The PMO needs to be on the sustainability frontline

We’ve been talking about sustainability for decades and the global consensus is finally shifting with research showing nine out of ten CEOs believe sustainability is critical to future success. Yet why has there been so little action and how can the project management office help change that? 

The sustainability stalemate and shifting strategies

Progress in sustainability has come to a stalemate as the seemingly unbridgeable gap between changing attitudes and genuine behaviour change looms over the debate. This attitude-behaviour gap has been the biggest challenge in genuine sustainability progress.

Though people’s attitudes towards sustainability are positive, the lack of clear guidelines or frameworks to feasibly apply it into an effective business model has led to the lacklustre behavioural change we see today. This gap has turned sustainability efforts into an auxiliary business activity, a mere matter of cost and compliances, that is constantly balanced against (and more often than not giving way to) the core agenda of pursuing profit.

But times are changing and people no longer see pursuing sustainability as merely a cost but a crucial strategic opportunity that can make or break businesses of the future. Edoardo Favari’s research article makes a compelling case for the extensive benefits sustainable practices bring to businesses.

Financially, sustainable practices bring in a slew of direct operational and capital cost savings by reducing the materials and energy used in project development, as well as reducing the potential fines that come with increasingly sustainability-focused regulations.

Organisationally, sustainability is shown to improve employee satisfaction, reduce personnel turnover whilst increasing organisational resilience and learning.

Operationally, a sustainable focus brings about innovation in processes and products that not only improves productivity but also allows for new market opportunities.

Finally, the benefits for customer and stakeholder relations are extensive. Businesses that apply more sustainable practices are known to increase customer and stakeholder satisfaction, improve brand value and reputation, particularly for the millennial age group, while also pushing the demand for more sustainable processes and products globally.

The verdict is clear, sustainability is the future and in this future business success hangs less on simply being cheap, fast, and good – and much more on being the first, being smarter and being the best. Sustainability is no longer an afterthought but is at the very forefront of future-proofed business strategies. But big changes in strategy mean big changes in projects, and project managers may not be prepared to handle this weight.

Sustainability is changing the project management space but project managers are bearing the load

Projects are the vehicles that make business strategy a reality. As businesses begin to actively ingrain sustainability into their core strategy, projects must also evolve to accommodate these changes. For project managers, this has translated to the broadening of their scope of responsibilities.

Beyond the traditional ‘iron triangle’ of project constraints (time, cost, and quality), project managers are now having to consider a new set of dimensions geared towards sustainability, rooted in the increasingly popular Triple Bottom Line (TBL) philosophy. TBL, also known as the 3P framework (People, Planet, Profit), gives project managers the added visibility over the holistic social, environmental and economic impact of their projects and encourages business to effectively quantify and integrate sustainability into their everyday activities. 

However, this expansion of responsibilities has left project managers with the brunt of the load. They have to identify the sustainable measures, ensure its principles are applied and constantly quantifying its value to senior management, often within frameworks that still overtly prioritise the traditional ‘iron triangle’ constraints and do not support this new sustainable focus.

For sustainable project management to take root, proper leadership endorsement, systemic reform and organisational support is needed. If sustainability is inherently strategic, it must be commissioned on a strategic level. And who could be better fit for taking on that task than the project management office?

PMOs can play a big role in achieving effective sustainability progress

As the strategic and standardisation arm of the business, the project management office (PMO) plays a critical role in the success of sustainability efforts in businesses as they help define, update, and maintain the practices and processes that enable strategic success. If strategic success is linked to sustainability, the PMOs job is to create the right conditions for sustainability to flourish throughout the entire project life cycle, from project selection all the way down to everyday project processes.

Picking the right projects with the right criteria and ensuring they are executed with the right processes was always the task of the PMO. However, what now constitutes as right is no longer purely economically motivated, but social and environmentally motivated too.

The major reason why PMOs have not been at the forefront of the discussion is largely because there is no single silver bullet comprehensive framework or guideline on how to roll out a sustainability strategy feasibly and successfully through the PMO. Though many have explored different models, most of the market has yet to latch onto any specific framework.

There are so many factors that influence a PMOs integration of sustainability, from organisation structure, leadership strategic direction, to current project management processes and organisational cultures. But businesses cannot afford to wait for a miraculous framework to appear and lose out on valuable opportunities to be pioneers and leaders in their market. Rather than waiting on the back burner, there are five critical areas PMOs can make a difference in right now to properly position their businesses for a sustainable future.

Five areas PMOs can make real progress in sustainability

1. Project management methodology, standards and tools

Selecting and defining a project management methodology is one of the most critical responsibilities of the PMO. Typically, these methodologies are either inspired by or directly reflect industry standards, standards that have often failed to directly address the sustainability agenda.

However, international standards are shifting with several project management associations and institutions such as the International Standards Organisation and International Project Management Association introducing new indicators that highlight the need for project governance to reflect an organisation’s commitment to sustainability. 

With this change in standards, new sustainability focused project management methodologies have arisen. For example, the PRiSM  (Projects Integrating Sustainability Measures) methodology aims to intentionally integrate sustainability considerations into the typical project management process through the introduction of a ‘sustainability impact analysis’ to the project documentation process.

This analysis feeds into a greater sustainability management plan that is managed, reviewed and adapted in collaboration with an allocated sustainability officer to ensure all necessary compliances are met. Though it may not be perfect, PRiSM provides a scaffold model for PMOs to help adapt and integrate sustainability considerations into their own project management methodologies and standards. 

2. Project Portfolio Management

The core function of project portfolio management is to facilitate the strategic decision making process through a range of activities such as the prioritization, selection, and termination of projects. The key role of the PMO is to provide templates and models for project proposal, progress reports, and communication that inform the portfolio decision making process and in turn achieve the strategic goals of the business.

For a sustainable future, PMOs need to actively link all their processes, models and criterias to the business’ overarching sustainability strategy. This ensures that projects are not only selected based on sustainable principles, but they are also executed sustainably and evaluated based on sustainability criterias.

Comprehensive frameworks for sustainable project portfolio selection are also available such as the one crafted by Khalili-Damghani and Tavana. This extensive model covers the entirety of the project portfolio management process and is split into two modules. The first focuses on integrating sustainability into the strategic planning process. The outputs of this module, a set of projects that align with strategic (and sustainable) goals and objectives, are then filtered through a second module, the sustainable project portfolio selection procedure.

This module not only implements a financial, semi-financial and non-financial analysis that ensures the final projects being implemented are all inherently sustainable economically, environmentally and socially. More and more in-depth frameworks like these are popping up and will continue to help PMOs easily visualize, implement and maintain a truly sustainable project management process.

3. Benefits realization management

PMOs have the responsibility of ensuring benefits are properly identified and assessed within the early business case of a project proposal. If businesses are to be truly sustainable, it must also be reflected in their benefits realization process. This can be done by expanding the business case to consider the non-financial factors and benefits the proposed project can bring. As Ravi Jain argues, “The ability to … assess progress towards sustainability will depend on establishing measurable entities or metrics used for sustainability”.

A key responsibility of the PMO is to ensure that there are proper measurements, criterias and metrics that can help easily quantify, communicate, and monitor sustainability throughout projects and the portfolio as a whole in accordance with the overarching business’ sustainability strategy. Though PMOs may not traditionally see themselves as fully involved in the benefits realization process, they play a pivotal role in the development of the criterias that will form the backbone of sustainability success.

4. Knowledge Management

The PMO is all about learning, adapting, and implementing proper processes that can increase the achievement of strategic objectives and goals. Major project management methodologies and standards such as PRINCE2 and PMI’s PMBOK have their own prescribed processes that support organisational learning. Though knowledge management is nothing new to the PMO, ensuring that a sustainability focus is integrated into the holistic knowledge gathering, evaluation and education process across the entirety of the organisation is a new dimension to this responsibility. 

However, how do you capture ‘sustainability knowledge’? As a complex problem and concept, knowledge on sustainability is both a matter of general knowledge, from upcoming methodologies to compliance requirements, and largely tacit or implicit knowledge that is gained from experience. Due to this unique combination, applying this knowledge may not be a straightforward process. As a result, effective knowledge transfer for sustainable project management would need more social forms of knowledge exchange than traditional methods.

5. Training, consulting, and project support

If the PMO is making the standards, they are also tasked with training, providing consultation and project support services to ensure procedures are applicable and are being applied. There are a few market offerings for sustainable project management training such as Green Project Management, and the availability of these programs is set to grow.

However, these programs may be generic and should act more as a starting point for organisations to then adapt to their own context. In the long-term, sustainability experts will become a mainstay of sustainable project and portfolio management. It may be beneficial for businesses to start investing in or expanding their teams to include sustainability experts that can add their special expertise to have training programs and support services that are genuinely impactful.

For decades, sustainability has seemed like an impossible trial looming over us with no real way to successfully overcome it. On a grassroots and individual level, people have been making small progressive steps towards a sustainable future. But the time for slow progress is up, and PMOs need to be at the forefront of this challenge to make a truly sustainable future a reality.

This article was published in the Australian Institute of Project Management’s quarterly publication ‘Paradigm Shift’. The 2021 Spring edition covered the theme of Sustainability and Resilience. pmo365 CEO Laith Adel pulled from his extensive experience to bring extra insight into the influential role the PMO has to play in our sustainable future.

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