What Project Management Can Learn from COVID-19

The coronavirus pandemic is a call to action for Project Management innovation

Project Management is a discipline to deal with risks and uncertainty and it is the project manager’s day-to-day job to mitigate such risks and uncertainties and have the right responses to keep projects on track. In the back of our heads though, we always know that there are Black Swans out there, a concept developed by Nassim Nicholas Taleb in his 2007 book “The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable”. Black Swans are risks of high impact but which are hard to predict and hit projects by surprise, with the potential to derail projects entirely. 

Events that are considered Black Swans are usually major unforeseeable disasters, such as the September 11 attacks, or the Chernobyl disaster in 1986. Black Swans are often also labeled as Unknown Unknowns in reference to a famous statement from Donald Rumsfeld in 2002.

However, many argue that such Unknown Unknowns often are actually foreseeable and therefore shouldn’t be labeled as Black Swans, just like Taleb is disagreeing with the widely accepted view that the coronavirus pandemic can be categorized as a Black Swan. The coronavirus pandemic was preventable and should be rather categorized as a White Swan as there were warnings and signs that should have been considered.

Some also argue that the September 11 attacks were not really ‘Black Swans’ as there were warning signs that something of that magnitude could happen, it was just not clear how and when such an event actually would happen.

Trend of increasing failures

In the discipline of project management, managers are trained to acquire the necessary skills to adequately forecast events, risks, and delivery timelines, in order to deliver their projects on time, on budget, and with agreed quality. However, we can observe a trend of increasing project failures, often also because of project risks which either were not identified or materialize faster than expected and hence can derail a project. Project Managers then often claim that they could not foresee such risks or issues, labeling them as Black Swans.

Learnings from COVID

In fact, with traditional project management methods, it is not possible to identify all the critical risks for a project. The reason for this is that we see not only a rapid increase of data and information, but information is changing much faster than ever before. and COVID-19 has shown this to us in a very dramatic but also clear way, as outlined by UN Assistanct Secretary-General Kanni Wignaraja as part of her leadership lessons from COVID-19. Decisions need to be taken much faster than ever before, and one example is how organizations needed to quickly adjust their operating model when they had to send their staff to work from home.

Consequently, we need to take this pandemic and the lessons from it also as a wake-up call for the project management practice and revisit that operating model. Traditional methods are outdated and they need to be transitioned to a new model that accounts for a new reality of an overload of rapidly changing information. Organizations are applying digital transformations to most of their business areas — but project management so far has been left behind so far. It is however critical since any operational or transformational change is delivered through projects.

Project Management is therefore a crucial element for any organizational initiative and requires an overhaul of its practices.

* This article was originally published on

Marcus Glowasz
Marcus Glowasz
Marcus Glowasz is a project management specialist, coach, and advisor. He works with leaders and organizations to build data-literate and evidence-driven project teams and pave the way for data-informed and AI-supported project work. He is the author of the book "Leading Projects with Data", which provides invaluable insights on overcoming cultural and behavioral barriers to achieving success in data-driven and evidence-based project delivery.