2 November, 2020

Green Project Management: Are You Ready to Think Sustainably?

Green Project Management is not yet on everybody’s lips. But it ought to be. The priority for sustainability in project management is an imperative that we need to heed. And some Project Managers are dealing with the challenges of sustainable project management every day.

But others are ill-informed about what it means and how to lead a green project. For them, green project management is little more than jargon. This cannot continue. The world has woken up to the need to control our development to make it more sustainable. And green project management has a large part to play. Project Managers who cannot play their part will be of less value in the global career market place.

The World’s Agenda is Finally Shifting

This autumn (2020), China has set out its firm intent to become Carbon-neutral by 2060. And the European Union and the United Kingdom have signaled similar announcements at the end of 2020. Whilst the current (2017-20) US administration has set its face against dealing with the causes and impacts of global climate change, it is a big issue in the forthcoming US Presidential election. 

As a Project Manager, I am acutely aware of our roles in building the infrastructure, products, and services that will define our futures. This places upon us a responsibility to act mindfully in all the projects we lead. So I thought it important to offer my readers an informed perspective on what we mean when we talk of green project management and sustainability in project management.

So, who better to tell us than Rich Maltzman. Rich is a friend of OnlinePMCourses and co-author of ‘Green Project Management’ with David Shirley. He is one of the leading thinkers about Sustainable Project Management, and has written and spoken about it extensively. Rich is an engineer and a PMP, who has worked all over the world. He is active in his local PMI chapter and is a Master Lecturer in Project Management at Boston University.


Green Project Management: Are You Ready to Think Sustainably?

Over to Rich…

What is Green Project Management?

Let me start by answering a key question: what do we mean by green project management?

Actually, green project management is a very limiting way to describe the important themes I want to convey to you. To me, the phrase ‘green project management’ evokes images of windmills and daisies, children running happily through a field, or a school of neon-colored tropical fish meandering through the coral. Sure, a ‘green project’ could be one that yields a wind farm or other renewable energy source. It could be an effort to save a species of coral or fish, or… daisies.

Green Project Management means More than Ecology

However, the real idea that I want to convey is not at all limited to ecology. Of course, it includes ecological initiatives, but it’s by no means limited to them.

I’d like you to walk away from this article with three key takeaways.

  1. Sustainability is not always about “green”
  2. You, your project, your enterprise, and your planet will benefit from taking a holistic, long-term perspective about project success when initiating, planning, and executing a project
  3. You have considerably more power than you think regarding how to use that perspective to affect project decisions

The discussion I want to continue is centered on sustainability in its true, fullest sense. As you probably know, sustainability has three elements (ecological, economic, and social – see figure).

The “three circles” model of sustainable development (with overlaps labeled). 

Many people also call this ‘People, Planet, and Profit’. Also, this sometimes comes under the umbrella of ‘Corporate Social Responsibility’, although I prefer to stick with the idea of ‘the Triple Bottom Line’. When we say ‘green project management’ we mean that the project has considered the long term for all of these aspects:

  • People
    the Social Dimension
  • Planet
    the Environmental Dimension
  • Profit
    the Economic Dimension

The Three Questions

That leads to an important question. It is the first question we are used to asking about our projects:

  •  ‘Will the project generate value – economically – for a sustained period of time?’

However, that question may not be the right question to ask if we are a Government agency. Certainly, it is not the only question to ask even if this is a for-profit enterprise. The remaining questions are:

  • ‘Will this project contribute positively to society?’
    Or, at least, will it limit any negative impacts on society?
  • ‘Will this project contribute positively to the environment?’ 
    Or, at least, will it limit any negative impacts on the environment?

The Triple Bottom Line

The idea of a Triple Bottom Line (TBL) was coined by John Elkington, founder of the UK consultancy SustainAbility, in 1994.

He suggested that, in addition to the usual profit-based bottom-line measure of a company’s performance, businesses should also prepare bottom line measures in a ‘people account’ and in a ‘planet account’; giving rise to the three pillars of profit, people, and planet.

These are often represented as three overlapping circles of concern that clearly represent three views of overlapping stakeholder groups.

Elkington describes the Triple Bottom Line in his 1997 book, ‘Cannibals With Forks: The Triple Bottom Line Of 21st Century Business’.

A Rainbow of Green Project Management

That said, we can consider green project management in terms of a ‘rainbow of green’ which spans the idea of a wind farm or species-saving initiative, to a project which by its very nature has seemingly nothing to do with ecology, or the local community, or anything approaching the stereotypical idea of a ‘green’ project.

A Rainbow of Green Project Management

In the figure above you can see that this spectrum has four points to illustrate the range of green projects. 

1. Projects which are Green by Definition

Projects that are ‘Green by Definition’ have the attribute of being strongly associated with the environment. Any project stakeholder would immediately recognize the connection to ‘saving the planet’, or perhaps the local community. Examples could be: 

  • building a wind farm
  • an initiative to save a species
  • the conversion by Amazon to an all-electric vehicle fleet
  • an endeavor by a food manufacturer to source only fair-trade suppliers of chocolate (Yum)

2. Projects that are Green by Project Impact

These are projects – often infrastructure projects – that involve construction, moving of earth, heavy use of machinery. They will likely have a big impact (a negative one) on the community or the environment as they are built, after they are built, or likely both. With this type of project, the goal, therefore, is to minimize those negative impacts. Examples:

  • Britain’s Crossrail and HS2 projects
  • Any of the projects in China’s Belt and Road program
  • Boston’s ‘Big Dig’
  • India’s Narmada Valley Development and Chenab River Railway Bridge projects
  • Saudi Arabia’s King Hamad Causeway

Do take a look at our recent article on Major Projects, by Jonathan Norman: The Major Projects World: What you Need to Know and How to Get Started

3. Projects which are Green by Product Impact

Some projects are about designing and creating a product or service that necessarily has an environmental impact. We are talking here about the product of the project – the product or service used in the steady-state. This is the Green by Product Impact type. An example would be a new single-serve coffee-maker which, although using fair-trade coffee, also produces a non-recyclable plastic cup after each use. Globally, these produce an average of 11 billion waste cups per year. And most of those cups ending up in landfill. So the Project Manager has a big role in creating a sustainability agenda for their project.

4. Projects which are Green in General

These are projects which don’t seem to have any connection at all to sustainability, or ‘green’. They aren’t trying to reduce consumption of energy, they don’t save any species, and they aren’t trying to fix a social problem. An example is a new release of accounting software. Its purpose is just to make life easier for accountants and to make money for the software company.

The Range of Focus

Here’s the thing. Look at the figure and you will see that the focus on sustainability fades away as you move left to right. That’s because the Green in General project – the one with no apparent connection to sustainability – simply does not have an obvious connection to economic and ecological sustainability. 

But it does! Intuitively or not, many products (and outcomes) from such projects have a significant environmental impact. For example, one consortium of IT companies called GreenTouch was able to accomplish a reduction of carbon equivalent to removing all of the cars from the streets of San Francisco simply by changing a standard algorithm as to how optical amplifiers turned on and off. A software change had a huge environmental impact!

Real Green Project Management

So, this means that the amount of effort you, as the Project Manager, have to make to bring sustainability thinking to the forefront increases as you move to the right of the chart. As you approach the ‘Green in General’ project, there is a greater need for you to lead the project in the direction of sustainability. This is very real Green Project Management.

How Do I Get to Green Project Management?

We need a more holistic, long-term view of projects and their outcomes. But how do we get there?

It Takes a Conscious Effort to Turn this Around. 

I literally mean to turn around. See the figure below. In that, the project manager is doing their thing, straining to see what is going on in the project. In the image, he’s facing away from the long-term result of the project, and his timeframe is microscopic. However, it doesn’t feel that way to him. He sees things in the hours, days, weeks, and months that define the traditional view of project delivery. 

Project Manager's Narrow View on the Now

Five years from now, however, the project effort itself will be a distant blip. Now, the outcome of the project will (hopefully) be delivering ongoing benefits and value to the organization and other stakeholders. In the image below, you can see a different project manager looking with binoculars to take that long-term view.

Project Manager's Potential for the Long View

Which One are You?

Here’s the thing: this can be the same person!

A project manager can take on the longer view and bring the considerations, risks, impacts, and outcomes that happen after the project’s ‘product’ has rolled out. They can do this while their project is still active. This means taking advantage of the broader, longer-term view while they are initiating, planning, and executing their project. 

As a result, they can make decisions that are easy to implement today and which can make much more ecological, social, and even economic sense in a decade. Think of the GreenTouch example above.

How to Think Long-term

It means thinking beyond the end date of the project and bringing that thinking back to the project team. It also means speaking truth to power. 

You may need to make a change (for example, a change in materials) which may seem expensive now. But that change can make real sense because of what it offers to the whole of the Triple Bottom Line in the steady-state. 

This, in turn, means you need to be able to communicate with senior managers and sponsors by directing them to the mission and vision statements of their organizations. I challenge you to go to your organization’s home page right now and visit the About Us section. I am confident that you will find statements about commitment to the planet, the community, about being a responsible enterprise. 

You can use these statements if people are questioning a project decision that means:

  • You incur additional ‘costs of good quality or responsible sourcing’ now 
  • To avoid the ‘costs of poor sustainability’ later.

Reflecting on the book Green Project Management: Ten Years After

It’s been 10 years since David Shirley and I wrote our book called ‘Green Project Management’. And, it’s a little less than 10 years since it won the PMI’s Cleland Award for Literature. Since then, a lot has happened. 

Here’s how we introduced the book:

‘We know, firsthand, then, that business is beginning to appreciate the value of green. That’s of course in harmony with an increasing “green wave” of awareness amongst the general population. In fact, there has been much discussion surrounding the topic of green business but very little about green projects, green project management, and green project managers. And this is interesting to us because we see projects as the “business end” of business. Projects are where business ideas become reality, after all. Projects, by definition, use resources. Shouldn’t projects, therefore, be a key area of any focus on green business?

‘We decided to try to fill what we see as a lack of attention to green project management and focus the energy (excuse the pun), research, and recommendations regarding green business as a microcosm of business that is project management, consolidating it into this book about green project management.’

Green Project Management, by Rich Maltzman and David Shirly
CRC Press, 2010

The Green Wave

It’s been a decade. We were talking about a ‘green wave’.

And, although we do think most project managers ‘get’ the idea of ‘green’, there is still a lot of misunderstanding about what constitutes a ‘green project’. As I mentioned earlier in this article:

a green project is not necessarily focused on saving a species. It focuses on a planning process which includes considerations for economic, ecological, and social impacts, impacts which go beyond the end-date of the project.’

Stepping up to Leader Status in Sustainability Thinking and Green Project Management

Let me start with a pet peeve about the way our discipline is named. We are called a Project Manager. What a huge misnomer!

Managers oversee departments and decide who gets which office. Okay, they do much more, but it’s more focused on the supervision of employees. Projects, by definition, are unique (which means they are dealing with the unknown). Projects, by nature, bring together people who come from many different disciplines (marketing, engineering, advertising, installation, software development, legal). Further, the person identified to run the project is not usually the functional manager of those contributors. And this means that she must get the most out of them without having supervisory credentials. That means the project ‘manager’ must rely on inspiration, example, and serving the team. And all these are really forms of leadership: not management. So we should be called Project Leaders!

Green Project Leadership: Becoming a Leader in Sustainability Thinking

If we really want to ‘own’ that title of Project Leader, we need to step up and escape the trap of looking only at time, scope, and cost. We must also think about outcomes, benefits, and value. And, of course, value includes economic, social, and ecological value. Profit, people, and planet.

We need to make these considerations visible to our teams at the start of the project. And we need to get the endorsement and support of:

  • Senior managers
  • Sponsors
  • Other powerful stakeholders 

…so that we can make meaningful and well-aligned statements about our drive for these triple-bottom-line values at the start of the project. 

Further, we need to continually reinforce these messages during the project. 

Green Project Management must still be Sound Project Management

This does not mean we can lose sight of the end date. Nor does it mean we have to sacrifice the focus on the ‘efficiency’ of the project. I’m sorry to say that we’ll still inevitably still be responsible to be:

  • On time
  • Within budget, and to 
  • Meet requirements. 

However, that effort will now be focused on a project that more truly delivers value to the

  • Organization
  • People involved, and 
  • Well-being of the planet

Your own ‘Sources of Renewable Energy’  

Earlier I mentioned that one source of power for you, as a Project Manager, is to link upwards to the mission, vision, and values of the enterprise. This can sometimes mean going above your middle managers. 

You can also link to the power within your workforce. Studies show that younger members of the workforce have a much deeper awareness of, and commitment to, environmental and social issues. They are more likely to be motivated by what the enterprise ‘stands for’. Take advantage of this demographic when you need to make sure that the messages (and actions) related to triple-bottom-line thinking take hold.

What Deloitte has to say…

Here’s an example from the Deloitte Global Millennial Survey 2020

‘The Deloitte Global Millennial Survey 2020 explores the views of more than 27.5K millennials and Gen Zs, both before and after the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, to understand their perspectives on business, government, climate, and the pandemic, among other issues.

‘The survey reveals that despite the individual challenges and personal sources of anxiety that millennials and Gen Zs are facing, they have remained focused on larger societal issues, both before and after the onset of the pandemic. If anything, the pandemic has reinforced their desire to help drive positive change in their communities and around the world. And they continue to push for a world in which businesses and governments mirror that same commitment to society, putting people ahead of profits and prioritizing environmental sustainability.’

With an increasing number of millennials and Generation Z employees in your projects, they will support your push for Green Project management. And that means they will support you if you have decisions to make that may seem ‘wrong’ in the short term, but ‘right’ in the longer term. They will have a bigger stake in the long-range outcome and impacts of the project’s products.

Responsible Project Management 

I’d like to think of green Project Management as responsible Project Management. In its focus on sustainability, it takes responsibility for the future as well as the present.

If this interests you, don’t feel alone. There is a growing number of academics, practitioners, and project managers who want to think about lasting economic, social, and environmental value from their projects. And they are beginning to consolidate their diverse efforts in this area. One example is the recently-established organization Responsible Project Management.

‘Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed, organised citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.

Margaret Mead

Their Purpose

Here is their purpose:

‘We are on a journey to explore what responsibility means in the context of projects and project management. Project professionals, educators and researchers from a range of industries and disciplines, including economics, science, ethics, environmental law and sustainable development, as well as project management, are contributing to the discussions. You are invited to join us on this journey. 

Our aim is to transform beliefs about project management. Achieving project success is increasingly challenging and ensuring a project is successful requires attention to the project context as well as the parameters of cost, time and quality. New understandings and new competencies are needed for project professionals to navigate the complexities of the social, environmental and economic context of a project. Our purpose is to contribute ideas, events and resources to support development of the profession of Project Management.

A Manifesto for Responsible Project Management 

This group has also published a Manifesto made up of 10 ‘driving principles’ (see below) and a Responsible PM Guide. And they have declared 2021 to be the International Year of  Responsible Project Management.

Responsible Project Management 10 Driving Principles

Note that this group has also aligned itself with the 17 Sustainable Development Goals from the United Nations, and has organized them in project management groupings (see figure below).

The UN's 17 Sustainable Development Goals

I feel it’s incumbent on project managers to learn more about these goals and align their projects with them. You can learn about these in detail at this link from the United Nations.

Wrapping it all up

So there you have it. Green Project Management is not really about green. 

Your projects will be more powerful and will provide value in the truest sense of the word if you expand your thinking beyond the traditional bounds of time, scope, and cost. And you have more power than you think, to do so. 

The end of your project timeline is not the end of the value delivery, the benefits realization of your project – it’s the start. Think that way! Think sustainably!

If you have any comments or questions for Rich or for Mike, please do comment below and we’ll be sure to respond to all contributions.

More on Sustainability Thinking in Project Management 

And, if you want to hear Rich talking about these ideas and his brilliant effectiveness/efficiency diagram, take a look at this video: 

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Rich Maltzman

About the Author...

Rich Maltzman considers himself a ‘pracademic’ – currently Master Lecturer at Boston University, an author, and a consultant, who provides students and clients with a deep, rich learning experience and/or improved results. The ‘prac’-tical part of pracademic comes from a 40-year career in telecom, mainly in engineering and project management. At the University level, his focus is always on converting weaknesses into strength while teaching clients/students how to apply learned skills to everyday situations.

Rich is the co-founder of EarthPM, LLC, a company devoted to integrating sustainability thinking into project management. His integration of a holistic, global view of project management has resulted in international consulting and speaking engagements in which the focus is the long-term success of projects, with an eye towards ecological and social systems. His blog for PMI’s projectmanagement.com site has become very popular. Rich is on the Review Committee for the upcoming 7th Edition PMBOK® Guide.
  • The main task is to achieve a balance between the principles of sustainable development – economic, requiring, environmental and institutional intervention or project. Achieving a balance is associated with the problem of choosing between exclusive principles when making managerial decisions about projects.

  • Paper waste is the biggest problem for business. If we can reduce the amount of paper we use, we can have a positive impact on the environment. Therefore, the first step is to replace paper documents, files, notes, etc. with electronic formats. In addition, such comments can be signed with an electronic signature if necessary, so it is not a problem.

    • I am not sure paper waste is the biggest problem – not when we set it alongside travel, heating, and others. But, every little helps!

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