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A few days ago Timber Chinn posted a nice article entitled “The History of Project Management“.

In it, Timber traces the origins of modern day project management back to the construction of the Great Pyramid of Giza around 2,500 BC, and questions whether today’s project managers would be able to achieve the same feat by applying modern methods.

Timber has a point. Even by today’s standards, there’s no doubting what the ancients Egyptians achieved with the construction of the great pyramid. It was the tallest building in the world for over 4,000 years, until 1874, and to this day it remains the most massive building on the planet.

We’re still building pyramids, today. The Shard in London is the latest and also pretty impressive:

  • Western Europe’s tallest building (for now, at least)
  • 72 floors serviced by 44 lifts
  • Its construction materials are 95% recyclable

It also has a rather exclusive bathroom (or toilet, if you’re British) with an unrivaled view of London on the 68th floor. For £25 you can access the viewing platform and use the facilities.

The Shard was constructed with the benefit of the most modern project management tools and techniques, honed over many thousands of years of development.

When you look retrospectively at the construction of the Giza pyramids through the lens of those modern techniques, however, it’s clear the Egyptians knew a thing about project management:

  • SponsorshipAfter project management, strong and sustained sponsorship is essential for any major project to succeed. The great pyramid was constructed as a tomb for the pharaoh, Khufu – it was to be his vehicle to the afterlife. He was the sole beneficiary. He provided the funding.
  • Resourcing

    Academics disagree over just how many people actually toiled to build great pyramid but estimates range from 100,00 – 240,000 resources. This comprised a mix of skilled workers (you wouldn’t have had much trouble finding a contract as a stone mason or hieroglyphic artist 4,000 years ago in Egypt), slave labor to do much of the heavy lifting (literally), and a small but essential complement of experts – astronomers, scientists, architects, mathematicians, surveyors and project managers. Can you imagine the egos?

    By comparison, just 3,500 people built the Empire State Building (but they had better cranes and materials, offset by the fact that they were unionized).

    Aside from the obvious logistical challenges of recruiting that many people (they didn’t use G4S, clearly), they all had to be housed and sustained. Archaeological records show towns were constructed near the site and whole families were relocated. Creating a community like this means workers are sustained by their families. The burden of ongoing subsistence is passed to the community and the worker rather than resisting with the project. Clever.

    There’s also evidence that workers were paid, given a holiday entitlement and even had rules about how much time they were allowed to work at a stretch (so the European Working Time Directive was probably an Egyptian invention).

  • Materials

    Basically a shed load of rock. The great pyramid comprises around 2.3 million blocks of stone weighing in at 2.5 – 60 tonnes. Mostly limestone plus some granite and a lot of gold (used to sheath the capstone, now missing for some reason).

    The stone was readily available in Egypt, albeit it all had to be quarried, shipped down the Nile, finished and hauled into place. A massive logistical exercise when ancient masons could cut through just an inch of granite an hour.

    Gold was available in lesser quantities, of course, but Khufu clearly wasn’t short of a few quid.

  • Time, Cost & Quality

    Time is clearly of the essence when you’re building a tomb for the sitting king. It had to be finished before he checked out (I suspect high on the PM’s risk log was the sudden death of the pharaoh).

    Modern studies by project management types suggest construction time was about 10 years (from clearing the site, building the thing, then tidying up afterwards). Academics estimate the duration as closer to 20 years, so maybe it slipped a tad (or maybe the project was managed by academics instead of PMs).

    Some chambers and corridors inside are unfinished, so maybe they de-scoped, or perhaps the pharaoh lobbed in a couple of panicky change requests every time he felt a bit under the weather.

    I suspect cost was a smaller concern to the PM. We believe most of the workers were paid in grain and beer, with records suggesting a total wage bill of 111m jugs of beer and 126m loaves of bread. At today’s prices, that would put the cost at around £500m.

    By comparison, The Shard in London was knocked up for £435m and the Empire State Building in New York finished for $500m. So it seems you can’t get a decent status building for much less than half a billion these days. I’m sure the new Scottish parliament cost much more than that, though.

    Cost then, was probably managed reasonably well despite the sponsor’s undoubted wealth.

    Quality is where the pyramid really shines – just look at some of these stats:

    • Each corner aligns perfectly with the four main compass points (before the compass was even invented)
    • The huge site was leveled to a standard now only achieved by modern laser leveling techniques (one of the reasons The Shard doesn’t close at the top is due to the uneven nature of the site, albeit the design embraces this, deliberately)
    • No one side differs in length from the other three by more than 8 inches
    • Joints between stones are finished to fractions of inch
  • Constraints

    OK, so cost was probably not one of them, and nor was the ability to recruit large numbers of staff. We’ve already established it just had to be ready by the time the pharaoh died.

    Whilst there was an abundance of raw material available, they couldn’t dig it out of the ground fast enough, so aligning quarrying, shipping, finishing and installation was a tricky business. There’s plenty of evidence that blocks were stockpiled in quiet periods of construction to help manage peak demand.

  • Change Control

    Generally in ancient Egypt what the pharaoh said went, so there was probably not much change control going on at all – more JFDI than, “Please can I have…”.

    As previously stated, there’s some evidence of plans being abandoned or changed where there are dead end tunnels or unfinished chambers, but these could have been an attempt to manage scope in order to keep time, or a futile attempt to confuse Angelina Jolie or Indiana Jones.

  • Scheduling

    There’s evidence of some quite sophisticated scheduling going on at the site of the pyramids.

    The Nile floods on a regular basis. They built this factor into the plan, using the floods to their advantage to transport stone by riverboat to within a few hundred yards of the construction site.

    Many of the workers had “day jobs” in the agriculture sector and work would often be scheduled around planting and harvest times in order to minimize any impact on “BAU operations” and the broader economy.

  • Project Management Tools

    Curiously archaeologists have found no evidence of documented designs for the great pyramid, and I can’t imagine anyone would have dared to ask the pharaoh to document his requirements either.

    I’m always struck by how we now refer to things like a BRD or PDD as project “artifacts” (clearly an archaeological term) these days, and yet the ancients seem to have had no trouble achieving great things without all that fuss?

  • Innovation

    Academics have been arguing for centuries about how the pyramids were built (Q: How do you get two academics to agree with each other? A: Shoot one of them). The Egyptians just got on with it (although they probably dealt with non-compliance and descent somewhat summarily).

Summary

So could we build the Great Pyramid today? With the same free access to the raw materials and labor resources as the pharaoh, and the same lack of constraints, undoubtedly. Could anyone put together a business case for it? I doubt it.

Whether you measure it by ancient or modern project management standards, then, the great pyramid is a one-off, and a massive achievement. It still doesn’t have a bathroom, though.

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