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Leading Large Complex Projects - Lessons from Thomas Hughes

In 1998, Thomas Hughes published Rescuing Prometheus: Monumental Projects That Changed the Modern World. His deep study of great mega-projects taught us important lessons about project management in complex environments. The projects he researched were: (1) MIT as Systems Builder/SAGE; (2) Atlas Missile/Military Industrial Complex; (3) Systems Approach/TRW Thomson Ramo; (4) The Big Dig/Central Artery Tunnel and (5) The Arpanet (predecessor to the Internet).

Hughes established clear elements which were common to all of these projects and were critical to their success. He showed that on large, complex projects, project managers need to wear three equally important hats. One is as a Management Coordinator, the other is that of Technocrat and the third is that of Systems Integrator. A systems and multidisciplinary approach is required in which the project manager always maintains focus on the big picture and continuously battles the many risks and forces which undermine project success. These factors are social, financial, technical, organizational, environmental and political. Project managers need to be flexible in their thinking, multidisciplinary in their approach and strong in their communication and leadership.

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