As sustainability becomes a necessity for humanity at large and for business in particular, it poses tremendous opportunities and challenges for the project management community. How can project managers embrace these challenges and opportunities?

Sustainability has become a matter of compliance and of purpose. Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) disclosure has been of interest for quite a while for investors, and now it has become a legal requirement in several legal systems, including the European Union and the United States. It concerns thousands of organisations. Environmental impacts and interactions are generated within all functions of an organisation: operations, supporting activities and projects. Sustainability may eventually become a key factor of competitiveness and market success. Projects, as vehicles of change, can carry sustainability in organisations. So far however, many organisations see sustainability as a burden, a requirement, a matter of compliance. Can projects, and project managers, change that? What challenges and opportunities are there for PMs? 

I. The triple constraint

To set the stage, let us go back briefly to a corner stone of project management. An early bit of knowledge that any aspiring project manager learns during an introductory training is a set of project parameters, often presented as a triple constraint. Shown as a triangle, it originally featured scope, time and cost. A fourth parameter, quality, appeared further down, often placed in the middle of the triangle. This understanding is most commonly associated with PMI school of project management and it has become essential knowledge of project management. However, other schools of project management have never worked with just four project parameters. PRINCE2® since early on added two more: risks and benefits. Both main schools recognise also the importance of project environment. PRINCE2 puts it in its model of four integrated elements. But it seems to take a rather narrow view, with two components of that environment: programmes and portfolios as well as the client-supplier relationships. Project environment is strongly featured in the 7th edition of the PMBOK® Guide, but there again it is presented as a source of constraints. Both main schools seem to fall into project-centric perspectives of project environment. 

II. The matter of project environment 

A different perspective is put forward by sustainable project management. In this perspective a project lives in its environment, there are mutual impacts and interactions between the two, the environment generates constraints, risks and opportunities for the project and projects have possibly positive and negative impacts on its environment. But to grasp such multidirectional interactions, a far deeper analysis is necessary, with more appropriate tools and techniques than what is offered by the main schools of project management. 

Green Project Management (GPM Global) offers a P5 Ontology, a matrix bringing our attention to many if not all aspects of project environment, grouped into clear categories: Product, Process, People, Planet, Profit. The impact map is quite detailed, focusing on the sustainability aspects in the product design, production process, social issues including ethical behaviour in the supply chain, impact on air, water and soil, etc. The economic profitability is still in the picture but in balance with the other aspects. 

Figure 1. Evolution of the project management profession
Copyright © Peter Milsom & GPM Global 2012

III. The expanding role of the Project Manger 

What are the implications for the project manager? First and foremost, it is a significantly broadened perspective. Project managers are called to go far beyond the classical golden triangle of project management, even in its PRINCE2 version. Adding risk and benefits to the project parameters was a step in the right direction, because the risks appear in the project internal and external environment, and (dis)benefits may be economic, social and environmental. PRINCE2 has a strongly financial bias, there isn’t an environment management approach in PRINCE2 and an environment register coming with it. 

To support sustainability, project managers need to develop that kind of approach with proper tools and techniques. This admittedly generates a significant learning challenge for the PM community. There is a reward to be gained however, moving from the position of a project administrator working on behalf of the organisation and the sponsor to a more complete and fulfilling role of a project leader, equipped with invaluable knowledge needed to navigate the extremely complex environment of any project, and so protect the project interests and organisation reputation to the highest possible degree. Peter Milsom, former President of Green Project Management Global illustrated this with an interesting image (Figure 2a & 2b). 

Figure 2a & 2b. From hierarchical to partnership-based project governance
Copyright © Peter Milsom & GPM Global 2012

This should help the project manager to reposition him- or herself. Both main schools put forward an understanding of project governance, which is essentially hierarchical. The project manger reports to the Sponsor or the Executive, with PRINCE2 proposing an interesting tool of management by exception (an exception being a breach of predefined tolerances). On top of the hierarchy, we find the investor, and at the lowest level we find the teams with their team managers. The model is in any case hierarchical, leaving rather limited prerogatives for the project managers.

Strong footing in the project environment, with in-depth knowledge of all interactions and the mastery of tools and techniques may reposition the project manager as a business partner who is able to secure vital interest of the organisation, through project activities well beyond the sheer project effectiveness. 

IV. PMO as sustainability centre of excellence   

If the project managers are holders of the knowledge necessary to interact properly with the project environment, then the project management offices can be the repositories of that knowledge. By developing the sustainability tools, including document templates (Sustainability Management Plan or Approach), techniques for stakeholder engagement (specific facilitated workshops), registers and information management systems, the PMOs may take the new role of sustainability centre of excellence, and help the project management community to integrate sustainability throughout all projects, programmes, portfolios, and also help respond to other necessities such as ESG reporting. 

V. From compliance to purpose

Organisational sustainability must stop being seen only as a burden and a requirement and thus reduced to its necessary minimum. Project managers can contribute to that by first accumulating the knowledge, perspectives, tools and techniques necessary to interact with the environment, then by applying it to project challenges and by building organisational frameworks and infrastructures supporting that. This may lead in turn to a switch, where sustainability stops be the matter of compliance and becomes the matter of organisational purpose, as true value will be generated not just where the product has been delivered but in the entire project ecosystem.