10 Ways Sustainability is Impacting Project Management

Sustainability and the need to address climate change has become one of the most critical agendas for governments and businesses around the world. The pandemic has only fast-tracked this need for sustainability with a survey from the Boston Consulting Group of over 7,000 respondents showing that 70% of people have become more aware of the impact of human activity on the climate after the COVID-19 outbreak.

The demand for more sustainability-driven change is increasing globally, but how will that translate to the project management space? In this blog, we uncover the ten ways a shift towards sustainability will change project management processes and approaches.

1. Greater recognition of project contexts

Sustainability will significantly alter the sheer scope and scale of projects, pushing project managers to expand both the temporal and spatial boundaries of their project contexts. Traditional project management is often confined to the direct sphere of influence of the project itself. With sustainability in mind, projects must consider both the long-term and short-term as well as the local and global contexts they operate within. 

Van den Brink illustrates this expanding spatial and temporal scope in the diagram shown below.

van den Brink (2009)

2. Wider stakeholder involvement

With the broader social and spatial considerations ingrained in sustainability, the number of stakeholders in projects will also naturally expand to include the likes of environmental protections groups, human rights groups and NGOs. Properly managing, collaborating and communicating with this expanded group of stakeholders, many of which will have conflicting needs and desires, will be one of the biggest challenges for future project managers. 

Sustainability has participation at its core. It goes a step further beyond simply engaging stakeholders in passive decision-making processes, but making them proactive agents throughout all project processes. From the definition of requirements to project scheduling and all the way down to risk assessment and project reporting, stakeholders will play a much more significant role in future projects.

3. Expanded project specification and criteria

For projects to be considered sustainable, they must include specific sustainability objectives and meet certain requirements. Traditional project outputs would typically be heavily dependent on the requirements and specifications outlined by the client or end user. In sustainable projects, the project outputs, content and quality criteria are based on a holistic view of the project. It actively considers the social, economic, environmental, and temporal impacts of all project activities when forming its specifications and criteria.

4. Enhanced business case and project selection

In line with the Triple Bottom Line philosophy, project justifications, costs and the overall business case will expand to include not only the financial justifications but broader non-financial factors such as the social and environmental dimensions. Future project selection and investment evaluations will also expand to a multi-criteria approach that considers both the quantitative and qualitative benefits of projects. 

5. Evolved project success measurements and dimensions

Project success will not be measured in financial terms alone. Again, the perception and definition of project success will take into account the triple bottom line or 3P approach that focuses on people, planet and profit. This expands from the PMI’s traditional definition of project success as being ‘measured in terms of completing the project within the constraints of scope, time, cost, quality, resources and risk’. The success of a project is also not merely measured by the output but is assessed in a holistic manner across the entire project life cycle.

6. Matured schedule management

A sustainable focus means the pursuit of efficiency in project processes and activities is further heightened. By cutting down waste, reducing delivery costs, allocating resources more effectively, overall project wastage is minimized not only in material but in idle resources. Scheduling and project sequencing will take on another level of complexity, particularly in the construction management sphere where research shows that as much as 30% of all delivered building materials end up as waste.

7. Different project inputs, materials and procurement management

Sustainability will obviously impact what type of materials, inputs and suppliers are used in projects. Materials that are environmentally detrimental from hazardous and polluting substances will need to be avoided or significantly minimized. The selection of materials and input is not limited to the project time-scope alone but must also consider the durability, reusability, and recyclability of the project deliverables at the point of decommissioning.  

Selection of suppliers will also have to consider the environmental and social performance potential of the supplier. Suppliers with shady ethics and a lack of transparency will no longer be tolerated in a sustainable future.

8. More comprehensive risk management

Traditional project risks would always consider their consequences upon the ‘iron triangle’ of project management – time, scope and cost. With a sustainable focus, project risk identification will also expand to consider ongoing environmental and social risks that arise throughout the entire project life cycle. The evolving risk identification factors also mean a shift in risk management and evaluation. A sustainable future implies that project risks need to be considered from the perspective of a vast array of stakeholders rather than the project sponsors and clients alone. Risk management will evolve to have a broader reach and a more comprehensive approach.

9. More transparent project communication and reporting

Traditional project communication is often reactionary with an emphasis on project managers only providing the information that is needed. However, to fully pursue sustainable principles of transparency and accountability, project management communications must become more open and frequent to enable proactive participation and project-wide consistency. Project managers need to be constantly communicating with stakeholders about social and environmental factors on an ongoing basis, rather than simply on a need-to-know basis. 

Reporting will also be held to a new standard that includes sustainability dimensions and feeds into the overall transparency and accountability of the organisation at large. In a time where greenwashing is viewed negatively by consumers, failing to consult and report to relevant stakeholders can end up being very costly to businesses. 

Overall project communications and reporting will need to incorporate sustainability measures and organisations need to be willing and prepared to be exposed to broader community interests.

10. Broader organisational learning

Organisations build up their corporate knowledge base by storing historical information and lessons learned throughout their projects. With a sustainability focus, the emphasis of organisational learning will include ways of minimising waste as well as frameworks for properly proactive stakeholder engagement and management. As sustainability standards also begin to become more widely adopted, new ways of incorporating those standards into all projects will become critical.

The future of Sustainable Project Management

Projects are the primary means for change and innovation to become a reality. For a sustainable future, we need sustainable project management. Lucky for you, several people have been thinking ahead and have spent the last decade crafting project management frameworks that have sustainability at their core. Make sure to read more about sustainable project management to get your head start into a sustainable future.

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