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A model for applying responsible project management: the doughnut

Engineers Sustainable

2021 has been dubbed the ‘year of responsible project management’, but how can project management professionals actively influence project sustainability?

With a doughnut (stay with me). This blog outlines a model that facilitates both societal and environmental focus at the front line of project delivery.

“People? Planet? Out of scope.”

The triple bottom line is a view on success that encompasses people, the planet and profit. I recently interviewed seven project professionals as part of my MBA dissertation, and found that there was a common disconnect between organisational intentions around a triple bottom line, and project professionals feeling empowered and equipped to ensure their projects align with this. It was out of scope.

A widely used model for measuring project management success is the iron triangle, but this is not enough when used in isolation as it only focuses on the means of project delivery, and most directly applies to economic success outcomes. There is instead a need for a wider view of success, with an extended project lifecycle that focuses on the delivery of benefits in such a way that encompasses the triple bottom line success dimensions.

Frameworks around environmental and societal success exist, but a 2017 systematic review which covered research in five top project management and sustainable production journals found that “research focusing on sustainability in a project context is still nascent and fragmented”. There is a need to draw together existing frameworks for universal usage and evolution by the profession, rather than a continued fragmentation.

A model: the doughnut

Kate Raworth (senior research associate at the University of Oxford) created a new age economic model called doughnut economics, which has been used by Amsterdam city council to recalibrate their economic strategy for post-COVID19 recovery. If this model can help give a whole European capital a triple bottom line focus, then why shouldn’t we try it in a project context?

Through the synthesis of five prominent existing peer reviewed and published ‘people’ and ‘planet’ success frameworks, I have created a project management specific version of Raworth’s doughnut, as shown below*:

The detail behind each factor and the frameworks integrated can be seen at the end of this blog. The basic premise of the doughnut model is that a project should exist within the doughnut itself, not falling below the ‘social foundation’ or ‘ecological ceiling’ due to any of the factors displayed. If a project is found to fall outside of either of these two boundaries, then we are not meeting any higher-level organisational promises of having a triple bottom line view of success, as our actual project delivery is contravening this.

The doughnut could be used with the full project team as a visual prompt. Project managers could run through each of the factors on the doughnut with the team and seek input as to where the project might push outside of the doughnut. For any instances flagged that are outside of the doughnut’s boundaries, a mitigation plan can be made with the team to ensure the project is successful in meeting societal and environmental requirements.

The doughnut could also be used during project initiation as a ‘futurespective’ tool, where the project team collectively forecast potential activities that might fall outside of the doughnut. Alternatively, it could be used during project closure within a project retrospective, to help measure success in a way that acknowledges the triple bottom line and informs future project delivery approaches.

What next?

Doughnuts come in infinite flavours. One of the core components of Raworth’s book, Doughnut Economics, is the premise of open-source intelligence. The one you see above does not have to be the one you apply to your projects. The possibilities for future adaptions and applications are infinite, and it should continue to evolve.

It starts in your next project meeting… slip in a new agenda item; offer your team a doughnut.

The two synthesised frameworks used in the project specific doughnut model above can be found here. The model I have produced is grounded in academic work which is also referenced.

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*Image: adapted from Kate Raworth’s doughnut model; Ztudio/Shutterstock.com

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  1. Hugo Minney
    Hugo Minney 26 January 2021, 09:29 PM

    The doughnut model is a bit like tolerances - a minimum and a maximum, with a sweet zone in between. Its breakthrough is that it brings social value and social impact mainstream. Sam has done a great job in bringing this into a project management context - well done