Seeking project management inspiration from the Polaris Missile

Seeking project management inspiration from the Polaris Missile


The Polaris Missile Project is one of the most complex, dangerous and ambitious program managed by man. The Polaris Missile was a submarine-launched, nuclear-tipped ballistic missile built by Lockheed who was the main contractor. It was not only the most ambitious project of its time but also avant-garde because it had a very accurate guiding system. At that time no long-range missile was launched from a submarine with great accuracy. It was so accurate and precise that the UK ended up adopting it as well. The first flight took place on 7 January 1960. In this blog post we will see what can we learn from the Polaris Missile Project regarding project management.

It was a complex and large-scale project that the US Navy had to cooperate with various sectors such as the academia, industry and research firms scattered all over the country. More than 3000 contractors were recruited to complete this huge project. Due to the high stakes and the technical challenges involved, there had to be a new and different way to deliver the project successfully.

So, The Special Projects Office of the US Department of Defense along with the US Navy came up with an entire new and efficient system to schedule project tasks:  the Program Evaluation Review Technique (PERT). It is said that they came up with PERT because the Polaris Missile Project was getting late and it was confusing as well as challenging to collaborate with a variety of institutions and companies.

PERT is a Critical Path Method of project management. According to PMBOK (Project Management Body of Knowledge) the definition of the Critical Path Method is “the sequence of scheduled activities that determines the duration of the project.” For a project to be delivered on time it is the longest sequence of tasks in schedule that must be completed on time. Your whole project will be delayed if there is a delay in any task on the critical path. Depending on the project, it may have one or multiple critical paths.

The Critical Path Method and PERT are often used interchangeably, depending on the context. Even though they are similar, there is a slight difference between them. The main difference lies in time estimation. PERT uses 3-time estimates (optimistic, expected, and pessimistic) to figure out the most realistic timeline for the project. In the Critical Path Method, time variance is not accounted for. It employs one time estimate and one cost estimate for each activity.

PERT attempts to address timescale uncertainty in projects by using three different probabilistic time estimates for each project component: optimistic time, most likely time and pessimistic time for completion. PERT is used more in projects where time is the major factor rather than cost.

Hence, PERT was developed primarily to simplify the planning and scheduling of large and complex projects. Prior to the 1950s there were other tools and methodologies such as the Gantt Chart, but the PERT Chart was a major breakthrough specially for large scale projects involving a variety of stakeholders from different disciplines. Today, it is often applied to very large-scale, one-time, complex, non-routine infrastructure and research and development projects. Thanks to the PERT method, the Polaris Missile Project was completed 3 years before time. PERT was instrumental in its success due to its vastness.

Today PERT charts have become an important data visualization tool in project management. PERT has made project management easier for project practitioners by equipping them with better decision-making and more efficient planning capabilities