Disruptive Events! Are you, your project or your organization prepared?


David L. Pells,

Addison, Texas, USA



Risk Management is a hot topic in the project and program management arena, and for good reason. As project complexity increases, and uncertainty grows in project environments everywhere, risks seem more widespread and prevalent. While most risk management approaches focus on potential risk events, and disaster planning and recovery are often included, many organizations seem to consider major risk events as “one-off” possibilities, unlikely to occur or to affect their projects.

I believe that disruptive events are more common than most people realize, and that they are increasing. In my June Editorial, entitled “Global Business Intelligence for Managers of Programs, Projects and Project-oriented Organizations,” I addressed Disruptive Events as a subject for executives and program managers to consider when gathering strategic intelligence. [1] This was also discussed in three papers that I wrote in 1998 and 1999 on the topic of how significant global trends and events can affect the project management profession, the last one presented at the PMI South Africa International Project Management Conference in Johannesburg in November 1999. [2]

As explained in my June article, a disruptive change is a significant event with drastic potential consequences. The most obvious examples might be natural disasters caused by extreme weather – a cyclone, hurricane or flood, for example. The loss of a company’s data center would be a disruptive change for that organization. A change in government, as occurred with the election of Barack Obama as President in the United States in November 2008, is an example of a disruptive political change, in this case with global consequences. Other examples include stock market crash, currency crisis, breakout of war (Russia & Georgia in 2008), new technology breakthrough (iPod), bankruptcy of major corporations (Chrysler, General Motors, Lehman Brothers), major merger or acquisition, disruptive new legislation or regulations (Sarbanes Oxley in USA), outbreak of pandemic disease (H1N1 Flu this year), international belligerence (North Korea declares 1950 truce void in late May 2009), natural resources discovery (oil under the arctic), etc. The list goes on. [3]

Disruptive events can change or drastically affect a market, industry, organization, program or project, by changing the environment within which programs and projects exist. In some cases, the immediate impact is on critical resources that a program or project needs to succeed. In other cases, the immediate impact might be on a project owner, customer or other stakeholder. In many cases, the immediate impact on a project or program might not be immediately apparent, only causing a disruptive impact after some time lapses. I now believe that many such disruptive events are likely to happen, can be predicted and should be planned for.

This article discusses disruptive events as a major risk factor, planning scenario, and expected condition for managing programs and projects. I believe that for large programs and projects, such disruptive events are more likely to occur than ever before, especially for those with international or global dimensions. In some parts of the world, disruptive events occur on a regular basis. In that case, how can you identify potential disruptive events and how should you, your team or your organization prepare?


To read entire paper (click here)

Editor’s note: Second Editions are previously published papers that have continued relevance in today’s project management world, or which were originally published in conference proceedings or in a language other than English. Original publication acknowledged; authors retain copyright. This paper was originally published as an editorial in the September 2009 edition of PM World Today.



About the Author


Managing Editor, PMWJ



David L. Pells is Managing Editor of the PM World Journal, a global eJournal for program and project management, and Executive Director of the PM World Library. 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 energy, engineering, construction, defense, transit, high technology and nuclear security, and project sizes ranging from several thousand to ten billion dollars. He 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); and Russian Project Management Association SOVNET. He has been a senior program management advisor to the National Nuclear Security Administration and several national labs in the United States; he occasionally provides high level advisory support for major programs and global organizations. David has published widely, spoken at conferences and events worldwide, and can be contacted at [email protected].

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