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Project management and addressing climate change issues

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Which aspects of project management are relevant to dealing with climate change? The answer is virtually all of them, and this publication, "Climate change and what the project management profession should be doing about it", by Professor Peter Morris  - recently published by APM - looks into it in more detail. This extract focuses on project managements' 'role in addressing climate change issues and a comment by APM chair, John McGlynn.

The active management of implementing development plans is largely unknown territory, dreamt of but rarely adequately implemented, explains the author. In some locales this happens; in others, e.g. the UK, it doesn’t. Too often it is frustrated by poorly aligned responsibilities and professional and governmental restrictions. Should we not be looking at active, coordinated regional and sectorial planning, combined with purposeful management of plans involving both a project-based management organisation and appropriate tools?

But to what extent is it reasonable to expect an integrated approach to reducing our carbon emissions? Do we really know how best to implement a strategy for doing this? Adaptation requires plans that are both holistic and strategic while also being carefully targeted. Explicit project strategies for climate change mitigation and adaptation are needed for different geographical areas and functions, and some are in fact being devised for local regions, cities and towns (e.g. the Bloomberg mayors), as well as for systems and functions. At the level of firms, however, other than in energy and infrastructure, there would seem to date to be but few explicit climate change strategies.

The author interviewed a number of thought leaders on this issue, including John McGlynn, APM chair, project delivery director, WS Atkins plc. John said in response, “Maybe we have been going too gently with respect to the threat of climate change upon our planet. Stephen Hawking, for example, who after all is no fool, sees mankind as having a hundred to a thousand years only left on this planet if climate change continues to occur at a dangerous rate.

Project management certainly has things that it can do to reduce the rate of carbon emissions and temperature rises. The SPA has to be a core piece of whatever project management can offer on climate change. The same goes for the PMO: it’s essential that we get regular, systematic reporting of what progress has been made regarding the growth in carbon emissions and/or predicted ambient temperature rise – or in taking adaptation actions.

The SPA/PMO doesn’t have to be a single person. It could be a group of people, rather like the UK’s Climate Change Committee. It’s important that we nail this. Many countries need both these functions – leadership and reporting – urgently for their climate change program.

Climate change is a ‘wicked’ problem: there are so many moving parts, so many competing agendas. Ethical issues hang high, as, for example, with the recent scandals over diesel fuels and emission testing. Someone has got to be making decisions on priorities. These priorities should reflect the project targets. The targets will, in practice, require some prioritisation themselves.

Prioritisation extends into portfolio management too. We should be wary of targets that have been handed down without buy-in from the people who are going to be asked to deliver them. All this emphasises the importance of the front-end, and of the owner/sponsor. The role of the owner/sponsor, with his/ her personal abilities, but also policies, practices and processes, which together provide the bigger framework for governing projects, has been increasingly recognised as having a dominant effect on the conduct of the project, and on our ability to gain performance improvements in projects.

We should give more thought to how this report’s recommendations could be better implemented. Its Royal Charter gives APM a greater opportunity to promote good practice. We should engage with existing, smaller groups to leverage all our knowledge and strengths. We should be working jointly with, for example, the Institution of Civil Engineers and the Major Projects Association, among others, to help address this very worrying problem area.”

Download the climate change report


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