Article Overview

Project Managers need to be flexible in order to handle every given project no matter the difficulty. There are a few basic principles of project management that have always remained the same. Read the following article to learn the main elements that you need to focus on when handling demanding and complex projects in an effective way.

Table of content:

  • 1. Introduction
  • 2. Systems Thinking
  • 3. Scope and Risk
  • 4. Quality
  • 5. Lessons Learned
  • 6. Conclusion


    Throughout the history of project management, the basic principles of project management have always remained the same. This includes managing resources, maintaining schedules, and coordinating different activities and tasks.1

    “Earth is a small town with many neighborhoods in a very big universe.”  ― Ron Garan

    Neither of us has been involved in any NASA projects. We have been project managers on projects breaking new ground in various industries. But nothing to the size of getting to or colonizing another planet. In this article, we present from our experience as well as thoughts about leading such a large ambitious project. Can’t imagine a response if a client came to us and said: We are going to Mars. We need you to deliver it. And oh, by the way, we need to accommodate 20 full-time inhabitants for 24 months.”

    First, the overall project manager’s team will be made up of mostly other project managers, creating a second layer of project managers. Each with their own area of delivery/responsibility. Depending on how those areas are broken down, a few of the second-level project managers will have teams made up of most project managers for smaller areas.

    Systems Thinking

    That is probably where the root of the project scope will take hold. To effectively define the project objectives, there must be some understanding of the available resources long term, a time-honored project practice of thinking what the end will be like, and working to make all of those things true that must happen to enable that end vision. This requires systems thinking, every idea must be considered from the forest and the tree perspective, anticipating the ripple effect on other parts of the system and consequences to the colonists. 
    The start might be mind mapping the overall project and then each system and sub-system.

    “[...] vision without systems thinking ends up painting lovely pictures of the future with no deep understanding of the forces that must be mastered to move from here to there.”
    ―Peter M. Senge, The Fifth Discipline: The Art & Practice of The Learning Organization

    Scope and Risk

    Refresher: The scope of a project defines what is part of the project and what is not. Project scope definition is a concept that is not always clearly captured, explaining why it’s problematic for many teams. Project scope definition represents the sum of things that a project has to take care of, including its purpose, objective, quality attributes, and how to achieve them. Scope defines the project boundaries.

    If you are trying to do anything, and do it effectively and efficiently, you are going to employ some sort of project management methodology. Project management activities are associated with identifying and controlling risks. All project management is about understanding and responding to risks. A project that leaves the earth-bound confines has exceptional objectives and as such will require exceptional effort and attention to detail. One of the things that confound project management is the latency between the actions we take or choose not to take, and the result or observable symptom.

    In this instance, the risks go far beyond the project to deliver the colonists to Mars. Everything the colonist will need must either go with them, or ways for them to manufacture and build for themselves. The scope of the project and the amount of rigor to ensure the scope of the project has been met in advance make this endeavor truly complicated. Consider, if something goes wrong with the resulting project when the colonists are on their way or arrive on Mars. It's not a trip to the engineering facilities around the corner or back to the dealer to reprogram the software in some of the controllers or to get the latest revision of the part. 


    1.    The risk event or identification i.e., precisely what might happen to the detriment of the project.

    2.    The risk probability, i.e., how likely the event is to occur; and

    3.    The amount at stake, i.e., the extent of loss that could result.3 


    The quality of the component, subsystem and systems have to work as expected for as long as expected. This often requires heavy simulation of the systems, as well as extensive testing and statistical analysis of the results of that testing. Simulation is not just an engineering tool, but also for project management. Simulation of schedules and costs (for example, Monte Carlo Analysis). Everything should be questioned and thought through as early as possible and include opportunities for learning along the way. The simulation does not stop with engineering topics or project topics, but also how the colonists will interact and provide for themselves while on the site, especially early on before establishing the colony in a way as to provide for themselves based on the available resources on the planet. 

    To get this level of quality we start as early as we can with models both at the project level and with the systems or products, as well as human levels that the project is to deliver and work within. These simulations are compared to some experimentations to determine the veracity of the model and make changes to the models accordingly.

    Lessons Learned

    Reviewing Lessons Learned from previous space missions will be essential. This is not just the project lessons, but the learning post project. Even though previous missions did not go to a planet or had the intention of colonizing, there are lessons learned from launches and the moon landings. We believe every project interaction and objective are learning opportunities. People are not fungible; your team members do not have the same set of skills and experiences. Projects are new also and are rife for learning opportunities if we take time to prioritize.


    It is also critical to capture lessons learned from the beginning of the project for the first trip to Mars. The plan, the technology required, and the training. After all this will be the first of many.
    Below are two resources for deeper reading on Lessons Learned:

    Resource 1: Lessons Learned: Start at the Beginning - PM Tips

    Resource 2: 20120017921.pdf (

    While your project may not be a trip to the Moon or Mars, it is still especially important and may be critical to a client’s survival. Could be new product development, a software package to improve productivity, or a website to invite and provide an easy way to receive donations. Learning how to establish and consistently follow good project management norms, enhancing where necessary, is critical.

    1 Innovative Management Solutions: A Brief History of Project Management

    2 Project Management: What is Project Scope?

    3 Project Management Institute: Risk Management?