Physics of Projects


By Bob Prieto

Senior Vice President, Fluor

Princeton, NJ, USA


My last paper posed the question as to whether it is time to rethink project management theory, at least as it applies to the universe of large projects. Based on the number of emails and discussions that this has triggered I feel more confident than before that this is a question best answered “YES”. In thinking about this question and precedents for development of new fundamental theories to address special or radically different circumstances I was struck by the development of new fundamental theories in the world of physics.

In that field, classical theory, sometimes referred to as the theory of mechanics, were underpinned by Newton’s Laws of Motion. These laws can be described as encompassing an inertial frame of reference and a deterministic nature in addition to the stalwart equation of F=ma that we are all familiar with. But as time moved on, physicists realized that these theories did not adequately describe the universe around us as we considered extremes relative to our more common experiences. This led to the development of neo-classical theories that include quantum mechanics with its characteristics of a probabilistic world, that forces us to abandon the notion of precisely defined trajectories through time and space, and uncertainty, that says we can’t know location and velocity precisely at the same time. This consideration of the universe in extremus also led to Einstein’s special theory with its emphasis on relative frames of reference and the concept of spacetime (space and time should be considered together and in relation to each other). Neo-classical theory is best represented by the well know equation e=mc2.

Table 1 highlights some of the differences between classical and neo-classical theory and suggest some comparisons to the universe of large projects.


Classical and neo-classical theories were both focused on the same problem. If the state of a dynamic system is known initially and something is done to it, how will the state of the system change with time in response?

This is analogous to what we are trying to determine in project management.

In the world of physics, classical theory breaks down at scale. This is best demonstrated when looking at system performance (represented by Blackbody Radiation) which is over predicted by classical theory. Scaling (frequency and energy grow) leads to lower unit performance (energy density).


To read entire paper (click here)

About the Author


Bob Prieto

Senior Vice President
Princeton, NJ, USA


Bob Prieto
is a senior vice president of Fluor, one of the largest, publicly traded engineering and construction companies in the world. He focuses on the development and delivery of large, complex projects worldwide. Bob consults with owners of large capital construction programs across all market sectors in the development of programmatic delivery strategies encompassing planning, engineering, procurement, construction and financing. He is author of “Strategic Program Management”, “The Giga Factor: Program Management in the Engineering and Construction Industry” , “Application of Life Cycle Analysis in the Capital Assets Industry” and “Capital Efficiency: Pull All the Levers” published by the Construction Management Association of America (CMAA) and “Topics in Strategic Program Management” as well as over 500 other papers and presentations.

Bob is a member of the ASCE Industry Leaders Council, National Academy of Construction, a Fellow of the Construction Management Association of America, a member of the World Economic Forum Global Agenda Council and several university departmental and campus advisory boards. Bob served until 2006 as a U.S. presidential appointees to the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Business Advisory Council (ABAC), working with U.S. and Asia-Pacific business leaders to shape the framework for trade and economic growth and had previously served as both as Chairman of the Engineering and Construction Governors of the World Economic Forum and co-chair of the infrastructure task force formed after September 11th by the New York City Chamber of Commerce. Previously, he served as Chairman at Parsons Brinckerhoff (PB).

Bob can be contacted at [email protected].