Project Management and COVID-19 Recovery

Lessons from previous disasters offer a guide for government leaders.

The rapid outbreak of COVID-19 has prompted an unprecedented response from all levels of government, across the country and around the world. As part of this response, local, state, and federal agencies sprang into action to help protect citizens from this potentially catastrophic biological threat while continuing to deliver services in communities nationwide.

As the initial public health threat hopefully subsides in the days and weeks ahead, many federal projects and programs will be launched to support longer-term COVID-19 economic recovery. These recovery efforts will affect people whose housing, utilities, and other life necessities are at risk, as well as entire industries whose existence has been disrupted by the COVID-19 threat. 

While these efforts may be unparalleled in many ways, there are some lessons learned from previous disaster recovery efforts that can inform policy makers, federal project and program managers, and their executive sponsors in their work to help the nation recover from the effects of this extraordinary event.

The Project Management Institute’s 2020 Pulse of the Profession® research reveals that 11.4% of each dollar invested on projects is wasted due to poor performance—that’s $114 million for every $1 billion. There is a great deal at stake to ensure that pandemic response projects and programs are delivered as efficiently and effectively as possible.

With that in mind, here are three important lessons learned from previous disaster recovery efforts for the federal government to keep in mind as COVID-19 recovery moves forward.

Planning is critical. Last year, PMI released a series of case studies and a capstone report on the Program Management Improvement and Accountability Act (PMIAA) that highlighted the importance of integrated project and program planning and execution. While recovery projects stir emotions and operate with a heightened sense of urgency, success continues to depend on setting priorities and having a clear-cut execution plan.

Such planning was critical to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs’ ability to deliver a new 1.6-million-square-foot health care center in the heart of New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina decimated the original VA facility there in 2005. Despite significant obstacles, including a wary government sponsor and strict financial requirements, three phases of the project were delivered on time and the entire project came in roughly 14% under budget.

Embrace agility. In PMI’s new Pulse research, executive leaders identified organizational agility as the most important factor to achieving project success in today’s dynamic environment. Agility and iterative approaches are a natural fit for recovery efforts, as fixed and inflexible delivery structures and methodologies often fail to account for real-time changes occurring on the ground.

Again after Hurricane Katrina, project managers working for the Louisiana Recovery Authority’s “Road Home” program successfully leveraged key project management office concepts and agile approaches to support long-term recovery projects and programs. As citizen and community needs changed, the PMO employed change control boards to keep adapting the delivery plan to meet the demands of those in need without delaying or disrupting progress. 

Strengthen the project management muscle. Through PMIAA, agencies are already focused on building project and program management capabilities across the federal government. During these challenging times, federal leaders have the opportunity to accelerate the development of these critical capabilities for driving agency missions forward at a time when citizens and communities stand to benefit from them the most.

For example, American National Standards Institute criteria for project, program, and portfolio management are available for free on for all federal project and program managers to adopt in their agencies. Additionally, agency leaders can invest in their teams’ professional development, including skill building and third-party certification, to ensure that federal project and program managers have the skills and competencies they need to deliver on the mission.

Why is it important to build these capabilities? PMI research finds that organizations with mature project management capabilities, including the adoption of project management standards and use of certified project managers, deliver 24% more of their projects on time and complete 21% more of their projects within budget.

As our nation faces unprecedented challenges in the weeks and months ahead to recover from the economic and public health toll of the COVID-19 crisis, federal project and program management capabilities will become more important than ever. To learn more about how PMI insights and research can help, please visit

Stephen Townsend is the network engagement facilitator for the Project Management Institute, a global nonprofit professional organization. David Summers leads government relations for the Project Management Institute.