How to bake sustainability into your projects

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To mark World Environment Day today, Richard Samworth says simple nudges or changes to the way we work can transform sustainability in projects.

Sustainability is relevant across all areas of project-based working. But sustainability isn’t baked into project management methodologies, tools and knowledge. And the project profession rarely pays prolonged and sustained attention to achieving sustainability transformation through projects, programmes and portfolios.

Sustainability combines socially-responsible and environmentally-friendly practices with both individual and organisational responsibility to ensure that the products, outcomes and benefits of all projects are sustainable over their life cycle. All members of a project team have an influence on sustainability and may therefore be expected to think creatively and act responsibly in their day-to-day work. Project professionals have a responsibility to ensure that their work minimises environmental impact or ideally, positively affects ongoing sustainability.

Borrowing from nudge theory, the project management profession can influence the decision making and behaviour of all project professionals. Described in the book Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness, ‘nudges’ employ positive reinforcement and indirect suggestions to augment traditional approaches to compliance and change management such as training, policies, and disciplinary procedures.

Nudges are small, environmental changes that are easy and inexpensive to implement. By making a set of relatively minor and reversible changes to its project management methodologies, tools and knowledge, the profession can identify and manage sustainability in all projects and roll-up sustainability measures through programme and portfolio management.

Measuring sustainability

Financial measures within project management processes and practices, for example earned value, are well understood and documented. Sustainability measures do not enjoy the same level of maturity, however. And further work will be required to create and test meaningful sustainability measures, with the objective of creating a project sustainability management area of knowledge.

The intention of creating sustainability measures is to establish them on an equal footing to financial measures and embed them into project management processes, practices, initial data, results, tools and techniques.

Measuring and managing sustainability at a project level can drive and inform content in corporate reporting, mapping the contribution of all projects and programmes to an organisation’s sustainability pillars. This proposed approach takes a holistic view of project, programme and portfolio contribution to sustainability. The following small changes aim to improve sustainability benefits achievement and attain sustainability outcomes.

  • Define sustainability as a project tolerance
  • Embed sustainability in the business case
  • Configure project management tools to measure and manage sustainability tolerances
  • Roll-up sustainability tolerances through programmes and portfolios
  • Make small changes to the way you work

You can read more about each of these small changes in my article Baking sustainability into project management, available from the APM Hub – the online community for project professionals.


Do you think it is important to think about sustainability in your projects and in project management? Join our discussion on the APM Hub.

 Image: Olga Kashubin/Shutterstock

Richard Samworth

Posted by Richard Samworth on 5th Jun 2020

About the Author

I am a member of the APM and a practicing programme manager with MSP, PRINCE2 and AgilePM practitioner qualifications.

I believe that the project management profession must do more to enable sustainability.

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