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Why putting ESG objectives first is the obvious, but not instinctive, thing to do

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John Elkington coined the phrase “Tripple bottom line” in 1994 to describe a balanced set of objectives between profit, people and the planet for businesses to follow. It takes the view that any one aspect of the three is not a cost to the others but is additive and essential, allowing business to adapt and nurture the things it depends on, now and in the future.  

The logic is powerful and the concept not hard to grasp, so why is it that we read frequently that targets are being missed or government commitments reduced? One reason may be that for many of us in the rich West, it’s largely someone else’s problem.  

Hal Hershfield of Stanford University has conducted research into how we perceive our future selves and explores a concept called temporal reframing. This explains the theory that our future selves are strangers to us; we don’t know them and can’t imagine being them without reframing them as someone we can imagine. The idea of temporal reframing is to make our future selves and generations more real to us.   

I think these factors apply to news reports about floods in Pakistan or Hawaii or tornadoes in Vermont and Mississippi or raging fires in British Columbia. It’s not that we don’t care, but rather than we don’t see the direct connection between our use of fossil fuels and single-use plastics and the images on the news.  


We put a higher value on our own lives and convenience than an abstract “other person” who we will never meet. This is natural, if uncomfortable to consider. 

Professor Richard Dunbar of Oxford University in his book Friend takes the famous Dunbar Number which means people can have a maximum number of 160 human friendships of any strength that we can sustain. This shows that throughout history and in every culture, this can be used to separate “us” and the rest as “them”, such as a village, or a company in the army. It seems to be an evolutionary limit in our brains. 

This lack of connection is possibly behind the variable commitment to ESG focus by businesses and governments, as well as the confusion of certifications and assessments by rating agencies, which compounds the problem.  

We see this in the UK when government promotes policies of economic growth and energy security over social or climate objectives. While it’s good political sense, it may not be so good for our future selves and families or the world. 

We all want to do "the right thing", but this often conflicts with other habits and beliefs. The result is that when it comes to choosing where we invest our time, money and human resources, it comes down to both how disruptive the change would be and return on investment rather than return on ESG. This is true for senior executives and project managers alike.  

The role of project managers is to implement the change decided by boards and directed by sponsors. Their job security, career prospects and remuneration depend on solving the problem as defined. In some cases, the solution is defined for them too. All too often this is about delivering to the old “iron triangle” of cost, time and budget, once the business case is approved. 

We see this in government projects but also in the private sector. Because benefits are realised mostly after the project closes, project managers often aren’t accountable for factors they can’t control, and sponsors focus on their objectives, which may not include ESG ones and with impacts measured beyond their tenure.  

So, what do we have to do differently? Clearly, it’s more than a knowledge gap and takes more than a single role can do.  

On October 10th the APM Benefits and Value SIG and Governance SIG are holding a joint conference on the topic: ESG, thinking, acting and engaging with stakeholders differently. The conference includes many opportunities for discussion — both facilitated and freeform — to learn by talking with peers. The conference will produce a publication which will include your contributions. Please bring your knowledge and intentions, and expect to leave with more concrete ways to achieve results.


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