Sustainable Project Management Explained

The verdict is in. Sustainability is the way forward for the business world and those who fail to adapt are going to be left behind. In fact, many of the world’s CEOs agree with a Stanford article revealing that more than nine out of ten CEOs believe that pursuing sustainability is critical for the future success of their companies. To usher in a sustainable world, we need more sustainable projects. But just how are we going to do that? With sustainable project management!

How is sustainability changing project management?

As early as 2008, in a time when we were only just concerned with the impacts of corporate social responsibility on project managers, Tharp and Chadhury were already suggesting that project managers would be the new frontline for change and would bear much of the weight of sustainable changes within organisations. This may have been quite the accurate prophecy.

Project managers now have the task of not only keeping the traditional ‘iron triangle’ of project constraints (time, cost and scope) in check, they now have to account for a new set of measurement dimensions geared specifically for sustainability. These measurements and dimensions are often rooted in the increasingly popular philosophy of the Triple Bottom Line. Also referred to as the 3Ps (People, Planet, Profit), this new framework aims to provide project managers with a way of quantifying and monitoring the holistic social, environmental and economic impact of their projects.

But with no clear framework or methodology, project managers are tasked with the heavy responsibility of defining sustainable benchmarks, guaranteeing they are compliant with global standards, and ensuring it is applied throughout their projects all while having to justify its value to bosses who more likely to prioritize the traditional ‘iron triangle’ over the added sustainable dimensions.

If sustainability is really to take hold in our businesses, project managers cannot bear the weight alone. Companies, thought leaders, academics and project management professionals all have to come together to create the frameworks, environments and cultures that enable sustainable practices to truly embed themselves into the core of business functions and values. It is from this need that sustainable project management has emerged.

Recommended Reading: Why the PMO is critical for a sustainable future

What is Sustainable Project Management?

There are many different definitions of sustainable project management floating around the world of academia. Gilbert Silvius and others provides their comprehensive definition for sustainable project management as: 

.. the planning, monitoring and controlling of project delivery and support processes, with consideration of the environmental, economical and social aspects of the life-cycle of the project’s resources, processes, deliverables and effects, aimed at realizing benefits for stakeholders, and performed in a transparent, fair and ethical way that includes proactive stakeholder participation.”

Sustainable project management is a broad overarching term that is adopted by a range of different methodologies and frameworks with various differences in approach and practice. However, the fundamental factors that encapsulate sustainable project management are represented in the five following statements:

  1. An approach that takes into account the entirety of the Triple Bottom Line perspectives, not just on profit.
  2. An approach that considers the entirety of a project’s life cycle, from activities to the end output.
  3. An approach that actively and openly engages with stakeholders to accommodate their needs rather than simply managing their expectations.
  4. An approach that takes responsibility for its actions towards society and the planet.
  5. An approach that actively considers the short term and long term impacts of all project activities and outputs.

Sustainable Project Management: A fundamental paradigm and scope shift 

Silvius and Shipper suggest that sustainable project management is much more than simply adding a new perspective to the current project management world, but is a fundamental paradigm shift that impacts the fundamental mindset and scope of projects as shown in the image below.

On a mindset level, sustainable project management involves shifting a project manager’s role from merely ‘doing as they are told’ and managing the time, scope and cost of a project towards taking ownership of sustainable development. Project managers will have to develop themselves as sustainability specialists and actively collaborate with many different stakeholders. Their personal ethics, transparency and knowledge of project managers will play a significant role in their duties moving forward.

On a paradigm level, projects are also shifting their fundamental concerns from a traditional approach that focused on predictability and controlling project constraints of time, scope and costs, to the sustainable approach towards flexibility, complexity, and opportunity. Change is not managed solely for the purpose of keeping the ‘traditional iron triangle’ at bay, but rather is accepted and managed through a holistic perspective that accounts for different impacts, outputs and opportunities that are beyond pure monetary value.

In matters of scope, traditional project management typically only concerns itself with the direct contextual sphere of the project delivery itself while the scope management is only concerned with appeasing the organisation and stakeholders involved. Sustainable project management takes this to a new level, expanding the time horizons of the project to consider future generations while looking at its impact on both local and global society. 

‘Project management is no longer about ‘managing’ stakeholders, but about engaging with stakeholders in realising a sustainable development of an organisation and society.’

Project management is experiencing a paradigm shift and it is those who are prepared who will reap the benefits of this change.

Sustainable Project Management Approaches

Sustainable Project Management is still an emerging space and it is set to grow in the near future. Though most methodologies are trying to introduce sustainability into their current practices in an approach that is often dubbed ‘sustainability in project management’, it differs from sustainable project management approaches that ingrain sustainability into its very core. There are two prominent and comprehensive sustainable project management approaches at present: PRiSM and P5 standards by Green Project Management.

PRiSM

An abbreviation of Project Integrating Sustainability Measures, the PRiSM approach is a principle-based methodology that applies a value-maximization approach that focuses on the integrating sustainability into the entirety of the project lifecycle. It predominantly leverages existing organisational systems to achieve unilateral sustainable benefits realization with a clear focus on process and the final product sustainability.  

Built upon the P5 standards introduced by Green Project Management (see more here), it aims to reduce the ecological impact of projects through four key project phases – concerned groups, sustainability orientation, organisational orientation, and results. Additionally, PRiSM functions off six core philosophies:

  1. Commitment and Accountability
  2. Ethics and Decision Making
  3. Integrated and Transparent
  4. Principal and Values Based
  5. Social and Ecological Equity
  6. Economic Prosperity

To learn more about the details of these philosophies and what PRiSM looks like in action make sure to check out our post on the PRiSM methodology.

P5 Standards by Green Project Management

Green Project Management is a global organisation that creates formal certifications for sustainable project management and teaches both PRiSM and how to properly utilize the P5 standards. The P5 standards are meant to identify the potential impacts of project management activities on sustainability, both positive and negative, and present them in a way that supports informed decision making and effective resource allocation. 

It expands on the traditional 3Ps of the triple bottom line to include People, Planet, Prosperity (Profit), Product and Processes. The expansion into product impacts looks specifically at the impacts throughout the product’s lifespan and servicing activities. For processes, the framework aims to analyse the effectiveness, efficiency and fairness of processes upon the original 3Ps. These 5Ps are then further broken down into activities and their impacts are measured across the board as shown in the image below.

To read in more detail, make sure to read our guide to Green Project Management.

Get started on your sustainability journey!

It’s becoming clearer than ever that sustainable project management is the future, don’t miss out! We want to help you get there as well prepared as possible, so make sure to check out our blog on How to become a certified sustainable project manager to get you started on the journey. To read more quality content on sustainable project management and the project management world in general, make sure to check out our blog!

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