Project Management as if the World Matters…

Sustainable Project Management Prezi

I recently presented a paper at the 2012 Northumbria Research Conference titled ‘Project Management as if the World Matters’. In it I argue that most project managers are not yet integrating sustainability principles into project management practice, and that the profession needs to evolve to incorporate wider social, environmental and economic impacts. In fact I believe that we need to facilitate an evolutionary leap in the way in which we define, manage and communicate projects.

My interest in this subject arose from a study carried out as part of my PhD – Greener Homes for the Future? Sustainability in Local Authority PFI Social Housing. I was investigating the contextual factors that impact on sustainability within public/private partnerships – specifically why many large public infrastructure projects fail to meet wider environmental, social and economically sustainable goals. One if the most striking findings to come out of the research was that it was the management of the project which appeared to hold the key to success or failure from a sustainability prospective, rather than technical or economic constraints as might be expected.

I believe that the problem may be inherent to the way in which project management is currently perceived and understood. The traditional definition of a project is “an endeavour with a defined beginning and end, undertaken to meet unique goals and objectives” or as the project management profession’s UK based institute, the Association for Project Management (APM) puts it “A unique, transient endeavour undertaken to achieve a desired outcome” . These definitions should be considered alongside definitions of sustainable development; the most commonly used being taken from the World Commission for Environment and Development (WECD) “Development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”. The International Institute for Sustainable Development (IISD) define sustainable development from a business perspective as “adopting business strategies and activities that meet the needs of the enterprise and its stakeholders today while protecting, sustaining and enhancing the human and natural resources that will be needed in the future” .

The definitions of a project and project management seem to be at odds with the definitions of sustainable development that aim to recognise the long-term nature of environmental or societal impacts arising from business activities. Consider the table below which list some of the main differences between project management and sustainable development principles

Project Management vs Sustainable Development

Project Management v Sustainable Development

(source: adapted from Silvius and Schipper, 2011)

The concept of ‘sustainable project management’ (or Green Project Management in the U.S.) is relatively new, but its role in contributing to sustainable development is increasingly gaining interest amongst project management practitioners and industry bodies. Sustainable project management is a response to the realisation that many of the current project management frameworks do not effectively address the three goals of sustainable development, i.e., social equity, economic efficiency and environmental performance.

Academically, there are only a handful of researchers working in this area (see here for an excellent overview of literature on sustainability in projects and project management) and little of the emerging literature seems to find its way into the mainstream academic journals. This is an area that I am currently researching in an attempt to better define the relationship between the management of projects and and sustainable development. Working with colleagues and students on the project management MSc programmes on which I teach, the aim is to update existing tools and develop new methods for assisting project managers in embedding sustainability into every stage of their project and beyond.

If anybody has any view on the subject of Sustainability in Project Management, I would love to hear from you in the comments..

Thanks

Alex

Advertisements

8 thoughts on “Project Management as if the World Matters…

  1. Great article, thanks for posting. It’s a real dilemma for the Project Manager – the need to provide real and enduring value to the client, constrained by a sponsoring organisation that generally has short term investment horizons, a demand for high ROI/short payback period and impatient shareholders.

    I see the PM as championing sustainable principles – we have the obligation to be flag bearers, but the real challenge is convincing Sponsors to accept a longer term investment/payback profile.

    • Thanks for the reply Tony.

      I am glad you see the PM as the champion for sustainability principles. I agree, and this is the driver for much of the work that I am currently doing. Many PM’s that I meet, and some of my students, feel that the PM does not have any responsibility here and merely has to implement the vision of the project sponsors. I believe that PM’s have the power, and the obligation, to drive the project towards sustainability outcomes whether they are implicit in the projects goals or not. As the people who sit between strategy and implementation it is the PM who should decide how best to achieve project aims and it is here that more sustainable practices can be levered into project management. It has been demonstrated time after time that an endeavour which seeks to incorporate wider social, environmental and economic sustainability principles may be more profitable, competitive and beneficial to an organisation in the long term.

      As you rightly point out, demonstrating this to project sponsors is often tricky, so it is here that we need to focus. Current PM tools do not always enable us to fully appreciate, integrate and demonstrate the benefits of adopting an alternative, more sustainable course of action. The PMBOKs are also highly lacking in this area (although updates due this year may improve this).

      I think that we need to raise awareness of environmental issues among PM’s, arm them with the tools they need to plan, evaluate and demonstrate the added value of a sustainable approach, and enable them to effectively communicate these benefits. Only then can we move towards a model of ‘Sustainable Project Management’.

      Thanks

      Alex

  2. In simple economic terms, whether as project managers or as human beings, we need to take “external costs” into account when making any financial decisions.

    If I buy a new appliance for the house, I have to consider its lifetime costs to understand that the Fridge that is $100 more expensive not only saves me $1000 in the future in less electricity, but also reduces the growth in electricity demand in my country.

    Similarly, if I were a factory owner, investing in a safer and healthier environment for my employees means that I will pay much less for health and accident insurance for my employees, as well as for disability and unemployment insurance. In the long term, if we factor in external costs, we all win.

    The main problem is that most human beings can only a couple of months or years ahead. Not many people think long-term sustainability when making any important decision.

    • Hi, Thanks for the comment.

      I agree, the main problem is seeing beyond the project lifecycle – this is why I have an issue with the definition of a project, that it has a defined beginning and end – nothing really does end of course. Just like in our daily lives, this means we only see things short-term – to the end of the project. There are ways around this, using appropriate planning and modelling tools which can even bring short term benefits to a project, but I fear the real problem is one of mindset….

      Now changing that really is a challenge!

      Alex

  3. Good day Mr Alex Hope. I Regina, a student from the Polytechnic of Namibia. I am doing project planning and management course as part of my proggrame in Transport Management. Your aticle really gave me a clue on project managemennt and sustainable development as this is a new subject in my country. Thanks a lot for being there for us.

  4. Alex, interesting article.

    I don’t quite share your line of thought, suggesting that sustainability and project management, the way implemented today, are not compatible.

    The issues you are attributing to project management are aimed at the wrong target. Projects are just a vehicle through which organizations execute or attempt to achieve their objectives. If the objectives lack a sustainability side so will the projects. Projects, by their very definition could be analogous to the hands and legs of the body taking a person on a pre-defined journey. If the brain decides to take a walk to a certain destination, the arms and the legs are merely a vehicle with which the body will arrive to its destination. If the brain’s objective is to take the shortest possible way, although this particular path is more dangerous so be it.

    I am also uncertain about the validity of contrasting project management characteristics with sustainability development characteristics and focus, for illustration purposes, on one example only (while similar and relevant example can be provided for the list in its entirety):

    It is correct that a project is ‘short term oriented’ while sustainability development is ‘long term oriented’. That fact in it very self cannot teach us anything regarding this discussion. A short term project can be part of a large program or work, designated to take place over a number of years, with expected benefits that will contribute substantially to sustainability objectives.

    To summarize, the culprits are the organizations that implement project without embedding sustainability as part of the projects’ terms of reference; certainly not the projects themselves.

    Does it make sense?

    • Firstly I agree with you that the organisation which implements a project has a key role in this as it is at this level that many sustainability objectives will be set (or not). However I also think that the project manager has some responsibility here too as in many ways it is them who decides how to meet project objectives. Project Managers can have a lot of power here to ensure that all project objectives, sustainable or not, are managed and implemented within the principles of sustainable development, after all in many cases the client or organisation is interested in the outcome of the project, rather than the method of achieving the outcomes. In this respect the ‘sustainable’ project manager could offer alternative solutions or objectives that meet the outcomes in a more sustainable way. I am not comfortable with the argument that the body must follow the head, or perhaps a defence of ‘I was just following orders’. I think the body, or PM can, and should, attempt to find an alternative, safer, more sustainable route.

      Secondly I think that it is useful to attempt to map sustainable development principles with the attributes of ‘traditional’ project management as this represents the starting point of attempts to align the two. To take the long-term vs short-term perspective that you picked up on. I agree that projects are often part of a larger package of work that can take place over a number of years, and in this respect can be aligned with the long-term nature of sustainable development. In fact I will be submitting my paper today for the 27th IMPA Congress that deals with this very issue. The paper discusses the role of portfolio and programme management in integrating sustainability into individual projects as part of an organisations long term strategy.

      To summarise, you are correct that perhaps the brunt of the responsibility lies with the organisation in setting the vision, strategy and objectives, however I believe that in the absence of sustainability at these levels, the project manager has the power, and therefore the responsibility, to step up to the plate and offer an alternative route.

      Thanks

      Alex

      • Alex,

        Though I respect your view as represented in your first point I don’t share it. My view is not an issue of principle or a personal preference but rather one that is born out of experience where this sort of delegated authority is not part of the mandate given to the PM to address. I therefore repeat my assertion that this sort of matters, serious as they are, are not within the domain of the PM or the project management to address and they sit squarely and unequivocally at the laps of the project initiators, i.e. the sponsoring organization or the customer.

        Project management is about meeting objectives and produce outputs. These outputs, depending on the circumstances in which they are produces, could be seen by society as contributing positively or negatively to its well being. For instance, a project that results in the erection of an energy producing wind turbine could be embraced enthusiastically by green power advocates and rejected vehemently by bird and wild life advocates. The project itself, unless instructed to do so by its sponsors and owners, would not be interested in the opinions of either one of these groups, as its objective is not to meet their objectives but rather to meet the objectives set out for it as part of its charter and business case.

        This leads to the following conclusion: If sustainability was to be a concern, this concern would need to be the concern of those initiating the project, the business or customer whose money is invested in this initiative. Should they not be concerned about sustainability considerations, and provided that the project is operating within the legal and regulatory constraints relevant to its location, then not only does the project not need to concern itself with these issues, it should not be addressing these matters because doing so will be an unethical thing to do in its own right.

        As to your second point I can’t see what changes need to be implemented with Project Management, as a discipline, as we both agree that the current discipline, when implemented with the right direction and business guidance can result in sustainability friendly results. if any proof is required to demonstrate that the problem is at the decision making end and not at the executing end then this very example is sufficient to demonstrate that point – to which you seem to agree.

        Thanks, Shim

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s