and who will approve at each step of a project is crucial to a successful kickoff. Of course, in the often inhospitable wilderness of work management, your process must also hold each of these project participants accountable for their individual deliverables.


3. Model T Ford and the Assembly Line

Henry Ford wasn't the first to build an automobile, but he was the first to make cars attainable for the average American—and, in doing so, Ford also revolutionized countless industries and raised the standard of living for billions around the globe.

Ford's great innovation came in streamlining the complex process of assembling an automobile—and perfecting the assembly line. Workers specialized on one task as the in-construction vehicle progressed from station to station on a moving belt. All Model Ts used standard interchangeable parts and featured a planetary transmission that was simple enough for mechanical novices to operate. Each of the car's five models was mounted onto a uniform 100-inch wheelbase chassis made of vanadium steel, a stronger, lighter steel than its predecessors. The focus on a single product allowed the assembly line to function as, well, a well-oiled machine—by 1924, workers at the Dearborn, Michigan, Ford plant turned out more than 10,000 Model T cylinder blocks in a day.

Consumers reaped the benefits of Ford's productivity in the form of an affordable price tag. Before Ford, cars were for hobbyists and the wealthy. Ford had a broader vision:

I will build a car for the great multitude. It will be constructed of the best materials, by the best men to be hired, after the simplest designs that modern engineering can devise. But it will be so low in price that no man making a good salary will be unable to own one – and enjoy with his family the blessing of hours of pleasure in God's great open spaces. He delivered on this promise with cars that initially cost $825, and that cost eventually dropped to $260 in 1924. As consumer tastes changed, Ford eventually had to broaden its offerings, and the assembly line stopped producing the Model T in May 1927. All together, more than 15 million Model Ts rolled off Ford's factory lines and into the hands of American consumers during the car's 20 years in production.

Lessons learned: Dare to innovate and find better ways to create your craft. Work with a team where each player specializes in what they do best. Remember that simplicity is best and makes your message or project more accessible to the masses. Finally, remember that while the Model T was a classic and a game-changer, the game eventually changed, and Ford wisely followed suit. Learn to adapt so your brand doesn't go "the way of the Tin Lizzy" and get sidelined as a relic.

About the Author

Shelbi Gomez

Shelbi is an experienced public relations professional with experience in both agency and corporate marketing environments. She currently guides brand awareness, market research, analyst relations, and customer content. She has nearly a decade of BtoB and BtoC experience helping companies tell their stories in the changing media landscape — in traditional media outlets, social media, and now through content marketing.

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