Sustainability is a critical business focus and a key driver of change in the way that organizations operate, and in the way, that project managers approach their work. Projects that were previously managed in isolation from things like organizational strategy and corporate governance and at a distance from the wider world of society and the environment, must now be aligned with all of these things.
This presents the project manager with huge opportunities to drive sustainable thinking in project management and become instrumental in achieving sustainable outcomes. But there are challenges. A project manager is tasked with taking a client brief and executing it to the best of their ability, however, unless it is specifically mentioned in the brief, it isn’t always clear what the client expects in terms of sustainability.
Bruce Bratley is the founder and CEO of First Mile, which provides recycling services and business consultancy on product sustainability. He says: “Project managers are responsible for managing a particular project to completion within cost, time and other constraints, which often include standards around delivery without causing adverse impacts on society and the environment. All stakeholders in a project will have a clear understanding of project standards. It is the project manager’s responsibility to ensure that these are adhered to by everyone involved within the project, and this is done by making sustainability one of the key project tolerances.”
There are proprietary methodologies that project managers can use to get to grips with sustainability, including the Projects Integrating Sustainable Methods (PRiSM) approach, established by the GPM Global network to help projects align to the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
The P5 Standard is a tool that supports the alignment of portfolios, programs, and projects with an organizational strategy for sustainability. It focuses on environmental and social elements, as well as profitability, economics, and capital deployment, all of which are necessary for a project to be truly sustainable.
But in practical terms, the amount of influence that project managers themselves have in pushing sustainable practices within a particular project largely depends on the organization. Some have company-wide policies around sustainability, which means project and program managers start out with the buy-in and advocacy from the team and senior management for all projects.
However, where this isn’t the case it usually falls to the project manager to identify mutual benefits that support project objectives and goals in addition to the sustainable practices they want to deploy and employ, for example, reducing the carbon footprint of the team through a reduction in travel to face to face meetings.
Another challenge stems from the fact that projects can involve a broad range of stakeholders, with who the project manager must interact to achieve sustainability objectives. Here effective stakeholder management skills, particularly when large numbers of stakeholders are involved, are key.
Nimisha Brahmbhatt is the lead project manager for the electric vehicle rollout for Centrica in the UK, a project with sustainability at its very heart. At any one time she has to manage the communication channels and expectations of up to 60 stakeholders who have a vested interest in the success of a project within the program of projects.
She says: “The key lies in exceptional communication, relationship building and finding common ground amongst stakeholders. I have worked on teams with over 100 stakeholders, all with different motivations for the project. Winning their advocacy for any practice that is new, or different, under the guise of sustainability, requires those three key ingredients, with communication being at the heart of it.
Communication doesn’t just mean everyone speaking to one another. Listening, as opposed to just hearing is an under-rated quality in leaders and project managers. Those who can master this will learn exactly what needs to be said to whom and how to say it in order to elicit the right action, at the right time, without resistance.”
Delivery of the UN’s SDGs has become a top priority for businesses. In general this involves either starting new projects, or making significant changes to existing business models and processes that require managing to completion.
“Project managers are well-placed to ensure that their services and skills are in demand by effectively planning complex projects to deliver SDGs,” says Batley. “Sustainability in project delivery is a key component of project management, so the delivery of SDGS themselves should be done in a low impact way.”
By far the biggest positive impact project managers themselves can make is to reduce carbon by limiting the amount of travel undertaken by their teams. Brahmbhatt, who is creating a training program at her own initiative, The Legacy Business School, to educate project managers and other industry professionals on what application of the SDGs mean and how they can adapt their skill sets to stay ahead of the curve, says this simple act alone touches on five SDGs.
These include SDG#3, Good health and wellbeing: limiting travel means people have more time to work on their own mental health and physical wellbeing, SDG#8, Decent work and economic growth, and SDG#10, Reduced inequalities.
She says: “This flexibility in project structure means you open up these roles to a wider pool of talent, for example, stay home moms, students, people with disabilities, etc., who wouldn’t otherwise be considered for these jobs because their personal circumstances don’t allow them to travel to a physical location. We can also include SDG#11, Sustainable cities and economies, and SDG #13, Climate action because of course, less travel means lower emissions and cleaner air.”
In light of the current COVID-19 crisis and the focus on climate change by the UN, the demand for sustainable project management can only increase. Project managers with a detailed understanding of SDGs and the ability to effectively manage teams and stakeholders remotely will also find themselves in greater demand than ever.
“However,” adds Brahmbhatt. “The way that project managers can really stand out from their peers is by understanding how each of the 17 SDGs needs to be implemented within the industry they specialize in and the companies they work for.”
Alison Coleman is a freelance journalist and editor, with 24 years experience, founder of Coleman Media, and a Forbes contributor. She covers stories on all areas of business for national and international online and print publications. Follow her on Twitter @alisonbcoleman or check out her latest work at www.alisoncoleman.co.uk.