Sustainability in project management
September 5, 2023 |
8 min read
How much – traditionally – has sustainability featured in project management thinking and planning?
With project managers focused on delivering projects within scope, budget, on time and realizing benefits, any thoughts of sustainability have been typically close to nothing. Indeed, I think few project managers are aware of integrating sustainability into their project management.
This is an oversight, as issues created by climate change are already affecting the work of project managers today. The latest report from GPM Global revealed that more than one third (38%) of project managers’ work has been impacted by extreme weather events, while 100% feel the profession is not doing enough to combat climate change.
While project managers don’t need highly detailed knowledge or to be experts in sustainability, they need to be aware of project impacts on the environment and would benefit from having an assessment tool to assess that impact.
Project managers can be forgiven for not having this “top of mind” in previous years, but that time is running out.
And as companies are trying to become more sustainable by incorporating the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) into their strategies, projects will be vital as vehicles for change.
Developing the right skills to manage sustainable projects
In certain sectors, such as infrastructure and construction, I have seen companies taking responsibility for Net Zero commitments – and this means hiring sustainability experts to support their project managers.
But how should project managers harness their own skills and knowledge to help meet the challenge?
Stakeholder engagement is key, as well as the ability to absorb a wide variety of different information. The Agile approach of “servant leadership” – where the manager’s role is to include and enable their team rather than direct – is also a capability that a “green project manager” needs to be aware of.
And though project managers are generally adept at processing data around risks, budgets, etc, sustainability is a complex field, making it necessary to engage subject matter experts and the entire value chain.
Ultimately, project professionals should be modelling good sustainability practice by assessing the level of sustainability through the whole lifecycle of the product or capability they’re trying to deliver.
Main areas of focus for sustainable project planning
Here are some key areas that project managers should consider when incorporating sustainability matters into their planning:
- What is the organization’s strategy and which SDGs is the company committing to?
- What assessment tool will you use to analyse the project, product and processes for sustainability?
- The project manager should lead the assessment, identifying the key elements to assess for the project they are managing (project products and project processes).
- The project manager, together with team, should identify and plan responses for decreasing negative sustainability impact and increasing positive impact?
- What key performance indicators will you use to measure whether sustainability is improving?
And what about the project manager’s interaction with stakeholders and the project board? With PRINCE2’s three board-level roles in mind, integrating sustainability will require the senior user to think a lot more about the product and its potential positive/negative impacts (product lifespan and servicing); the senior supplier will need to consider the processes for delivering the product (efficiency, efficacy and fairness) and the executive should see how this connects to overall strategy (as well as agreeing and providing the money to do it).
Project management’s responsibility for the planet
The evident climate crisis the world is facing means that most people have bought into the notion that we need to do something collectively. We are over the debate about whether it’s climate change or not and now it’s time to maintain and even regenerate earth’s resources.
In many cases incorporating sustainability thinking into a project may cost nothing or indeed reduce cost, e.g., in construction: if your design requires less concrete, it will cost less to build. In some cases a project can be more sustainable simply by engaging with the supply chain, setting expectations and empowering them to offer improvements.
In other cases, sustainability will require a high level of innovation that might give companies a huge competitive advantage in the market.
If project managers can integrate sustainability into their projects, they can effect huge and beneficial changes, but this means thinking and working differently.
Therefore, the green project manager will need to be aware – and prepared for the fact – that people are reluctant to change, especially when it means they can’t behave as if they have no responsibility for the environment and continue to consume resources as they have always done.