We can be heroes

sustainability-driven projects


Organizations around the world are continuously adapting to changes in their environment. Many of these changes have to be managed like projects. These projects are unique undertakings that require the mobilization of resources of different disciplines, capabilities, and organizational units. Organizing and managing change in effective and efficient ways is becoming a critical success factor for business agility and, in fact, sustainable success of organizations. Such changes are effectively realized through sustainability-driven projects. As a result, managers all across industry in the modern era not only have increased requirements of greater efficiency and effectiveness of projects in firms, but also pay more attention to environmental and social issues, specifically in the area of sustainability.

In this paper, we analyze the nature of sustainability-driven projects. We contrast them with traditional projects and highlight the differences. We then discuss characteristics of sustainability-driven projects and offer implications for project managers.


In 500 B.C., Greek philosopher Heraclitus spoke about the immortal wisdom of Panta rhei or “everything flows” (Koran, 1997, p 34). It implies that everything changes, and nothing remains the same. And the times, they are changing in the 21st century! These times are marked by, among other things, economic uncertainty, environmental degradation, and unrest in social communities. As a result, managers all across industry now not only have increased requirements of greater efficiency and effectiveness of projects in firms, but also pay more attention to environmental and social issues, specifically in the area of sustainability.

Sustainability Defined

Some definitions of sustainability include the following (Kibert et al. 2011, p 5):

“A transition to sustainability involves moving from linear to cyclical processes and technologies. The only processes we can rely on indefinitely are cyclical; all linear processes must eventually come to an end.”

—Dr. Karl Henrik-Robert, MD, founder of The Natural Step, Sweden

“Actions are sustainable if:

  • There is a balance between resources used and resources regenerated.
  • Resources are as clean or cleaner at end use as at the beginning.
  • The viability, integrity, and diversity of natural systems are restored and maintained.
  • They lead to enhanced local and regional self-reliance.
  • They help create and maintain community and a culture of place.
  • Each generation preserves the legacies of future generations.”

—David McCloskey, Professor of Sociology, Seattle University

“Clean air, clean water, safety in city parks, low-income housing, education, child care, welfare, medical care, unemployment (insurance), transportation, recreation/cultural centers, open space, wetlands…”

—Hazel Wolf, Seattle Audubon Society

“A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise.”

—Aldo Leopold, A Land Ethic, from Sand County Almanac

“Leave the world better than you found it, take no more than you need, try not to harm life or the environment, make amends if you do.”

—Paul Hawken, The Ecology of Commerce

A widely accepted definition of Sustainable Development is “…meet the needs and aspirations of the present without compromising the ability to meet those of the future” (Brundtland, 1987, p 38). Managing for sustainability requires monitoring of the “triple bottom line” or 3BL (Elkington, 1997, p xiii). It focuses on “people, planet, profit” (Shell Sustainability Report, 1999, p 1). In regards to corporate sustainability, it is defined as “the activities, demonstrating the inclusion of social and environmental aspects in the normal business operations of a company and in its interaction with its stakeholders” (Caldelli & Parmigiani, 2004, p 159).

The eastern perspective on sustainability finds its roots in Shinto religion. Shinto is Japan's native tradition that expresses basic spirituality and respect for nature and its powers. The Japanese concept of “Kami”, often translated by Western world as ‘God’, actually really refers any entity (object, place, person or even creature) that inspires a sense of wonder and respect. Encountering the presence of the kami is only possible if one's heart and mind are open to experiencing the awesome power of the natural world. This pureness of heart and mind is called ‘makoto no kokoro’ (Kasulis, 2004, p 26). Given to this holistic interpretation of Kami, the idea of confrontation of “man vs. nature” was absent from Japanese thought. Japanese perspective is more consistent to that of “man in/with nature” as man and Kami (which includes nature) were seen as a continuum, both interpreted in a relationship of mutual dependence.

As suggested in Exhibit 1 (Adam, 2006, p 2), sustainability can be viewed at the intersection of three constituent dimensions: economic vitality, environmental accountability, and social responsibility

Sustainability Dimensions (Adam, 2006)

Exhibit 1. Sustainability Dimensions (Adam, 2006)

According to a BCG Study (Berns et al., 2009), over 90% of respondents are addressing sustainability in some way; over 70% of respondents have not yet developed a clear business case for sustainability, and only a small number of companies are working proactively on sustainability. There is a general agreement that sustainability will be increasingly important in business strategy and as a project selection criterion. There is a strong consensus that sustainability drivers, which are spurred from government legislation, consumer concerns, and employee interest, are highly complex and interrelated.

Traditional vs. Sustainability-driven Project Management

Traditional project management is defined as managing a temporary organization to which resources are assigned to achieve a particular objective and to deliver beneficial change. It is comprised of five process groups: initiating processes; planning processes; executing processes; monitoring and controlling processes; and closing processes (PMI, 2004, p 8). In the new era of focus on sustainability, it is important to understand its implication on project management. Sustainable project management is the management of project-organized change in policies, assets, or organizations, with consideration of the economical, social, and environmental impact of the project, its result and its effect, for now and future generations. These three angles are known as “people, planet, profit,” with the emphasis being on a balanced approach to these considerations.

Sustainability in project management concerns itself with the economic, environmental, and social aspects of projects. By nature, this requires a multidisciplinary approach and includes focusing on sustainability in society, in organizations, and in projects. The drivers of sustainability in organizations include:

  • Client requirements: These “have to” be addressed by the project manager, as these represent the explicit deliverables in projects.
  • Government regulations: A project manager “must do” these (comply by them) in order to stay within the law.
  • Business opportunity: These represent the “can do” options to improve a firm's bottom line while completing client deliverables.
  • Employee satisfaction: Project managers may “want to” address these aspects for another important stakeholder of the project for the long-term viability of the firm.
  • Corporate responsibility: In the era of sustainability, projects managers “need to” address this aspect of the firm.
  • Global warming/ethics: Projects managers “better do” (address) these concerns to ensure the firm's health in its environment.

Consecutively, project managers need to broaden the view of their role to evolve from “doing things right” to “doing the right things right” (Silvius et al., 2009).

Why focus on sustainability-driven project management? Sustainability, defined as the balance between “people,” “planet,” and “profit,” has become an integrated part of managing an organization. The considerations regarding social, environmental, and economic aspects of business show in annual reports and the corporate communication of organizations, both for-profit and not-for-profit.

As presented in Exhibit 2, sustainability is survival in the long term, while survival in the short term is a condition for sustainability in the long term. In regards to projects, change is the inherent purpose of the projects. Some can view projects as the “enemies” of the sustainability. However, project best results are opportunities for sustainability! Sustainability in project management doesn't mean maintaining staff positions or all activities for the sake of doing so, and doesn't mean solely depending on client funding of the project. Instead, it refers to maintaining focus on outcomes, goals, and products and institutionalizing the process. Project management methodologies at this moment do not reflect these considerations. The familiar “triple constraints” (time, cost, and scope/quality) in fact reflect only the “profit.” In an organizational environment that is managed with “people,” “planet,” and “profit,” consideration of this will change soon. Project managers in the modern era will have to be aware and be capable of advising on the social, environmental, and economical impact of their projects to their stakeholders.

Survival, Recovery, and Sustainability-driven Projects (Adapted from Taylor, 2011, p 26)

Exhibit 2. Survival, Recovery, and Sustainability-driven Projects (Adapted from Taylor, 2011, p 26)

Criticism of Traditional Theories of Project Management

There are several criticisms of traditional theories of project management:

  • Denatured view of the environment: Both strategic and organizational studies define the environment in terms of economic, political, social, and technological dimensions. There is no attempt at understanding how organizations have an impact on the natural environment, as it all focuses on how environments influence the organization.
  • Production/consumption bias: Traditional management theory focuses on the productive activities of businesses that benefit stakeholders. This approach ignores the environmental destruction and harm caused by the production processes, such as environmental pollution, toxic products, and wastes. Traditional management also emphasizes the consumerist society ideal of the Western society, ignoring the danger of promoting unsustainable consumption patterns.
  • Financial risk bias: Traditional management practices are burdened with the definition of risk as related to economic returns and financial and product markets. They ignore the technological, ecological, and health risks arising from industrial activities.
  • Anthropocentrism: This is the most constraining limitation of traditional management theories. The emphasis is on the human being who, in the more radical anthropocentric form, has no moral obligation to minimize their impact on nature. The organizational exploitation of natural resources is legitimate, even desirable.

Sustainability relates projects to the time horizon, whether short term (months to few years), medium term (several years), or long term (decades to centuries). Sustainability in projects can also be related based on the project duration, whether during the first years of use (after project finish, use, operation, outcomes) or during the whole life cycle of the project results (use, operation, maintenance and alteration, impacts).

Three Lenses of Sustainability-driven Projects

Problems with typical projects are that they usually are internalized by project teams and completed in “isolation” from other projects. They represent discrete entities generally planned, executed, and controlled using the tools and techniques provided in the PMBOK® Guide (PMI, 2004). Once initiated in an organizational context, projects progress toward completion, at which point the personnel and resources used in their execution are reallocated to other projects. Sustainability principles suggest that nothing sustainable can occur in isolation, and to ensure sustainable development one must continuously examine one's activities in the light of their surroundings: economic, social, and environmental considerations.

Traditional project management techniques favor a discrete nature of projects creating disconnect between the two fields in both theory and practice. The efficiencies of project management tend to preclude the global interconnected view necessary for true sustainable development.

Sustainability-driven projects can be viewed from three perspectives:

  • Sustainability of outcomes: The extent to which improvement in quality of life or standard of living of project beneficiaries endure beyond project completion.
  • Sustainability of processes: Viability (capacity and potential) of an organization to institutionalize a project's result for its stakeholders long after its completion.
  • Sustainability of resources: The extent to which project activities preserve/deplete the natural resource base.

By their nature, sustainability-driven projects have the capacity to endure or to persevere. They also have a capacity to change and to disappear (at the end of life). Sustainability does not imply an end in itself, but a view and/or goal of project management. The goal of project management is to achieve the project objectives agreed on, in the short, medium, and long term. Sustainability in project management is about considering the full life-cycle of the change (asset) generated by the project. Sustainability in project management is about integrating economic, environmental, and social aspects in the management of projects (Silvius et al., 2009).

Responsibility of Managers of Sustainability-driven Projects

There are two schools of thought on the responsibility that project managers have for sustainability projects. The first suggests that project managers not be concerned with the project content, as this would be the wrong focus. They have experts to provide the right content. It implies that the best manager for time, cost, human resources, and administration should be selected. It is irrelevant what kind of project this manager has managed before.

The second indicates that project managers be leaders for the project content, people, time, cost, and finance, integrating all aspects of their projects. This implies that experts for the content be identified and the one with the best project management competence should be chosen, or at least one who is competent for the respective kind of project.

Project managers do not have much responsibility for the content. In contrast, they should considerably understand its content, as the content has a big influence on organization, time, cost, risk, and opportunity. This means that they need to understand the implications of project content and deliverables on various stakeholders. Ensuring the best possible outcome for all project stakeholders is synchronous with the objectives of sustainability-driven projects, and is in line with the long-term sustainability of the firm.

Implications for Project Management

“In all things, it is the beginnings and ends that are interesting.”

in “Tsurezuregusa” or “Essays in Idleness” by Yoshida Kenko

The profession of project management needs to give sustainability a fighting chance! The Japanese concept of wabi-sabi represents a comprehensive worldview of projects' aesthetics centered on the acceptance of transience. This view of projects' aesthetics is sometimes described as one of beauty (acceptable of project deliverables) that is “imperfect, impermanent, and incomplete.” It is to imply that the “better” is the enemy of the “good.”

There is a tug-of-war between innovations in projects versus sustainability in projects. Innovation determines the functional and economic lifetime, which terminates the life of the preceding project. That is to say that sustainability beyond the useful life is not feasible, or not possible or not wanted. Product and service deliverables of sustainability-driven projects refer to successful delivery to all organizational stakeholders while abiding the four As: affordability, acceptability, availability, and awareness. These deliverables have proven to be essential for business success and for creating value while serving all organizational stakeholders.


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© 2012, Loomba
Originally published as a part of 2012 PMI Global Congress Proceedings – Vancouver, BC, Canada



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