Taking responsibility for project success

sustainability and the project process



The topic of sustainability has continued to attract attention and gain traction globally. In project management circles, methods and certifications have been updated to reflect this shift in thinking. However, there are many still struggling to deliver sustainable results. This paper argues that there is an intimate link between project success, benefits and sustainable results with practical implications for project managers. These issues are explored through the experiences of the United Nations Office for Project Services (UNOPS), which shares its approach to implementing sustainability within the project cycle.

Rethinking Success, Responsibility and Sustainability

The case of the Torit police station that UNOPS built in South Sudan is a good example for illustrating the issues of sustainable project management. This was a small police outpost that one of UNOPS sister UN agencies asked for support in building. As expected, the facility was delivered to time, cost and quality. However, the facility remained empty for at least three years after it was finished, despite the dire need for basic policing services. For UNOPS (and many others) as a project management service provider it would have been considered a success until a few years ago.

There are many cases like this we have seen around the world, both in the public and private sectors, where projects are being delivered to time, cost and quality and yet are not yielding positive results (and are occasionally creating serious problems). Project managers have constructed bridges without access roads, have built hospitals and courthouses with no one in them, and have implemented enterprise resource planning (ERP) systems and other business changes that have destroyed organizations (see Catalog of Catastrophe at http://calleam.com/WTPF/?page_id=3).

For any organization that makes a living from managing projects, the questions must constantly be asked: How will we define success? If we deliver to time, cost and quality, will it protect our customers? Secure future business? Contribute to society?

While it is not the only criteria of success, a good starting point is meeting clients’ needs. To do this we must understand the assumptions of the client in respect to the project. While each project has its own business case there is almost always this logic and these assumptions behind it:

If the activities take place then the outputs will be produced
If the outputs are produced then the purpose will be achieved
In the long run this will contribute to the achievement of the goal
(NORAD 1999)

Project managers that ignore this logic do so at their own peril. While delivering an output to specifications and within time and cost is a great starting point, if there is a fault in the logical assumptions of the project, the purpose and goal may not be achieved.

In such situations any project service organization must ask itself what is the impact on stakeholder satisfaction and what is the likelihood of getting rehired or recommended? This thinking has led the project management community to ‘benefits management’ and to look again at what we mean by success (Duggal, 2010). The difficulty in benefits management is that it quickly becomes clear that a project manager may only have control over part of the above logical chain. To take again the example of, the Torit police station, constructing the building may be the main output of the project but the project manager will lack control of how that building is then used. Additionally, the benefits of a project are derived from the value that they bring to stakeholders. For example, a stakeholder might represent business owners who get value from the income generated as a result of the new building; however, equally, community members could ascribe a negative value as they are displaced by the building. Despite this lack of control and potentially conflicting results for stakeholders it is the project manager's responsibility to manage (PMI, 2013). While it is clear that benefits of a project need to be included in our definition of success, it is also clear that project managers often do not have the sole control to deliver on these benefits.

In the UNOPS case of the Torit police station, the difficult reality of this break between responsibility and ownership was very evident. This building was constructed on the wrong side of a river. This meant that neither the police nor community could access the station until a bridge was built. This was known to UNOPS at the time and it was contractually agreed that the bridge would be built separately by another party. The UNOPS project output was limited to the construction of the four walls and roof that would constitute the “police station.” Based on UNOPS’ view at the time, success was achieved when UNOPS delivered those four walls and roof, as this was all that was asked of us. However, the goal of the project was not achieved until nearly four years later when the bridge was finally constructed and that meant an unacceptable waste of resources in one of the poorest communities in the world. It also constituted a reputation risk for UNOPS amongst the donor community and fellow development practitioners in delivering unused resources.

Could UNOPS have influenced these elements beyond its direct control? How much responsibility can it take for that influence? From UNOPS’ perspective the answer was unequivocally that it could have and should have done more to exert its influence as the project manager toward meeting the desired outcomes. This fundamental acceptance that a project manager must seek to influence things that are beyond their control in order to achieve project success is key to embedding sustainability into project management.

The idea that project managers need to exert influence and begin to take responsibility for things that are outside of their direct control is not easy to accept but it is a core element of success. In the 1990s, Nike had sold off their own manufacturing facilities and were outsourcing most of their production, principally to developing countries. Since Nike did not own the companies that were delivering their goods, when accusations of horrible conditions in factories and forced and child labor came to light, the company responded initially by saying they didn't own the factories and so could not be held accountable…more or less saying “that's not my project.” While this was true, Nike's stakeholders were not impressed by the argument and so started boycotting its goods and services. Recognizing this was hurting their brand, the company acknowledged that while they may not have had direct control, they did have an influence and therefore also a responsibility to exert it. With this recognition, there was a major shift in the company, and they began to look back through their full supply chain to see not only what abuses were going on in the factories, but also what was happening in the factories of the their suppliers’ suppliers. Eventually this led to thinking about not only how their products were made but also how their products were used and disposed of. This rethinking actually expanded and deepened the Nike brand, as they found that they could exert a positive influence on society at large, not just workers making their products. This new approach transformed their business. They went from a leisure goods company to one that promotes healthy lifestyles and from strength to strength.

Taking that step to accepting wider responsibility prompts an organization to reexamine its values. These values drive choices about what to influence and how to take responsibility and so they have to be clearly understood. In many cases we can rely on society to legislate these values, for example, laws on forced labor, toxic waste, health and safety, but there are also many areas were laws are not enforced and where the greater good plays a backseat to the profit of the few.

As we agree to take responsibility to exert our influence, the question then is how far to go and what factors must we consider. Each organization will need to make its own decisions regarding how it either engages or disengages in projects (for example, knowing that the bridge to the police station might not have been built on time, UNOPS might have rejected the project). The question of what an organization considers as relevant to influence needs to be defined as does the weighing of which areas of influence to invest limited resources into. This is where sustainability thinking comes in. It centers on the idea that we must meet “the needs of the present without compromising the ability offuture generations to meet their own needs” (World Commission on Environment and Development, 1987).

This basic value statement is the driving force behind a way of thinking about sustainability that helps people make difficult decisions about what is the right thing to do. Most commonly this thinking can be found with a diagram similar to the one shown in Exhibit 1 in which social, environmental and economic elements come together. These perspectives are deeply grounded in the idea that without basic human rights, social order and equal opportunity, people will not live up to their full potential as human beings; that without a healthy stable environment society will not be able to function; and that with a failing or vastly unequal economy, communities will falter and fall apart.

Sustainability dimensions

Exhibit 1: Sustainability dimensions

In UNOPS, the three dimensions are also surrounded by capacity development as UNOPS seeks to develop the skills, knowledge and resources for communities to become self-sufficient. These dimensions are important whether you are talking about project entities, companies, non-profit organizations or governments, as the values represented must be imbedded within the social behaviors and institutional structures to be safeguarded.

Values in Action

The question then is how these values can be translated into practical actions that change the way projects are implemented and so broaden the definition of success.

In making these values relevant to project managers, there are three ideas which UNOPS has found useful:

  1. There is no such thing as a “Sustainable Project”…only more or less sustainable projects.
  2. Sustainability is context specific.
  3. It's both what we do and how we do it.

Let us take these notions one at time. Firstly, what makes a project sustainable? Is it that it will last into perpetuity? While some have tried to calculate at a high level absolute models of what sustainable human activity might look like on the planet, currently we do not have enough knowledge to be able to determine if any given project produces truly sustainable results. While it is easy to say that a project contributes to outcomes that are unsustainable for any given set of factors, there are actually many grey areas where benefits can be disputed (mostly for lack of evidence) and also many areas where increasing key social benefits decreases environmental ones in equal measure, road building being a classic example. While in the future, solutions might be found that eliminate these tradeoffs, for now we need to examine our projects from the perspective of how we can improve their sustainability rather than manage projects that deliver results that are beyond reproach for all stakeholders. In this way sustainability is more a way of thinking and an application of values than a verifiable and agreed result.

The second point is that sustainability is context specific. UNOPS sees this often working in a developing world context. For environmental and economic reasons people often want to install solar panels as an energy solution in places where there is no reliable electricity supply. This can be a great solution in areas where there are trained service providers who can maintain the panels, manage the technical equipment, and find replacement parts, but in an area without these provisions it can be at best pointless and at worst disastrous if for example a hospital is relying on that energy supply.

The third point is that to take responsibility we need to examine both how the project is implemented as well as its outcomes. While great efforts have been made in legislation, for example in health and safety, environmental management and labor rights, we work in a global world with varying laws and inconsistent enforcement. This means that if we wish to uphold our values and exert our influence to the widest possible stakeholders, we need to consider our own social, environmental and economic impacts during the implementation of a project. For example, there is a fundamental flaw if in the construction of a hospital people are unnecessarily killed and injured through lax safety precautions or if the supply chain involves the generation of waste that harms others.

The starting point for the shift in approach within UNOPS is that when it comes to the way that projects are done, project managers actually have quite a lot of influence and scope for advocacy. We can examine our supply chains and ensure that they comply with environment and health and safety regulations. We can advocate for solutions that take into consideration the whole life cycle of products–from how they are manufactured to how they are reused or recycled. We can identify dependencies on benefits and can work to persuade sponsors to address them by suggesting additional projects or coordinating with those project teams to ensure success. We can listen to various stakeholders through community engagement and even bring communities into the design process through human centered design techniques (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/User-centered_design).

As I have come to see it, neither classical approaches to project success nor sustainability thinking can yield results alone. Going back to our Torit police station case, the project actually was guided by sustainability values. Changes were made to the design to mitigate the impact the construction had on the environment. A review was done to ensure that funding would be available to actually manage and run the police station from an economic and national capacity perspective, and considerations were made for gender and cultural issues. In this way the police station was much improved and significantly more sustainable. However, it is important to be instructed by the fact that bringing these sustainability elements into consideration was still no guarantee that benefits would be achieved. More still needed to be done to ensure that either the bridge was built, the construction delayed or another solution implemented.

Likewise, trying to achieve benefits management with the absence of sustainability values is likely to result in limited or short term success. As Nike found out in the 1990's, the days when an organization could generate benefit for itself while doing harm to the greater society are coming to an end.

Project managers must remember that their results will be judged not against their own values but rather the values of the boarder society. The sustainability value set defined by United Nations governments is the closest we have to universally accepted values and therefore is the most practical place to start for PMs and organizations who are ready to accept responsibility.

UNOPS Sustainable Project Management Approach

So how has UNOPS tackled these issues in terms of managing benefits and applying values to project management? During an extensive consultation within UNOPS, the organization looked to frame sustainability values into something that made sense to project teams in their own language. These eight ‘principles’ are what they arrived at:

1. Putting the people we serve first: making sure human equality, dignity and rights are behind every decision.

2. Recognizing that what is good for our partners is good for us: looking to always align what is good for people with what is good for UNOPS.

3. Taking our values wherever we go: doing everything we can to ensure that we exert our influence as far as we can…for example, pushing suppliers to respect people's rights.

4. Getting the most out of limited resources: efficiency is core to UNOPS.

5. Being mindful of the environmental context: seeking to have a positive impact where we work.

6. Aiming to work ourselves out of a job: recognizing that there is no sustainability without local capacity.

7. Making informed choices: acknowledging that development goals are complex and that making good decisions means taking the time to think things through in the local context.

8. Raising the bar: aiming to go from good to great.

Getting Better Projects: Developing the Sustainability Marker

Of course UNOPS sustainability principles represent only a statement of intent and a guide for project managers. If UNOPS wants to maximize its influence on project design, it needs to be having the conversation on sustainability as early in the project design process as possible. To encourage this, the organization has integrated into its project management training, techniques around problem tree analysis (based on root cause analysis) (Wikipedia, 2014). This is something UNOPS seeks to do with key stakeholders to ensure that objectives are aligned so that the organization knows it is working on the right project and that the project is likely to deliver the intended functionality. Clarifications and adjustments can then be made if there are any unaddressed dependencies.

With this information UNOPS looks at what is known of the project against 22 sustainability indicators to determine the likely impact of the project from the social, environmental, economic and capacity building perspectives (both in what it does and how it does it). UNOPS then moves into the planning stage and begins to integrate sustainability activities into the plans. For project managers this is a familiar exercise of risk management but with a broader context of risks. For example, if it has been identified that the organization is likely to have a negative impact on air quality as part of a project it can identify activities that it can bring into the project to mitigate these negative impacts. Likewise, if there are positive impacts in key areas the project team can also look at how specific activities can further enhance these elements. Through this process UNOPS begins to move sustainability within the reach of many project managers who are unlikely to be technical experts in more than a few of the areas where it can have an influence.

With the project planned, UNOPS can also then begin to mark the project. Here UNOPS looks for evidence that its PMs are planning to take action in a given area (see Exhibit 2). The project is then measured on a scale that runs from ‘do nothing’ through to ‘there are specific activities, budget lines and deliverables’ in place. For example, an organization may have an ‘equal opportunity employment policy’ in place stating that it gives people of all races, sexes, classes and religions equal chance to get one of its project jobs. In the tool, actually implementing such a policy would be considered an activity. If the project were to build a school, a high score that showed key deliverables in the area of operations and maintenance would be to develop an operations and maintenance plan and to provide training for the team before hand over of the building.

UNOPS sustainability marker output

Exhibit 2: UNOPS sustainability marker output

In this way, UNOPS leaves it up to project a team in the local context to decide which solution best represents the organization's values and principles. At the same time, by going through this process, the project managers become accountable for their decisions. Additionally, UNOPS has a responsibility to develop and present the right support through tools and processes as well as the right incentives for project managers and partners to consider all of the different dimensions of sustainability and maximize positive impact on each where possible.

In summary, UNOPS recognizes that when it is working in such massively diverse areas, and struggling with context specific solutions, it needs an overarching approach that empowers project managers to think about success in a broader way. As an organization UNOPS has committed to support, encourage and reward project managers to find innovative solutions to some of today's most pressing problems.

The project management community is beginning to recognize the important link between responsibility and success and that inevitably will lead to expressing sustainability values through project management practice. The complexities and apparent contradictions that can come from seeking to meet the needs of the broader society can be difficult to manage but the added value that is generated is becoming more and more acknowledged. If we continue to follow current trends, in the future it is likely that sustainable project management approaches will be the minimum expected by all stakeholders.

Duggal, J.S. (2010). Next level up: How do you measure project success? Rethinking the triple constraint. Retrieved from http://www.pmi.org/Knowledge-Center/Next-Level-Up-How-Do-You-Measure-Project-Success.aspx

NORAD. (1999). The logical framework approach: Handbook for objectives-oriented planning. (4th ed.). Retrieved from http://www.norad.no/en/tools-and-publications/publications/publication?key=109408

Project Management Institute. (2013). A guide to the project management body of knowledge (PMBOK® guide) – Fifth edition. Newtown Square, PA: Author.

Root Cause Analysis. (2014). Wikipedia. Retrieved from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Root_cause_analysis

World Commission on Environment and Development. (1987). Our Common Future. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

© 2014, Ary Bobrow
Originally published as a part of the 2014 PMI Global Congress Proceedings – Dubai, UAE



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