Project Management Institute

High Stakes: Companies Can't Address Sustainability on Their Own


The specter of climate change and the daunting challenge of reducing greenhouse gas emissions are changing our collective consciousness. The concept of a “triple bottom line” based on social, environmental and economic impacts, and the idea of “intergenerational equity” (meeting our needs without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs) are infiltrating our thinking. And that's changing how businesses operate and envision their futures. Organizations that embrace sustainability understand the practice needs to be fully integrated into a strategic and operational framework. Put simply, sustainability needs to become a part of how organizations do business.

But what does sustainability mean for project managers? How should we incorporate these practices into projects?

Learning By Doing

As someone with a personal commitment to a climate-friendly lifestyle, these are questions I‘ve been asking myself for some time. Unfortunately, there are no easy answers. There isn't a PMI global standard for sustainable project management—or at least not yet! Concepts and practices are still in an embryonic state. In other words, we need to explore, share ideas and learn by doing.

I suggest we mirror the way organizations are weaving sustainability into the fabric of their businesses and make it an integral part of how we do projects. Here are three specific ideas:

1. Observe green office practices—small steps multiply. Project managers are skilled at creating documents and notorious for printing copies—often far more and far more frequently than is necessary to meet project needs. Do we all really need a new copy of the complete revised project plan for every weekly meeting? Limit printing to only the essentials and use both sides. Document templates should be set to adhere to smaller margins—reducing them to 1 inch (2.5 centimeters) cuts paper use by 8 percent.

Set clear green office standards for all projects and communicate those standards to team members and sponsors right at the start. To make sure the steps are followed, project managers or the project management office should consider requiring projects to report their estimated paper use at the end of the project.

Green office practices also pertain to project practices for travel, commuting and procurement. Try out meeting-free days so project team members can work at home, for instance.

2. Control IT infrastructure growth. System development projects have a track record of driving IT into massive server sprawl. Although this poses a constant systems administration challenge, the deeper and often hidden problem is power consumption. A McKinsey Institute report issued in July 2008 projects that emissions from data centers worldwide will quadruple by 2020.

A sustainable system-development project would include analysis of the complete data center footprint and an outline of alternatives. If a new server is really essential, could an existing one be decommissioned and its applications virtualized? Could this new application be run at an external cloud vendor? Is there an SaaS (software as a service) solution for part or all of the functionality? The results of the analysis would then be presented to the CIO and project sponsors.

3. Incorporate sustainability as a project management process. Just as we have risk management and communications management, we should have sustainability management. During the project initiation stage, we should document sustainability objectives, show alignment with the corporate sustainability plan, define appropriate metrics specific to the project and illustrate sustainability practices to be employed throughout the project. Larger projects may warrant inclusion of a sustainability impact analysis as a formal deliverable. Review of sustainability metrics would be done as part of monitoring and controlling functions. And finally, relevant lessons learned about sustainability practices would be captured along with other lessons during project closing work.



Fredrik Härén is promising a provocative look at innovation at his breakfast session at the PMI Global Congress 2009—North America. And he's already generating comments on the blog. Here's what Robert Higgins had to say:

Fredrik Härén has an interesting perspective on creativity. I actually changed how I perceived some situations based on his keynote [at a previous conference] in Malaysia. Combining things to create new ideas is an important skill for knowledge workers. Creativity is needed today to solve problems.

>>For more Voices on Project Management, check out the blog at

imagesRAISE YOUR VOICE If you're interested in contributing to our Voices column, please send your idea to [email protected].

This is just a start. It all comes down to becoming aware of the full and true impact of projects—both in their outcomes and in how they are done. In sustainability work, it's referred to as “life cycle analysis.” For organizations with a strong sustainability team and plan, there will likely be support for these types of steps. For many project managers, however, this may be new territory and these approaches will require more advocacy with decision-makers. But we can't afford to wait— the stakes are too high. Sustainability isn't a passing management fad. It needs to become the norm for how we work. PM


James Ure, PMP, is a technology leader, project manager, member of the International Society of Sustainability Professionals and owner of Ure Consulting LLC, Portland, Oregon, USA.

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