The Manhattan project – project management during difficult times

We will explore how the Manhattan project contributed to the development of new project management methodologies in the 1940.

Gantt-Projet-Manhattan 2

The Manhattan project was born in the early 1940s in a difficult context. Technological advances and the discovery of nuclear fission, combined with the threat of a world war, were disrupting the existing work methodologies and new project management methods were being developed. Driven by the fear of a German atom bomb, the desire to end the war, and encouraged by the limitless resources of the American government, many scientists and soldiers worked hard on this top-secret project.

So, let’s explore briefly how this top secret, destructive and dangerous project contributed to the development of new project management methodologies in the early 1940s.

The birth of project Manhattan

Since the 1930s, many European and American scientists were conducting research on the atom. But then they discovered that they could use the power of the atom to develop a nuclear bomb. Since the nuclear fission of uranium was discovered by the Germans and the Nazis had the largest uranium mine in Europe, some feared that Hitler could produce a nuclear bomb soon. In this tense situation Roosevelt decided to develop in the utmost secrecy, a program allowing the Americans to develop the atomic bomb before the Germans. Hence the Manhattan project was launched.

New organizational structures

In this context of world war and urgency, the armament and aerospace industries, the academia and the government reorganized their way of working. The Manhattan project created an unprecedent alliance that brought together the resources of industry, the brilliance of academia and the leadership of government. It is now a role model for all public-private research and development projects all over the world.

One of the challenges of the Manhattan project was that in theory it was possible to develop a bomb but the right method was not known. So, they decided to support and fund three procedures to enrich uranium and one method to enrich plutonium hoping that one of the methods would work.

Another unique aspect of the Manhattan project was the unconventional practice of conducting research, development and production phases simultaneously rather that doing it step by step because time was in short supply. The complexity of the project was simplified by the compartmentalization according to tasks, objectives and teams. Decision making powers were decentralized with clear cut command channels to the top. Thanks to the Manhattan project these project management tools have today become mainstream.

The Manhattan project can also be considered a program because it consisted of several large and small-scale projects. Program management is the coordinated management of a number of diverse projects to achieves a particular outcome.

Considerable Human resources

Human resources were recruited and mobilized on an unprecedented scale. As with any project, human resources were essential to the smooth functioning of the Manhattan project. That is why in 1942, the American government mobilized in total secrecy some 150,000 people to carry out this program, entrusted to an army of scientists. By June 1944, the Manhattan project employed more than 129,000 people, of whom 84,500 were construction workers, 40,500 were factory operators and 1,800 were military personnel. At its height, the Manhattan project employed more than 600,000 people in 1945 in 37 secret laboratories in the United States. The image below shows some of the project sites:


Extraordinary project leaders

The project sponsor was of course the American government.  President Roosevelt hired a very competent project leader to lead the colossal project – Colonel General Leslie R. Groves, who in turn hired a theoretical physicist Robert Oppenheimer to head the secret weapons laboratory (which later became the Los Alamos Laboratory). In fact, Robert Oppenheimer is called the father of the atomic bomb. Under their leadership the bomb was developed and used in less than 3 years. As a project manager Groves always had an optimistic personality and inspired other to keep the moral high to get the job done. He also knew how to simplify the complex. It is also said that Robert Oppenheimer had very good soft skills for managing people. Hence, the ability to simplify the complex and the ability to communicate simply with each and every stakeholder is vital for all project managers.  

On a positive note, the Manhattan project no doubt catapulted science and technology to new heights. It gave a huge boost to new project management techniques and methodologies. Today it is a bench mark on how projects are managed.