Project management

turning ideas into sustainable reality


Rich Maltzman, PMP

Dave Shirley, PMP


An idea is the root of reality. Of course not all ideas take root and grow to reality, but reality has to start somewhere – and that somewhere is with an idea. The time is now for the idea of sustainability to become very real. Not that there isn't a huge effort in the business community to integrate sustainability into the mission/vision of the organization – there is. But how does that integration take place? What function is the most important to achieving that goal? What are the benefits of practicing sustainability to project success and to the enterprise in general?

Regardless of one's opinions on global climate change and its causes, this paper is vital to project managers because their enterprises are including sustainability goals in their key, overarching organizational objectives. Green business is here. Project management is the “business end” of business. This paper shows how we must embrace our role in transforming our organizations to meet these goals in a larger “enterprise” sense and how sustainability in project management leads to better projects, and improved realization of benefits for stakeholders and sponsors.

In this paper we will assert that project management is the function absolutely critical for this integration.


In this paper we will draw from our book, Green Project Management (Maltzman & Shirley, 2010) as well as other, even more recent experiences from working, consulting, and teaching in this area; we have also collaborated with thought leaders in sustainability from the Americas, Asia, Europe, and Africa and will share that knowledge. In addition, a recent article in the Project Management Journal entitled “A Perspective-Based Understanding of Project Success” (McLeod, Doolin, & MacDonnell, 2012, pp. 68-86), while not addressing sustainability per se, does point out that: (1) there are formal and informal ways to evaluate project success, and (2) project stakeholders influence the perceived outcome(s) of a project. Considering sustainability in the product of the project as well as the process of the project, will lead to both formal ways to evaluate project success; for example, the amount of resources saved, and informal ways, like the way an project/enterprise is perceived in the market place.


Project managers like baselines. It helps, therefore, to baseline the term sustainability in the context of this paper. The “Bruntland” definition states that sustainability is “development which meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs” (UN, 12/11/87, ¶2). We suggest using the somewhat different definition from Auden Schindler's in his book, Getting Green Done (Schendler, 2009) in which he says that sustainability is “staying in business forever” ( Schindler, p. 26). One of our assertions, at the intersection of green business and project management is that “good business is good business.” In other words, the success of the project depends on sustainable project management, which in turn, provides for success of the enterprise.

The Business of Sustainability: Leadership

When one looks to the 2011 MIT/Sloan Report, “Sustainability: The ‘Embracers’ Seize the Advantage” (MIT, 2011), two messages are (1) “improved brand reputation is perceived as the biggest benefit of addressing sustainability,” and (2) “most companies – whether currently embracers or not – are looking toward a world where sustainability is becoming a mainstream, if not required, part of the business strategy.” A new report, issued in 2013, “The Innovation Bottom Line” (MIT, 2013) furthers the growing importance of sustainability in business: (1) “Overall the portion of respondents reporting profit from sustainability went up 23% to 37% percent of the total,” and (2) “nearly 50% of companies have changed their business models as a result of sustainability opportunities – a 20% jump over last year.”

Business gets it. Global leaders in sustainability include Merck Pharmaceuticals, IBM, HP, and Volkswagen. Global companies promoting sustainability include Apple, Yahoo, Toyota, and Marriott to name a few. An abundance of very good books have been written about the business of sustainability, Green to Gold (Esty & Winston, 2009), and The Green to Gold Business Playbook: How to Implement Sustainability Practices for BottomLine Results in Every Business Function (Esty, Winston, Simmons, & Wiley, 2011), The Necessary Revolution (Senge, Smith, Kraschwitz, Laur, & Schley, 2010), and The Truth About Green Business (Friend, 2009). Several new books at the intersection of sustainability and project management have also been written since our book, but not nearly the number written relative to green business, nor do the green business books make an adequate connection between the role of the project manager (PM) in either the change process of integrating sustainability in an organization or the need for PMs to serve as the link from strategy to operations – as we'll discuss.

The PM: A Born Sustainability Leader?

The question now becomes, why does it make sense for project managers to become sustainability leaders for their projects and even for their organizations? For that matter, why would a project manager want to be a sustainability leader? After all, project managers are very busy people just trying to keep their projects on time, on budget and with the quality (scope) expected.

A sustainability leader (SL) in an organization is one who takes an active role to assure that the sustainability goals of an organization are being considered when business decisions are made. The PM makes an ideal candidate to bring the benefits of sustainability to our organizations because project management is the business end of business, or where ideas become reality. The PM is a change agent. If change wasn't occurring, why would one initiate a project in the first place? The PM, by nature, is a leader within an organization, having the same responsibility as the CEO except on a smaller, more temporary scale.

One thing that seems to be lost sometimes is that fact that a PM is part of the larger organization. As the organization's projects go, so goes the organization. If projects are consistently successful, meeting cost, schedule and scope, the organization has a much better chance for longevity (sustainability) than an organization whose projects consistently fail to meet the criteria. Sustainability in this sense includes financial health, and here is where an SL can help. It is fiscally responsible to manage projects sustainably. For instance, saving energy by making sure that computers and lighting is turned off when not in use, saves the organization money. Most of those savings go right to the bottom line. What goes to the bottom line can then be used for salary increases, incentives, more sustainability efforts, etc. More sustainability efforts lead to more savings to the bottom line. It is a well received cycle of activity. But these efforts relate to project management sustainability. We think the PM should expand their role to think about project sustainability. The difference is subtle but important. See the section of this paper, “Project Success and Sustainability.”

Another reason to be a sustainability leader in an organization is for its greenality benefit. Greenality is a word we coined in our previously mentioned book. It can defined as the “the conformance to a set of environmentally responsible and sustainable objectives set for the project” (Maltzman & Shirley, 2010, p. xxi). When we were researching our book, we were having trouble expressing the intersection of green and project management with a word that didn't have quotes around it, like “greenness”. We knew that the concept of quality is familiar to project managers so we looked at the focus of quality in a project; meeting customer requirements, reducing project waste, Customer-Supplier models. Then we looked at the focus of sustainability (or green in this sense) of a project; being able to have some longevity, reducing product waste, and looking at the long-term effects. Because the focus is so similar between the two, we took the work green and the word quality, and merged them to form the word greenality.

We further defined the word as “The degree to which and organization has considered sustainability factors that affect its projects during the entire life cycle and beyond” (Maltzman & Shirley, 2010, p. xxi). It contains two project management processes; (1) creation of a plan to minimize the sustainability impacts of a project (along the “rainbow of green” projects, and (2) the monitoring and controlling of the sustainability impacts of the product of the project. It can be a measurement or degree of sustainability along a scale of 1-10 as an example. Company Y exhibits a true understanding of sustainability and is makes sustainability part of the decision-making process, therefore scores in the 8-10 range. Company Z ignores all sustainability factors it its decision-making process (highly unlikely in this day and age), therefore scores in the 0-1 range.

Greenality, like quality, has a cost. Most project managers are familiar with the concept of the cost of quality. Good quality costs include prevention costs; i.e., planning and training, quality assurance and control, auditing, testing and prototyping. Poor quality costs include waste, cleanup, and loss of reputation, lawsuits and fines. At its root it is focused on continually improving the environmental and sustainability of all of the resources consumed on a project. Greenality also includes the holistic consideration of stakeholder needs and expectations. As any PM knows, the heart of the success of any project is how well those needs and expectations are defined and met. The ignorance of greenality can have the same effect as the ignorance of quality in a project. Further, as in Quality Is Free (Crosby, 1980) the costs of good greenality outweigh the downsides of poor greenality.

BP’s Macondo Well, better known as the Deepwater Horizon failure in the Gulf of Mexico off the coast of Louisiana, is a good example of the cost of poor greenality manifesting itself. We do not portend to know all of the decision points. However, perhaps if BP had allowed Schlumberger to perform all of the tests on the well to detect a weakness in the cement it may have indicated the problem and could have prevented the tens of billions of dollars in fines and restitution, to say nothing of the intangible or difficult-to-measure impacts such as the damage to the BP brand name or the long-term damage to the Gulf's ecosystem. We'll never know because the casing basically disintegrated. We do know that there was a focus on project efficiency over longer-term considerations such as safety and the environment. One can see this in BP’s environmental management and risk management plans, made public because of the US federal investigation into the incident. BP’s Risk Register is available at Nowhere in this risk assessment are environmental risks considered. The risks that are enumerated all have to do with the threats of poor operation and efficiency of the rig.

We could not find any appendices in BP’s risk management plan dealing with environmental impact; however, according to a Christian Science Monitor article in June 2009, (Mohr, Pritchard, & Lush, 2010) “BP’s 582-page regional spill plan for the Gulf and its 52-page site-specific plan for the Deepwater Horizon rig are riddled with omissions and glaring errors, according to an Associated Press analysis (Mohr, Pritchard, &Lush, 2010) that details how BP officials have pretty much been making it up as they go along. The lengthy plans approved by the federal government last year before BP drilled its ill-fated well vastly understate the dangers posed by an uncontrolled leak and vastly overstate the company's preparedness to deal with one. Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, reacting to the AP story, said Wednesday he was angry and frustrated, ‘Look, it's obvious to everybody in south Louisiana that they didn't have a plan, they didn't have an adequate plan to deal with this spill,’ Jindal said. ‘They didn't anticipate the BOP (blowout preventer) failure. They didn't anticipate this much oil hitting our coast. From the very first days, they kept telling us, ‘Don't worry, the oil's not going to make it to your coast.’ Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal is angry and frustrated at BP’s 2009 response plan for a Gulf of Mexico oil spill, which lists walruses, sea otters, sea lions, and seals as ‘sensitive biological resources’ and names a man who died in 2005 as a national wildlife expert.” This is because BP likely copied much of the plan from the Exxon Valdez risk response plan from 1989 – a plan focused on a very different ecosystem: Alaska.

The final reason for PMs to become sustainability leaders – and one that is growing – is the connections to A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK® Guide) and ISO21500:2012. One particular connection to the PMBOK® Guide is in 2.1.5 Enterprise Environmental Factors. Specifically, the enterprise factors of “regulatory agency regulations.” If the PM is not aware of the potential environmental regulatory risks for a project, the success of that project could be in jeopardy. ISO21500:2012 “provides guidance for project management and can be used by any type of organization, including public, private or community organizations, and for any type of project, irrespective of complexity, size or duration.” Granted, ISO21500:2012 is an international standard, not a regulation. But in the past, organizations have found it advantageous to adhere to ISO Standards for a variety of reasons. One of those reasons is that sponsors and stakeholders are increasingly becoming aware of the standards and expect compliance to those standards.

A Rainbow of Green

The degree to which a PM needs to be a sustainability leader depends on the type of project undertaken. (Exhibit 1) At the very green end of the “rainbow of green” are projects that are sustainable by design or “green by definition.” Those include construction of a wind farm or instituting a carbon exchange program. In those examples, the sustainability focus of the project is clear, so the stakeholders are already aware of the sustainability aspects of the project. The PM can then lead the project knowing that it is well understood from a sustainability aspect. At the far end, or the lightest of green, are projects that do not appear to have any sustainability aspects, such as a new software release or an advertising campaign for a new type of insurance. While it may not appear that way, there are many sustainable aspects that can be exploited. For instance, has the software release been designed to minimize processor usage, what type of deployment vehicle will be used, download, disk, and how about the packaging if it is a disk? Since this type of project is the least understood from a sustainability standpoint by the stakeholders, the PM’s involvement as a sustainability leader has to increase.

A Spectrum of Green

Exhibit 1 – A Spectrum of Green

In the middle of this spectrum are projects that are green by project impact, meaning that the project itself will have an obvious sustainability impact, like Boston's Big Dig, or any major infrastructure project. Again, the impacts are fairly well known to the stakeholders, and the PM may have to be more of a sustainability leader than with a green by definition project. And finally there is the category of green by product impact. Without looking at this type of project through a sustainability lens, the impact of the product can be overlooked, as in the case of the K-cups®. While the single-service coffee maker will go down as one of the best inventions of the century, at least to coffee drinkers, the impact of the 10s of billions of K-cups in landfills will be felt for a century. You can see that in this case, the understanding of sustainability is moving toward the green general category, therefore the involvement of the PM as a sustainability leader increases.

The Project Manager as a Sustainability Leader

We started out by stating that and idea is the root of reality and sustainability is an idea whose time it is to become real. So what makes an idea become a reality? The answer is a project. Projects are where the “rubber (the idea) meets the road (reality).” Using the Stanford Execution Framework (Morgan, Levitt, & Malek, 2008) as a reference (Exhibit 2), you can easily see the connection; the portfolio management level is fed by the strategy (the ideas). The portfolio management feeds the program/project (the reality).

Stanford Execution Framework (used with permission)

Exhibit 2 – Stanford Execution Framework (used with permission)

If projects make ideas real, the PMs are the change agents who make the ideas become reality. We used change agents here because that is exactly what PMs are. After all, if something wasn't changing, then why do we need a project? Sustainability is not a small change, it is huge! It takes someone familiar with what it takes to institute a change. It takes a PM. It is not a new knowledge area to the PMBOK® Guide. It is a way of thinking and acting. It has to be ingrained. It cannot be an afterthought. It needs to be planned in - not bolted on, just like quality. PMs know all about planning things in. As we said before, quality comes to mind immediately. So what about the quality of sustainability? That is why we coined the word greenality.

The Entire Life Cycle and Beyond

If there is any pushback on the concept of greenality and the engagement of the project manager in the process, it is with the phrase “entire life cycle and beyond.” Traditionally, PMs viewed their involvement with projects as ending when the project was turned over to ongoing operations. We assert that PMs should evolve to be involved in the decision-making process (adding their input to the sustainability aspects of the project) and should be involved with making sure that the end results the project, or end-of-life sustainability is considered. If the project is a bridge, once the bridge is complete, the project doesn't end there. The question that should be asked is “What will we do with the bridge once its useful life is expended?” We are not saying that the bridge should be project managed for the next 100 years, but that its end result should be considered in planning for the project. And one does not have to think all the way to disposal. Let's assume that this is a very long bridge. Should the PM be considering the paving surface of the bridge? Perhaps one surface, slightly more expensive, yields much higher fuel efficiency. In operation, this will be a benefit realized by customers (drivers) and will result in lowered carbon emissions by the vehicles going over the bridge. We'd assert that the PM should consider the objectives of the project and not just traditional project management efficiency measures when making this decision.

Life cycle thinking is the consideration of factors beyond the traditional boundaries. It is looking beyond the turnover to operations to the use of the project and the product of the project. Has the greenality of the project and the product of the project been considered? A good example is a washing machine. The machine may be designed and manufactured to the greatest of quality, but the sustainability impact during the design and manufacture and even disposal are minimal. The real sustainability impact, more than 10-fold, is in the usage of the product; the energy consumption, air and water pollution, etc. Should those impacts have been considered during the design phase? Absolutely! Who can help steer the sustainability ship? Our answer: project managers, acting in their natural role of change agent.

There are tools available and more coming online every day, to aid in life cycle assessments. Sustainable Minds, a Massachusetts company develops software to help with greener product design. Ecobilan, a French company also develops software tools for environmental management. The list goes on (there are dozens), and being familiar with the available tools is a differentiator for the sustainable PM.

Becoming a Sustainability Leader and a Sustainability Project Manager

What can you do right now and in the future to become more of a sustainability leader?

(1) Accept the idea that you are a change agent. Sometimes we do not view our role in an organization as a change agent. But as explained before, project managers, by nature, are change agents.

(2) Familiarize yourself with the sustainability mission/vision of your organization and assure that your projects are in alignment. One of the best ways to do that is to connect the organization's Environmental Management Plan (EMP) with your project objectives. Your organization does not have an environmental plan? Lead the effort to develop an EMP. You are the change agent!

(3) Drive backward into the decision-making process and forward beyond the delivery of your projects product to the sponsor. In fact, think beyond that sponsor and help them understand all of the impacts.

(4) Understand the concept of Greenality.

(5) Build your own credibility by attending presentations like this and courses like we provide through the Sustainability Learning Centre and other legitimate training and certification organizations.

An Expanded View of Projects

In the Green Rainbow, we can see a spectrum of projects that range from those with no apparently ecological connection to those that are by nature geared to sustainable outcomes. This is useful to determine the expectations for the project manager's needed focus on sustainability based on that attribute.

A broader framework to describe the intersection of project management, project success, and sustainability is the Multilevel Project Success Framework (Bannerman, 2008). In this view (see Exhibit 3) success can be seen from left to right with an increasingly expanded, holistically-viewed and long-lasting way. One could almost look at this as a maturity model in which the left side is a narrowly-focused project organization. Movement to the right indicates benefits realization maturity.

Multilevel Framework

Exhibit 3 – Multilevel Framework

This model does not mention sustainability by name but clearly benefits realization, unintended impacts, market impact, and connection to goals/objectives and the business plan are all concepts aligned with our view of integrating sustainability into project management.

Project Success and Sustainability

Some have said (Baker, Murphy, & Fisher, 1983) that there is no such thing as absolute success in project management – only its “perceived success.” They also say that the ways in which a project's success is evaluated probably changes over time. Keep this thought in mind through the remainder of this section.

Significant research (Ika, 2009; MacLeod et al., 2012) into the subject of success in projects illustrates the increased focus and complexity of this subject. Although beyond the scope of this paper, we think it is critical to understand this basic summarizing equation:

Success Formula

Exhibit 4 – Success Formula

This means that although it is critical to manage projects correctly (i.e., “Project Management Success”) and to accomplish the projects’ objectives, it is also important to look at the projects’ outcomes in the longer term and more holistically (i.e., “Project Success”). This includes, as others (Ika, 2009) have indicated, market impact, competitive impact, investor impact, and industry impact, but also, we assert, includes the temporal aspects – the lasting impacts – ecological, societal, and economic.

One way to make this assertion more clear is to use Peter Drucker's definition of success using efficiency and effectiveness, but add to it.

Table 1 – Drucker vs. PM View

Drucker Efficiency: “Do Things Right” – the process of Project Management
Effectiveness: “Do the Right Things” – connect your project to strategies and business objectives of your organizations
Sustainable PM View Endurance: “Do the Right Things Right With Lasting Power”. In other words, be efficient and effective with the Triple Bottom Line in constant focus.

An interesting corollary to this idea – and one that is a graphic reminder of its importance – is that projects and their outcomes can be assessed in radically different ways. For example, the Sydney Opera House was considered a failure from a project management perspective. After all, it was planned to be a US$7M, 5-year project and instead cost $US110M and took 13 years to complete. However, its outcome – the Opera House itself – is considered a national treasure and a tremendous place to take in any event.

In the opposite corner we have projects that may have been within budget, on schedule and even producing the requested project scope, but the outcome's (the project's product's) long-term value was very low or even negative to the organization and its customers. The lower left quadrant represent projects (like Boston's Big Dig) that were over budget, late, and didn't deliver proper scope – and have ongoing operational problems (water leaks, falling ceiling tiles, corroding light fixtures). The upper right quadrant is the area to which we aspire – a project that does the right things right. And to this, we add the aspiration to do the right things right with the Triple Bottom Line in mind.

Project vs. Project Management Success

Exhibit 5 – Project vs. Project Management Success

View of Project Success - With Triple Bottom Line

Exhibit 6 – View of Project Success - With Triple Bottom Line

In this view, a PM’s timeframe is necessarily expanded into the future. In fact, we imagine a third dimension to this chart (Exhibit 6), adding the enduring success – and Triple Bottom Line (TBL) impact of the project's product. We do not assert that the PM must be held accountable for the long-term, steady-state operation of their project's product. However, we do firmly believe that the PM sacrifices valuable input for the their project management success (efficiency) and the project success (effectiveness) if he or she does not take that long-term view while initiating, planning, executing, monitoring and controlling, and closing their projects.


In this paper we have shown the critical role played by project manager in linking ideas to reality as the agents connecting the organization's strategy to its operations via the execution of projects. We have illustrated the importance of a broader and longer-term view when it comes to project management – with a focus on the product of the project and not just the efficiency and success of the project itself. We have brought the themes of greenality and triple bottom line thinking to add the aspect of ecological and sustainability thinking to the discipline of project management, and shown that this is a benefit to project managers and their stakeholders – for now and for a sustainable future.

BOEMRE Appendix J, retrieved from

Bannerman, P. L. (2008). Defining project success: A multilevel framework. In Proceedings of the PMI research conference (pp. 1-14). Newtown Square, PA: Project Management Institute.

Baker, B. N., Murphy, D. C., & Fisher, D. (1983). Factors affecting project success, project management handbook (eds. D.I. Cleland & W.R. King) (pp. 669-685). New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold.

Drucker, P. F. (2006). The effective executive: The definitive guide to getting the right things done (Harperbusiness Essentials). New York: Collins.

Ika, L. A. (2009). Project success as a topic in project management journals. Project Management Journal, 37(4), 6-19.

McLeod, L., Doolin, B., & MacDonnell, S. G. (2012). A Perspective-Based Understanding of Project Success. Project Management Journal 43(5) 68-86

Maltzman, R., & Shirley, D. (2010). Green project management. New York: CRC Press.

Morgan, M., Levitt, R. E., & Malek, W. (2008). Executing your strategy: How to break it down and get it done. Harvard Business School Press (Stanford Execution Framework).

Standard ISO21500:2012, retrieved from

© 2013, Maltzman/Shirley
Originally published as a part of 2013 PMI Global Congress Proceedings – New Orleans – Louisiana - USA