The Origins of Project Management

For many years, I have asserted that project management goes back to the pyramid builders and even earlier.  I like to imagine an ancient Egyptian official sketching a work breakdown for his (it would have been a man then, I am sure) Pharaoh (though this may easily have been a woman) on papyrus.

Who knows?

But we can answer a related question: when did project management appear in the literature.  Thanks to Google’s wonderful resource, we can easily search millions of books in English for references.


Let’s start with the word “project”.  I consulted my trusty Oxford English Dictionary* first.  The word’s original usage (now extinct) was:

“a plan, draft, scheme, or table of something; a design or pattern according to which something is made”

This goes back to the early fifteenth century and therefore predates Google’s earliest data. Google cannot (yet?) distinguish between meanings and usages of a word, but there is clearly a continuity of evolving meaning, so this chart of usage is informative.

(You can click on these charts to enlarge them)

Ngram 01: "project"

But only to a degree, because it does not distinguish the noun (which we are interested in) from the verb (which we are not).

But notice the apparent increased usage from around 1920.  Let’s have a look in more detail.

Ngram 02: "project"

What is causing that? Could we be seeing the start of modern project management? Let’s find out?

Project Management


Ngram 03: "project management"


I think the answer to that question, is maybe, but not likely.  What I think is fascinating about this chart is the bump during the closing years of WW2.  Is it a statistical, lexical coincidence or was the phrase first getting used then?

We can also distinguish between British and American English usages of Project Management.

British usage is the upper chart; American the lower.

Ngram 04: "project management"


Change Management and Risk Management

Risk management seems to have taken off in the 1970s…

Ngram 05: "risk management"


… whilst change management started to thrive in the 1990s.  Hey, I was in right at the start!

Ngram 06: "change management"

Would you like to play Ngram?

You can do your own research and feedback your insights to the comments below.  Generate your own Ngrams at 

Please let me know what you discover and, if you create your own Ngrams and blog about them, link back to here, please.

Warning: Playing with this tool is extremely distracting.  Do not do it when you have more important things to do like work, exercise, eating, or sleep.

* Yes, as an author, I felt I had to have a copy of the full OED – although I did get it secondhand, in the Compact format, photographically reduced to nine pages per page and supplied with a big magnifying glass.

3 thoughts on “The Origins of Project Management

  1. Pingback: The Origin of Stakeholders |

  2. Pingback: The Origin of Stakeholders |

  3. Pingback: The Origin of Stakeholders - Project Cloud

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