Black Elephants and…

maybe Project Management



By David Pells

Managing Editor

Addison, Texas, USA



This is my first editorial in many months.  Over the last year, several people have encouraged me to start writing again, so here goes.  With the May passing of my good friend and mentor Russ Archibald, I thought I might write about lessons learned (or lost), lifecycles or another one of Russ’ favorite topics.  But no, I had to shift gears.  How could I not talk about the multiple crises affecting America (and the world).  So this is about lessons not yet learned.  Some of you may not like it.

From Crisis to Crisis

The Covid-19 coronavirus pandemic has been ravaging the world since January; global infections now top eight million with 400,000+ deaths. Cities have been isolated, entire countries have gone into lockdown, economic activity has fallen or stopped, and many lives have been suspended.  Entire industries have slowed, businesses have closed, millions have lost their jobs and the virus is still spreading. While this pandemic caught a lot of people (and politicians) by surprise, it was no surprise to those who study infectious diseases, nor should it have been a surprise to most of us. Even Bill Gates predicted this exact type of pandemic in a TED Talk in 2015. (Rogers 2020)

For the last two weeks, the United States has been rocked by demonstrations and riots following the death of a black man named George Floyd at the hands of white police officers in Minneapolis, Minnesota. The crowds demonstrating in streets around the country in the thousands have included minorities and citizens of every age, race and background, all clamoring for better treatment by police and for more justice.  The world watched in disbelief as America seemed to be disintegrating into chaos and violence.  Anyone who has studied U.S. history though could not have been surprised, considering the history of racism, income inequality and social injustice in this country.  It was only a matter of time until frustrations boiled over (again). ‘Black lives matter’ has now become a rallying cry across the country and in other countries.

And now the Atlantic hurricane season has started, with its third storm named two months earlier than last year.  This is predicted to be another active hurricane season with major storms expected to hit the U.S. gulf coast and southeastern states.   Another hurricane Katrina or Harvey may only be weeks away.  Another natural disaster during the pandemic could be devastating.  That said, two major cyclones have already hit the coasts of India this year, with more expected.  Climate change is causing more extreme weather events everywhere.

How has the project management professional world reacted to these events and crises?  How do disasters and ‘events of scale’ affect projects and project management? What should we be thinking or, more importantly, doing in response?  In response to the pandemic, the project management institute and other PM organizations seem to have simply retreated into “virtual mode”, working from home and conducting activities and events online, just like most organizations in countries hard-hit by the virus. There seem to have been no policy changes, few guidelines issued, no new ‘projects’ launched to address project management in this new normal of social distancing, suspended supply chains, disrupted industries and project managers out of work.

For many years I have felt, and written about, project management for disaster response and recovery.  It’s been clear to me that many natural disasters can be predicted with plans needed for responding quickly.  I delivered a keynote presentation to the PM South Africa conference in 2010 titled “Disruptive Events: Are you, your project or organization prepared?” As I pointed out to the audience, if you live near the coast, any coast, you should expect storms, some of them life threatening.  If you live in a flood zone, expect floods.  If you live in Tornado Alley, as we do in Texas, expect tornadoes. If there is drought, expect fires. And if you live anywhere on the ‘Ring of Fire’, you can expect earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, tsunamis and storms.  Buildings, infrastructure and other assets get old, wear out, start to fail or become more susceptible.  In dense populations, diseases spread. Pick an industry or location; disasters do and most likely will happen.

Project Managers are and should be at the forefront of those responses. But where is the PM professional world?  PMI has published several good papers about PM for emergencies or post disaster response, presented at global congresses. (Bau, et al 2008, Sterling 2008). PMI also has some useful information and videos related to volunteering on its website (PMI 2020). A recent paper on govexecutive.com by two PMI executives on how project management can support recovery from the Covid-19 crisis is also interesting (Townsend 2020).

The Association for Project Management (APM) in the UK has published several reports, papers and articles about PM for emergencies and specifically related to responding to climate change. Perhaps the most significant was the white paper by Prof Peter Morris on what the PM world might do to combat the effects of climate change. (Morris 2017).  In 2019, the UK Parliament declared an environment and climate change emergency. In response, APM published a policy statement: “Our statement on climate change” (APM 2019a) in which they outlined five active steps APM planned to take. In late 2019, APM published their second “Projecting the Future” white paper titled “Climate Change, Clean Growth and Sustainability.” (APM 2019b) Rob Leslie-Carter, an Arup director based in London, authored a very useful paper in late 2019 on concrete actions project managers can take to help combat climate change (Leslie-Carter 2019). In March of this year, APM announced that it was joining forces with 27 other professional bodies in pledging to tackle climate change. (APM 2020).

I searched Google on the topics of project management for emergencies, disaster recovery, climate change and some related topics and found very little coming from professional bodies. About PM helping solve other global problems, almost nothing…



To read entire paper, click here


How to cite this paper: Pells, D.L. (2020). Black Elephants and maybe Project Management; PM World Journal, Vol. IX, Issue VI, June. Available online at https://pmworldlibrary.net/wp-content/uploads/2020/06/pmwj94-Jun2020-Pells-black-elephants-and-maybe-project-management-editorial3.pdf



About the Author


David L. Pells

Editor/Publisher, PMWJ
Managing Director, PMWL
Addison, Texas, USA


David L. Pells is Managing Editor of the PM World Journal (www.pmworldjournal.net) and Managing Director of the PM World Library (www.pmworldlibrary.net). David is an internationally recognized leader in the field of professional project management with more than 35 years of experience on a variety of programs and projects, including engineering, construction, energy, defense, transit, technology and nuclear security, and project sizes ranging from thousands to billions of dollars. He occasionally acts as project management advisor for U.S. national laboratories and international programs, and currently serves as an independent advisor for a major U.S. national security program.

David Pells has been an active professional leader in the United States since the 1980s, serving on the board of directors of the Project Management Institute (PMI®) twice.  He was founder and chair of the Global Project Management Forum (1995-2000), an annual meeting of leaders of PM associations from around the world. David was awarded PMI’s Person of the Year award in 1998 and Fellow Award, PMI’s highest honor, in 1999. He is also an Honorary Fellow of the Association for Project Management (APM) in the UK; Project Management Associates (PMA – India); the Russian Project Management Association SOVNET, and the ISIPM.  Since 2010 he is an honorary member of the Project Management Association of Nepal.

Former managing editor of PM World Today, he is the creator, editor and publisher of the PM World Journal (ISSN: 2330-4480).  David has a BA in Business Administration from the University of Washington and an MBA from Idaho State University in the USA.  He has published widely and spoken at events worldwide.  David lives near Dallas, Texas and can be contacted at editor@pmworldjournal.com.

To see other works by David Pells, visit his author showcase in the PM World Library at http://pmworldlibrary.net/authors/david-l-pells/