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How to build social value into projects

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The argument for building social value into projects is getting louder. It’s easy to see why. On a finite planet, growth has consequences and most human activities have knock-on effects.  

So, what does that have to do with projects?  

As projects have a broad and deep impact on people and planet, they present a powerful vehicle with which to tackle these issues. At APM’s Change Changes conference in Birmingham in June, a panel of speakers reflected the increasingly compelling view that, regardless of the ultimate purpose of a project, social value should be incorporated not as an optional bolt-on, but as a core part.  

Here’s how to go about instilling social value in your projects.  

1. Plan in terms of outcomes

Mott MacDonald has begun to conceive of its projects in terms of outcomes rather than simply solutions. It even has a Technical Director of Social Outcomes, Dr James Beard. He explained the rationale to the APM panel.  

“Rather than saying, ‘We've got to build a bridge’, it’s about consolidating and understanding the purpose of the thing we are doing,” said Beard.  

“By focusing on outcomes, we’ve inherently found ourselves in a more socially oriented space. Outcomes tend to boil down to what is best for people, communities and planet. That small encouragement around shifting mindset and language helps us to think differently about what it means to deliver big bits of infrastructure.” 

Dr Jo Jolly, Deputy Director and Head of Project Futures at the Infrastructure and Projects Authority, highlighted a government policy paper, Transforming Infrastructure Performance: Roadmap to 2030, which sets out how projects intervene to deliver key services, such as healthcare and education.  

At the top of the project outcomes sit the 17 UN Sustainable Development Goals, covering everything from gender equality to clean water and sustainable communities.  

“There was a real boldness in putting that forward,” she said. “It’s not GDP and pound signs, per se, at the top. It's not a cost-benefit equation. It is the UN Sustainable Development Goals.” 

2. Take the initiative

When a project faces challenges, it’s natural to look for the green light from someone further up the command chain before taking action. That applies even more so when the problems are threatening wider society. Yet given the current scale and urgency of issues like the climate crisis, such an approach may be inadequate. 

“One of the mistakes would be to say it requires leadership from the top,” said Paul Bradley, a Principal Consultant at PA Consulting. “Because, to be brutally honest, however you characterise leadership, I don't think they know any more than we do. As a collective hive mind, it's up to us to take the baby steps.” 

Jo Stanford, CEO of the Healthcare Project and Change Association agreed, arguing that “Change in projects is everybody's business,” and that not waiting to be told was “A really critical point.”  

When Stanford arrived at the NHS 10 years ago, she was frustrated with the lack of development of its project community. Having spotted the problem, she realised she had to help drive the solution.  

“I made it my mission to set up a community of practice, to get people together and build a community,” she said. “The Healthcare Project and Change Association now has around 2,300 members across 460 NHS organisations, and we're in the process of setting up a charity to develop those skills in the rest of the healthcare workforce.”

3. Be prepared to act without all the information 

While new ways of measuring a project’s social value are being developed, project professionals can’t necessarily wait for the perfect data to arrive before taking decisive action. Jolly argued that people must be comfortable admitting they don’t know. Rather than being too worried about trying and failing, they should adopt an attitude of experimentation and learning.  

“Yes, the devil is in the detail, but if we don't start doing some good until we've worked all this out, I don't think we’ll ever work it out,” she told the panel. “The model now is about connectedness, collaboration and compassion. We'll go through the fog in collaboration, taking care of each other… There are no perfect answers here. Nobody has these answers.”

4. Break through the boundaries

Projects are operating in a complex environment, yet organisations are often set up with barriers that fail to reflect that reality and which can hamper potential solutions.  

When organisations are siloed, project professionals may find themselves delivering change in the area under their watch, only to have a negative impact on the wider ecosystem. By fixing one problem, they effectively sow the seeds for issues in other areas.  

Project professionals should work to improve communication and collaboration with operational teams, so that positive outcomes become part of a broader coherent plan.  

Stanford sees such organisational barriers as a “critical challenge”.  

Barriers are often used as a reason to not do something new,” she said. “People say, ‘Yes, we should do this, but we've only got budget for us doing our bit over here’. We need to look at system complexity and understand the interconnected nature of what we do in the changes we make.”  


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