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PERT, Polaris, and the realities of project execution

Mats Engwall (Department of Industrial Economics and Management, KTH Royal Institute of Technology, Stockholm, Sweden)

International Journal of Managing Projects in Business

ISSN: 1753-8378

Article publication date: 7 September 2012




The general purpose of this paper is to give Sapolsky's classical study of the Polaris Project, written in 1972, the credits it actually earns. In addition, there are two more specific aims: to discuss the role and usage of project management techniques, such as PERT (programme evaluation and review technique), in the practices of project execution; and to display the power of thorough empirical case studies in order to deepen our understanding of the realities of project execution.


The paper constitutes a detailed review of the content and contributions of the book The Polaris Systems Development written by Harvey M. Sapolsky in 1972. The paper presents the main ideas of the book and discusses its implications for contemporary project management research.


Sapolsky's work, The Polaris Systems Development, is an important account of some of the most significant courses of events in the birth and formation of project management, especially the creation of PERT as a technique for project coordination. However, by going beyond the rhetorical surface of the project management, Sapolsky shows that PERT never played the role in Polaris that it is generally claimed to have had. The paper puts these findings in context and discusses why this has been ignored in project management research so far.

Research limitations/implications

Scholars focusing on project management research need to distance themselves from its historical tight bounds to project management textbooks and administrative project management techniques. There is a strong need for a broader empirical basis and pluralism in theoretical perspectives in the study of the realities of project execution.


The paper recapitulates a classic account of the formative period of project management, which so far has generally been ignored in project management research. In addition, it discusses three functions of project planning techniques: boundary objects for coordination, political features for legitimacy and trust building, and cognitive means for the social construction of a predicable future.



Engwall, M. (2012), "PERT, Polaris, and the realities of project execution", International Journal of Managing Projects in Business, Vol. 5 No. 4, pp. 595-616.



Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2012, Emerald Group Publishing Limited

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