Project Management Theory and the Management of Large Complex Projects


By Bob Prieto

Senior Vice President, Fluor

Princeton, NJ, USA



The normal condition of a project is “failure” and this is no more true than in the world of large complex projects where two out of three projects “fail”. Current project management theory does not provide a framework for success. In this article, the current theoretical framework for management of large complex projects is considered in light of the continuing evolution of general management theory and the theories of management and projects explored. Characteristics of large complex projects are reviewed and changed management perspectives suggested.

The purpose of this article is to move beyond the author’s previous question of “Is it time to rethink project management theory” to suggesting some of the essential perspective and focal changes that such a rethink will likely include. Just as theory in physics moved from a purely classical view to a classical and relativistic (or neo-classical view) view, each with their own scalar domains, so too must the universe of large complex projects be better underpinned.

The large complex projects contemplated in this article are large, complex engineering and construction projects but others may judge its conclusions to apply equally in other domains.

Extensive footnoting is intended to both support the author’s views as well as provide readers with avenues for additional reading and insight.


Those of you that have discussed with me my various writings over the years have heard me describe these writings as how I think. Writing drives a discipline of organizing thoughts and concepts and as a minimum positing premises that become refined as the result of comments, debate and even refutal. This paper has been a long time in the making, reflecting my continuing work on and thinking about large complex projects.

In this paper I continue to build on my questioning of the adequacy of current project management theory to serve the needs of large complex projects. This questioning is driven by a simple reality – large projects fail two thirds of the time.

This fundamentally must be the result of:

  • Poor conceptualization of what the project really was
  • Inherent weaknesses in the plan or planning process
  • Weak or inadequate execution – processes, people, technology
  • Inadequate control recognizing the changing internal capabilities and constraints and ever evolving externalities.

Underpinning our approach to the management of large projects are two central theoretical constructs:

  • Theory of Management
  • Theory of Projects

Results suggest that both may warrant examination and likely modification of their respective frameworks. As we examine each, we must remain cognizant of broader management thinking and the evolution of new theories of management.

More (with footnotes & references) …

To read entire paper (click here)

About the Author


Bob Prieto

Senior Vice President, Fluor
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].

To view other works by Bob Prieto, visit his author showcase in the PM World Library at http://pmworldlibrary.net/authors/bob-prieto/